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During past pandemics, many airports have used scanners to check the temperatures of passengers, hoping to identify people with fevers. But Etihad Airways plans to go further. It will soon add a more tests to try to spot people with symptoms of coronavirus and other illnesses.

Etihad will use new self-service kiosks that check the temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate of passengers.

Whenever a machine detects possible symptoms of illness, personnel with public health or medical training will check the passenger. Only the medic will be able to give the okay for a passenger to check their bags, pass through security, or pass through an immigration checkpoint.

Etihad will start testing the kiosks at its hub airport in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the end of April. It said the effort was a first for an airline.

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Elenium Automation, which makes self-service devices for airports, built the machines. A three-dimensional sensor monitors nostril flaring, to suss out if breathing is heavier than usual. Near-infrared scanners claim to detect subtle change in skin color.

The new symptom-testing equipment aims to be “touchless,” relying on voice commands. Testing will show how well the systems recognize voices of international travelers in a crowded terminal. Elenium claims it can retrofit its illness-sensing tech into any airport kiosk, bag drop, or immigration desk. But airlines will need to do tests of whether compatibility and workflow issues can measure up to the demands of the typical airport.

Jury Still Out

Many travelers will welcome experimentation. Yet no one knows for sure how effective such screening measures might be.

Temperature testing has long been a protocol at many airports during pandemics. Yet statistical data have showed very low detection rates of cases using traditional infrared thermal cameras, according to a review last year of dozens of screenings at airports worldwide by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Many Asian Pacific airports use thermometers that contact people’s heads. These deliver more accurate results, the study said. But they also miss many people who may carry disease.

Costs can also be high. Traditional airport fever screening typically involves a thermal infrared camera, which can cost up to $43,000 each. They also need to require a worker to eye the results.

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the performance of non-contact infrared thermometers (NCITs) in combination with infrared thermal cameras. The agency found the combination of tools delivered promising results. Some U.S. airports scan passenger temperatures today, though not consistently.

The testing may raise civil liberty and privacy issues in some countries.

Etihad will begin trials of the new tech with volunteers. Once flights resume, it will test outbound passengers. Etihad, which is privately held, has resumed some flights for departing foreign citizens. But the UAE isn’t allowing incoming passengers.

Elenium devices use biometrics, voice recognition, artificial intelligence delivered via Amazon Web Services. The Melbourne-based startup closed a $10.5 million ($15 million Australian) Series A funding round last May.

Photo Credit: A person demonstrates a self-service kiosk from Elenium Automation that aims to help identify travelers with medical conditions. Elenium