A Vision of Touch-Less Airports

By Luis Angel Centeno – Executive Search Consultant | Kilpatrick Aviation Americas

John F. Kennedy considered one of the greatest presidents in American history once said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word crisis: One stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.” (1959, Indiana). 

Ironically, many years after Mr. Kennedy use the word crisis as a sign of opportunity, many sinologists claimed that the infamous quote was inaccurately translated; but again, the damage was already done as it is still seen how the American president wanted him too. Today being no exception. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it is safe to assume that the aviation industry has been one of the most affected to say the least. Every day, while scrolling through my LinkedIn news feed I see people from the industry saying one last goodbye and thanking they´re soon to be former colleagues whilst projecting a glimpse of hope for what lies ahead. 

Airport travel will dramatically change in the upcoming months and potentially in the imminent future for the better or the worst. According to multiple reports, the combination of trip cancellations and country-specific restrictions on international flights quickly amounted to a cost of roughly USD 1 trillion. It’s clear that the aviation industry needs to adapt, and fast, which must mean embracing emerging technologies at airports.

We can all agree that the airport customer experience is rarely efficient, perhaps and especially on holiday peak season, when travelers spend hours caught on lines just to pass security and worried about boarding their flights on-time. Tech and travel writer Jennifer Parker once asked: Imagine entering an airport, sharing your vital signs, passing through security and boarding an airplane, all without touching any screens, tickets, or people? Is a touchless future achievable? Whilst there are many “ifs” in this vision, the truth is that COVID-19 is just an excuse for us to admit that AI and robots are already part of our present and will become the future. 

Touchless biometrics was an industry set to have huge growth in 2020 in some markets, aviation being the next logical link in the chain. As previously mentioned, it’s not entirely a new concept for some. 2019 saw significant developments in biometric technology rollout at international airports, including: Heathrow, Orlando, Los Angeles, JFK, and saw Delta Air Lines’ first biometric terminal in the US. 

Nowadays we live in a world where technology makes it possible to do virtually anything we want. So how come we were not able to use the better of technology advancements to control the spread of the disease of this virus? It comes down to inequality. Whilst countries in America, Asia, and Western Europe have the financial capabilities of reacting better, other countries have to account for extreme poverty and overpopulation which limits the way they can react. Regarding airport innovation, we can use the same narrative and argue that a truly “touchless” vision in airports may still be far in the future because of two words: Technological Inequality. 

If we have learned anything from this pandemic is that travel itself has proven to be the world’s economic engine. It will be required for key figures (IATA for example) to sit down and agree on a common division to manage expectations and provide a feasible framework to reduce barriers and accelerate innovation in the industry. The “when” is to be determined but it needs to happen now.

Also, read ‘How is the aviation industry responding to the pandemic’ for more insights.

Kilpatrick Companies