Misplaced baggage. Long security lines. Flight delays. As COVID restrictions lifted last summer, people around the world unleashed their pent-up wanderlust on an ill-prepared industry. This “revenge travel” led to what was billed as the summer of travel chaos and even travel hell.
It’s a scenario the travel industry hopes to avoid this summer, and some say better staffing and enhanced tech, such as increased use of biometrics, could help prevent congestion and passenger delays.
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International travel will likely rev back up, causing airports and airlines to bolster staffing to meet demand, says Sherry Stein, chief technology officer in the Americas for aviation technology company SITA. China’s recent reopening is expected to open the door to millions of visitors after several years of strict lockdowns in the world’s most populous country.
The increase in international travel is “driving a big shift toward more emphasis on digitization, automation, how to bring improved self-service and … biometrics and digital identity,” Stein says.
Facial recognition began appearing at airports at least five years ago, including through SITA’s Smart Path initiative, which claims “your face is your boarding pass.”
“We have proven metrics where we’re able to reduce boarding times by 30% and … [use an] end-to-end process to eliminate the need to physically present a passport, a boarding pass, a driver’s license,” Stein says. “You get the efficiency gains. You get the improved passenger experience.”
In the U.S., the pandemic led the TSA to speed up the deployment of computed tomography (CT) X-ray scanners, and it recently started rolling out facial recognition at 16 airports, drawing the ire of some elected officials.
Now the industry is focusing on the “seamless travel journey,” according to Stein.
“How do we make this intuitive, simple, easy for travelers to adopt and for them to also have a continuity of experience across airports, rather than just within a single airport?” she says.
“How do we bring all the data from these disparate sources together under a single umbrella to help improve the efficiency of airport operations?”
Slow rollout of technology
The key to a smoother summer is good planning, according to Ronan Murphy, director at Alton Aviation Consultancy, a global aviation advisory firm.
Airports saw what happened last year and have had time to update their operational plans for this year, he says.
“Airport management have little excuse to not be prepared this summer including having robust contingency plans in place,” Murphy says, adding that it “remains unclear how well airports will adapt from the lessons learned in 2022.”
“There is no magic bullet outside of having appropriate staffing levels and improving efficiency of check-in and security with the resources they have in place.”
Airports are working to ramp up staffing, and airports and ground handling operators have been trying to agree to new labor terms. And according to Murphy, the industry needs to do what it can to avoid major labor disputes through the summer season, which he says is “easier said than done.”
“Avoiding major labor action over the course of the summer will be a major positive for the airports and likely improve passenger throughput times,” Murphy says.
There is no magic bullet outside of having appropriate staffing levels and improving efficiency of check-in and security with the resources [airports] have in place.
Ronan Murphy - Alton Aviation Consultancy
Airports and airlines continue to roll out more automated check-in and baggage drop technology, which has been ongoing for several years. Security remains a highly manual process.
“While there has been a move toward biometrics and automated passport checks, it is a slow rollout to get the technology to scale,” Murphy says. “It will take time for this to make material differences. I suspect marginal improvements to be had this year related to these new technologies.”
Ramping up staffing, expediting security
A shortage of security staff last summer led to waits exceeding four hours at times at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Security staff who were in place before the pandemic left to find other work after travel came to a standstill in 2020, says Dennis Muller, senior press officer with corporate affairs for the airport.
Last summer some travelers arrived five or six hours before their flights, leading to overcrowding. The airport created overflow areas by setting up tents outside for people to wait under.
Last fall the airport hired a recruiting company “to make sure that we have enough security staff” this summer, Muller says. About 600 people have signed a contract, and Muller expects to find about 200 more to start by the end of April, when the peak travel season begins in the Netherlands.
The airport also has a shortage of baggage handlers, but they are hired by the airlines, not the airport. Airport officials communicate with airlines and the Dutch government, according to Muller.
“We stand in this together,” he says. “We as an airport see ourselves as the mayor of our airport. So we have to talk to every partner to make sure that the whole airport process is going as we would like to so that we can provide a good feeling for the passenger who travels through our airport.”
Starting at the end of April, the airport anticipates 70,000 to 75,000 departing passengers every day, up from about 40,000 in the same period last year.
“We are convinced that with the 850 new security agents, we will have [the security problem] solved,” Muller says.
As of two years ago, the airport had replaced X-ray machines with 85 3D CT scanners at security, “which means that everyone can leave everything inside of their bag” – a time saver when security is fully staffed, he says.
Facial scans for “smoother airport experience”
The Dutch government and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are piloting a program in which people traveling from Canada through Amsterdam “do not have to show their passports and they can walk through with the biometrics,” according to Muller.
Germany’s Frankfurt Airport is also employing facial scans. The airport has teamed up with SITA and NEC Advanced Recognition Systems to offer a “biometric passenger journey.” Passengers can scan their faces at biometric touchpoints that will be rolled out across the airport by this spring, allowing them to “seamlessly” move from the counter through security to a self-boarding gate. The SITA Smart Path platform is open to all airlines.
Passengers who do not want to use facial recognition can use a traditional check-in counter.
“Emerging from the pandemic, passengers are embracing technology to boost efficiency and place them in control of their travel,” says Pierre Dominique Prümm, a member of the executive board and executive director aviation and infrastructure with Fraport, which operates the airport.
“We are extremely excited to be able to transform the experience for all our passengers across all terminals and carriers with one simple, intuitive solution.”
Late last year British Airways began a trial of biometric technology for international flights, enabling people to travel abroad without having to show their passport at their departure airport.
Customers who opt to participate in the airline’s trial from London Heathrow Terminal 5 will scan their face, passport and boarding pass on their smartphone or tablet before their trip. Upon arrival at Heathrow, “smart bio-pod cameras” verify the traveler’s identity in less than three seconds.
“This is a secure and efficient tool that makes for a smarter and smoother airport experience, which will reduce the time it takes us to board aircraft,” says David Breeze, operations transformation manager for British Airways.
“It also frees our people up to look after more complex customer inquiries and deliver the best possible customer service.”
The trial will run for six months on British Airways flights to Malaga, Spain. If it is successful, it’s expected to be extended to more international flights.
The trial follows the 2017 introduction of automated biometric technology on British Airways’ domestic flights. Customers’ facial scans are taken at security and matched to them at the boarding gate.