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April 24, 2020
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“We’re looking at hospital design to see what may be relevant to apply to terminal design, for instance,” Massey added.

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands demonstrates the twin trends of short-term crisis management and long-term interest in automation. Schiphol has postponed its planned June 2020 decision to award a contract to build a new terminal until a later date. But at the same time, Schiphol has sped up its automation efforts for passenger processing. By the end of May 2020, Schiphol will add computed tomography X-ray equipment to security lanes in one of its departure halls.

Airport retailers may look at ways to use modern technology 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.

In March, Amazon announced that it had begun licensing its ‘Just Walk Out’ automated checkout technology to airport retailers and other stores. New York-headquartered OTG, which runs 300 in-terminal restaurants and stores in 10 airports, has been rolling out the technology to its Cibo Express stores, starting at Newark Airport (EWR), NJ. 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. Meanwhile, growing interest in ‘contactless dining’ presents an opportunity for consumer-facing restaurant app platforms like OpenTable, TripAdvisor, and Zomato.

Robots have been long-promised but slow to appear in airports. Hong Kong International Airport has begun using three self-driving robots to clean public areas and restrooms. Each intelligent sterilisation robot, built by TMiRob, flashes ultraviolet light and sprays disinfectant onto surfaces. Other providers of sanitising robots that kill most micro-organisms include Siemens, Uchimura Robotics, and UVD Robots.

Airports will need more efficient processing, to avoid passengers crowding into areas, and more touch-less processes. 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 Airport 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 have 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 infection. “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, and standoff screening will play an important role, now and in the future.” Today about four out of 10 airports worldwide have deployed identity verification systems with self-service machines; that is forecast to increase to seven out of 10 by the end of 2021, according to SITA. 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 labour-saving equipment. 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 ‘wait-and-see’ mode while the medical and scientific world attempts to create innovations like instant tests or vaccines.