COVID-19 is probably the most hated term these days. It has changed our way of life, and it has affected our plans for the future. We have had to stand up and face one of the worst pandemics in history. We need to isolate, keep a distance from one another, wear masks, sit through virtual meetings, experience very few physical interactions with colleagues, and practise a host of other measures to stay safe.
The term ‘contactless’ is becoming more and more relevant in everyday life, whether or not one has received the vaccine. Travel, especially air travel, is a high-touch process, and it’s a process that has slowed down considerably at the airport, with hygiene considerations, along with passengers having to produce a lot of additional documentation while social distancing.
We need contactless travel – how do we do it?
By the time the passenger gets into the aircraft they have already passed through a number of touch points – from getting into and out of their Uber, getting a porter to assist with their bags, getting their boarding pass at the counter or the self-service kiosk, which has been touched by a hundred other passengers, and then going through the security queue and scanners, with some distancing and sanitising stations along the way.
How do we streamline the procedure with as little contact as possible?
There are several touch points that we can eliminate or reduce, in my view:
- Get the passenger to the boarding gate as quickly as possible, by…
- Streamlining the passenger’s information at online check in (no need to repeat the information that was already inserted at time of online check in). The available methods of online confirmation of identity like facial recognition or biometrics should suffice.
- Cut the administration red tape by not issuing another boarding pass. There is a boarding pass on his/her phone or a home-printed pass; just use that.
- Use self-service check-in kiosks only (but keep them clean).
- Collect the bags from passengers before they get to the airport, and secure the bags with a super protective cover to avoid viruses/ bacteria getting into or on to the bag.
- Reduce or eliminate the check-in counters. Why do we need any counters? Let the passenger drop their bags at a central self-drop area. No need for someone to ‘accept’ the bag at a counter. The security protocols are in place to deal with security issues once the bag has been dropped.
- This will not only reduce queues but also congestion and delays. It will also create space.
- Keep a few customer-care counters for airlines and passengers with anomalies.
- Millions of rands in savings (a minimum saving of R130 million per annum) will be realised for airlines on their PSC (passenger service charges). Less equipment needed – no PCs, no screens, no boarding pass and bag-tag printers. That would lead to huge cost savings in capital expenditure and maintenance costs. The self-help kiosks will be sufficient and much more economical.
- Allow the passenger to take charge of his own journey through the airport.
- The challenge remains inside the aircraft itself, where the social distancing stops. Does the airline block off the middle seat or not? Can airlines afford to do that? Is there an alternative? Are passengers screened? Are they vaxxed? Should the crew sanitise all passengers’ hands every 20 minutes? The HEPA filters are proven to work, however you cannot stop the person next to you from transmitting coronavirus to you – time and distance matter. People move around in the aircraft, especially on longer flights.
In summary, there should be a concerted effort between the airline associations, the airports authority and government policy-makers to shorten the queues, re-prioritise infrastructure layout and space, create open space inside the airport and reduce the contact points for passengers, thus allowing those passengers to move through the airport safely.
Is there a willingness to create a contactless airport? Or is the financial incentive to maintain the status quo more compelling, when there are many businesses (including some divisions of the airports themselves) that depend heavily on the continuing interactions between passengers and staff at the airport?