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Airport executives are still in crisis management mode. The pandemic is forcing them to make agonizing operational decisions. Yet the executives will soon resume thinking about the long term. And when they do, airport executives will consider increased automation as a top priority, experts said.

“The entire passenger’s journey through a terminal has to be rethought around themes of new conventions for personal space and new concepts for protecting wellness,” said Jonathan Massey, co-leader of the aviation sector at Corgan, a Dallas-based architecture firm that has worked on many terminals. “We’re looking at hospital design to see what may be relevant to apply to terminal design, for instance.”

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport underscores the twin trends of short-term crisis management and long-term interest in automation. Schiphol postponed on Monday its planned June decision to award a contract to build a new terminal until a date that they’ll set later.

But at the same time, Schiphol sped up its automation efforts for passenger processing. By the end of May, Schiphol will add computed tomography X-rays, known as CT scans, to security lanes in one of its departure halls. The so-called CT scans take hundreds of images of each piece of luggage and can reduce the amount of manual inspection and the number of hands that need to touch bags.

Touchless Is the Watchword

Airport retailers may look at ways to use tech to remove the need for people to touch objects.

“Touchless was an advancement that was coming but is now going to be fast-tracked,” Massey said.

Exhibit A: In March, Amazon said it has begun licensing its Just Walk Out automated checkout technology it has used at its cashless bookshops and convenience stores since 2018 to other airport retailers and other stores.

OTG, which runs 300 in-terminal restaurants and stores in 10 airports, has been rolling out the tech to its Cibo Express stores, starting at Newark Airport. It doesn’t involve user’s Amazon’s accounts. Passengers show their credit cards at turnstiles, and the store then bills them after they leave. Sensors on shelves and cameras on ceilings help keep people honest.

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At airport restaurants, removing menu cards and bill holders — two things that diners often touch and that staff rarely sanitize — may become a goal, experts said.

Some airport restaurants will look for ways to coax passengers to use apps on their own mobile devices to choose menu items, order, and pay for meals. In one model, diners could scan a QR code — or square-shaped black-and-white barcodes — on a counter to fetch an online version of a menu and an order form.

Interest in “contactless dining” presents an opportunity for consumer-facing restaurant app platforms like OpenTable, TripAdvisor, and Zomato.

Airports may also make design changes that appeal to people’s psychological senses of wellness.

“Our pre-crisis research has shown that some people, especially ones over a certain age, dislike having an airport restaurant next to greenery or indoor landscaping out of a perception that the greenery may have germs,” Massey said.

Robots May Gain Legitimacy

Robots have been long-promised but slow to appear in airports. Robots may finally have their star turn, as manufacturers apply the savvy sensors of self-driving cars.

Hong Kong International Airport has begun using three self-driving robots to clean public areas and restrooms. Each intelligent sterilization robot, built by TMiRob, flashes ultraviolet light and spray a disinfectant to spray surfaces.

Other providers of sanitizing robots that kill most micro-organisms include Siemens, Uchimura Robotics, and UVD Robots.

Last month, London’s Gatwick airport introduced robotic parking, where passengers drop their car off and a robot valet, built by Stanley Robotics, pushes the car into an outdoor parking space. A passenger keeps their keys and hops a bus to the terminal.

One possible victim of a new interest in “social distancing” may be moving walkways. Airports may strip out the machines to allow for more space, relying on self-driving vehicles to instead transport people who need help traveling long distances.

Automating Human Interactions

Airports will need more efficient processing, to avoid passengers crowding into areas, and more touch-less processes, to avoid the spread of germs.

Some technologies will play a role. “These may include solutions that help manage queuing by providing time slots for entering security lines and boarding airplanes,” said Tara Mulrooney, vice president, technology, at Edmonton International in Canada. “I can also see a desire for increased mobile and contactless check in processing, rather than using a kiosk to print your bag tag and boarding passes.​”

Airports had already been embracing automation to boost operational efficiency. But the crisis may accelerate their adoption of technologies to replace human-powered processes to reduce the potential spread of germs.

“Airports continue to identify process improvements,” said Nina Brooks, Director of Security, Facilitation, and IT, at Airport Council International (ACI World). “Technologies such as biometrics, automated e-gates, robotics, AI [artificial intelligence], and standoff screening will play an important role, now and in the future.”

Today about four out of 10 airports have deployed identity verification systems with self-service machines, but that will rise to seven out of 10 by the end of 2021, predicted airline-owned provider SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques).

Having the Time and the Money?

As a general rule, owners of large airports are quasi-utilities and tend to be less vulnerable to potential bankruptcy than airlines. Operators like Aena of Spain, Aeroports de Paris (ADP), and Heathrow Airport, owned by BAA, have large cash reserves, too.

Schiphol had planned to wrap up its installation of CT scanners at security checkpoints by September. But now it expects to finish the project next month. Schiphol noted Monday that the crisis has “paved the way for work to be completed in a shorter time frame, without any disruption to passengers.”

London’s Heathrow said it would spend about $63 million (50 million) on new computed tomography security equipment across terminals by 2022. The reduction in passenger volumes may speed up the work.

One thing that’s certain in the minds of some decision-makers is that airports will need some foundational technologies to help support automation. A case in point: Many airports may speed up adoption of 5G networks that can support their increasing use of internet-connected devices by boosting network response times and capacity.

Some airport executives may step up efforts to reduce face-to-face interactions in general. Biometric checkpoints are one possibility, where a passenger scans their passport and boarding pass and takes a selfie. Computers could then compare the photo against the passport to confirm identity, SITA said.

“We are already moving towards a future vision for a seamless journey,” said Brooks of ACI World. “This vision supports the needs of passengers for safety, security, and health.”

Yet the move to automation will not be sudden or extreme. Recessions tend to lower the cost of hiring workers, which can discourage airports from investing in labor-saving equipment.

There’s also the so-called paradox of automation. As machines do more work, the skills of employees degrade. If workers don’t practice skills, they’re less able to respond on the fly during a breakdown in systems. So airports may also need to invest more in online training courses, helping workers maintain their skills.

Uncertainty Surrounds Health Checks

It’s too soon to know how airports may have to redesign themselves to handle health checks of passengers, staff, and flight crews. Some airport executives are in a wait-and-see attitude while the medical and scientific world attempts to create innovations like instant tests or vaccines.

Hong Kong’s international airport has been mandating coronavirus tests and temperature checks of arriving passengers. But it’s unclear how checks like that can happen without creating long lines once travel begins rebounding.

In a related move we reported this month, Etihad Airways is about to begin testing in Abu Dhabi airport self-service kiosks from Elenium Automation. The kiosks help pinpoint travelers with fevers and elevated heart rates and breathing rates, flagging people who may need checks by medics.

While some people may think this is a once-in-a-century problem and a temporary response is best, others think differently.

“The crisis will lead to a paradigm shift as we realize that travel is a vulnerable ecosystem,” Massey said. “We now know a pandemic is an existential threat to the industry, so even if we can’t predict when the next one will happen, we’ll be looking head on at how to minimize the impact.”

Photo Credit: A boy watches a robot at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport as Chinese tech companies start to deploy their wealth, technological prowess and massive databases to help combat the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters