Last week, the Biden administration officials decided to lift testing requirements for international travelers entering the United States. The announcement was welcomed by most – if not all – American operators that, despite witnessing a rebound in domestic travel to within 7% of pre-pandemic levels last month, have struggled to convince customers to re-embrace travelling abroad.
The debate surrounding the need for tighter measures, however, continues to rumble on. Despite the mask mandate having been lifted on airlines back in April, the Justice Department is appealing the decision. And while many passengers have indicated their relative lack of concern over COVID by doing away with their masks in the short time since, there are many more who are still reluctant to board a plane for fear of catching the disease. Existing onboard infrastructure – such as HEPA filters which constantly recirculate air – do enhance the safety of an airplane environment, but the industry must do more to convince its consumers. Fortunately, there are several exciting innovations that are being rolled out in airports and on aircraft around the world which should help to address the issue going forwards.
A crisis of confidence
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating effect on all industries, but few more so than aviation. Cargo and freight have been the only sectors to report profits in the last few years, with airlines hemorrhaging over $200 billion since 2020. It’s for this reason that airline executives have been pushing the government to put an end to pre-flight testing for overseas visitors and do away with other regulations, such as mandatory mask wearing.
Though a federal judge in Florida found that the mask mandate was unlawful in April, and enforcement of the rule was subsequently dropped by the Biden administration, the Justice Department are keen to reinstate it. Opinion among the general public appears to be divided, too; though anecdotal evidence suggests that few people are still wearing masks on planes six weeks after no longer being required to do so, polls suggest a majority of the US populace would support their return.
For their part, the airline industry has protested that masks are no longer necessary because the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on board replace cabin air every two to three minutes, removing 99.97% of dust, pollen, bacteria and pathogens in the process. This, argues one prominent CEO, makes them even safer than a hospital ICU. However, those filters are only operational while the plane is in flight, while the time spent queuing in an overcrowded and poorly ventilated airport itself is also a cause for concern for many. That could go some way to explaining why only half of Americans are comfortable flying in a post-pandemic world and a far smaller percentage are happy to take an international flight.
Tech solutions can instigate resurgence
Clearly, the existing measures are insufficient to put consumers’ minds at ease. Aware of the issue, the aviation industry has continued to pour significant resources into cutting-edge solutions that can protect passengers from COVID without relying on widespread, expensive and disruptive testing. This is best evidence by a series of innovations that are slowly being rolled out in the world’s major airports and on aircraft around the globe.
For example, Swiss-based firm SICPA has teamed up with the Marseille marine fire brigade to develop a sophisticated system that can detect the presence of COVID-19 pathogens in aircraft wastewater samples. SICPA have trialed the system on over 150 aircrafts to date (as well as a hospital setting) and have reported the capability to identify coronavirus traces within two hours of a flight’s arrival – and without infringing on the privacy or comfort of its patrons – allowing authorities to be better informed and prepared for any imminent outbreaks. What’s more, the system can also be readily tweaked to incorporate new variants as and when they surface, as well.
Elsewhere, airports around the globe are rolling out various technological devices and processes to minimize human contact and slash queuing times through a touchless experience. American Airlines are expanding their trial of touchless bag drops at Dallas Fort Worth, while almost two-thirds of US airports are aiming to unveil self-boarding gates powered by biometric technology by 2023. In Dubai, the world’s first ‘Smart Tunnel’, designed and developed in the UAE, allows for passport control to be navigated within 15 seconds, while the CLEAR system can also achieve identity verification within a matter of seconds.
New protocols for a new normal
The fact that the airline industry lost almost $168 billion last year is unsurprisingly the headline story when it comes to the pandemic’s impact on aviation, but the loss of consumer confidence in travel is arguably a more serious issue for the industry to overcome moving forwards. Tools like these should help to reassure reluctant flyers that their health is being considered and accommodated at every stage of the process, from passport control to boarding to flight time to disembarkation.
But it’s not just during and after a pandemic that these innovations will demonstrate their worth. By expediting a check-in process that’s often viewed as a laborious ordeal, reducing wait times and contributing to an overall improved customer experience, tech solutions can boost an airline industry that was already posting losses of $17 billion each year long before the pandemic hit. After the recent upheaval that the sector has experienced, that could be a shot in the arm it sorely needs.