OPINION: Air Travel as Never Before

In the face of Covid-19, alongside flight interruptions and border closures, the statistics in the airline industry are startling;

  • 217 countries and territories worldwide have imposed travel restrictions.
  • 105 Million staff have lost their jobs in the travel industry worldwide.
  • 25 Million employees in global aviation have been laid off their positions.
  • $ 314 Billion decline in airline revenue as estimated this year; down by 55% from 2019.

Chart 1 : Air Passenger Volumes : 7 year snapshot

RPK: Air passenger volume as measured in ‘revenue passenger kilometres’ (RPKs).

With 90% of the world’s population living in countries with severe travel restrictions, airlines and travel companies are anticipating a revolutionary return to business to save themselves from the unprecedented challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic. For the industry to recover, travelers will need to feel safe and confident of the touch points in their journey.

Chart 2 : 2020 on a decline; monthly bookings across USA, EU and China.

A shift to touchless modes of travel in the near future is becoming evident with a new health and safety regime supported by digital tools such as the “Known Traveler Digital Identity” Initiative.

Travel is certainly possible, but in a different sense as the points below open out.

Touchless travel

Even with regular sanitizing etiquettes in place, exchanging travel documents and touching surfaces through check-in, security and boarding pose a significant risk of infection for both travelers and staff.

From one’s drop-off at the airport terminal to the hotel check-in at the country of arrival, travelers will soon be able to shift to a touchless platform. Biometrics which are already widely used in the corporate world for identity verification will be extended for the airline and travel industry. More touchless options will come into play including contactless fingerprint, as well as iris and face recognition. Moreover, technology for touchless data-entry such as movement control, touchless document scanning and voice commands are already being tested with care to eliminate the risk of potential biases.

Traveler Screening ‘go digital’

All airlines, most airports, tourist resorts and hotels are already well advanced in their digital journey. This must be accelerated to enable the new norm; digital identity measures should be well integrated to include the passenger journey from processing of visa, seat booking, airline check-in, baggage checks, immigration clearance, air travel to arrival procedures that form the basis of touchless travel.

Until the vaccine that prevents Covid-19 is deployed, travel companies and airlines are considering using personal data such as age, underlying health conditions and travel history to compile an individual risk profile with passenger consent.

As at now, airlines such as Emirates conduct on-site Covid-19 tests for passengers while many airports are drawing up passenger health screening through thermal detection cameras. A number of symptom-tracking and contact-tracing apps now exist in many countries. Apple and Google have almost developed a contact-tracing software to build compatible apps.

Time to Partner

The World Economic Forum’s “Known Traveler Digital Identity” Initiative brings together a global team of individuals, governments, authorities and the travel industry to facilitate a safe and seamless journey. In a pandemic driven Covid-19 context, a traveler would be able to securely obtain and store trusted, verifiable health credentials in their digital identity wallets.

The role of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will be critical to align health and aviation priorities and promote the use of biometrics for a smoother journey, that must be accelerated and adapted to this new context.

DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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