The New Age

The New Age

The industry must be prepared for future pandemics

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial passenger air travel in the United States dropped by more than 90%. It may be some time – even years – before updated air travel processes as well as vaccine accessibility shore up public confidence to the point where enplanements return to the 5% year-over-year growth exhibited before the pandemic.

COVID-19 is far from the last pandemic that the world will endure, and air travel will continue to evolve as a result. The industry must be prepared for a new age of travel and responsive to the risk of future pandemics. Thinking ahead – what preparations are appropriate and possible?

Changes in Air Travel Processes

All of the stakeholders in the air travel process will need to work toward a common vision with options for different situations and airport configurations. To illustrate, we offer the following figure to show different process and sensor options at each interaction point of the passenger journey.

The figure illustrates some major themes of this new age of air travel. There is a renewed emphasis on touch-less interactions, voice-actuated interactions with automated electronic gate (eGate) activation for checkpoint passage. Additional self-service processing options feature active and voluntary health-screening. Last but not least, there are frictionless handoffs between airports and airlines, with care to safeguard a passenger’s privacy.

Touchless Interactions

One major theme in this emerging travel landscape is more touch-less, or token-less, travel. In this regard, we sometimes hear phrases like “your face is your passport” or “your face is your boarding pass.” However, with travelers wearing masks, facial recognition technology is less effective, leading to accommodations such as lowering masks for the brief period it takes to do face verification against identity documents, in the case of a new TSA checkpoint application .

The increased use of face masks makes iris technology more attractive as a touch-less alternative, with the technology proven to be stable and accurate over a number of years of use in checkpoint services .

Touch-less fingerprint recognition sensors (over which you just wave your hand) are being evaluated with the challenge to match their 3D fingerprint images against existing national fingerprint databases .

We will also see more autonomous screening operations and self-screening operations, with more unattended or lightly attended eGates. A case in point, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and the Transportation Security Administration have issued solicitations for a concept of “self-service checkpoint screening” .

Touch-less interactions are facilitated by kiosk and eGate systems that use voice, gesture, gaze detection or kiosk control from your own smartphone via QR codesv for commands and data entry. One such interaction is at curbside check-in, where a “smart kiosk” can also include unobtrusive stand-off sensing and document reading features that enhance safe passage.

Safety and Self-service

To regain traveler confidence, it may be necessary for airports, transportation security agencies, and/or airlines to provide some health assurance or testing services . Questions have arisen regarding issuing QRC codes to healthy passengers. Should scanning their “healthy” QRC certifications be part of the criteria for passage through eGates? If we do require health certificates to travel, will the government do this testing and issue the certificates, or will private industry – perhaps the medical testing labs themselves – do this work? The idea of an electronic health record seems attractive. It could replace the yellow vaccination record hardcopy booklet and shared as necessary to facilitate travel around the world. Such an electronic record could not only include vaccination records, but also any tactical health certifications such as COVID-19 status.

With respect to cleaning areas where travelers pass or reside within planes, there are a number of approaches. Leidos makes automated bin returns with UV-C sterilization in conjunction with antimicrobial bin coatings. Some airlines are also using UV-C lights or chemical foggers to disinfect cabins between flights .

What about detecting elevated body temperature for screening travelers with COVID-19 symptoms? At least one airline is requiring temperature checks prior to boarding, using standard hand-held thermometers. There are a number of established approaches to stand-off thermal sensing, and some emerging approaches. The most well-known approach involves arrays of micro-bolometers, like those of FLIR . The Chinese have used IR cameras in conjunction with visible light face recognition. AI-assisted fever detection has also been implemented in conjunction with contact tracing of febrile (elevated body temperature) individuals and those who have come in close contact with them.

There are other emerging approaches, including a novel Australian approach using MEMS DLP-like tech .

Not everyone with COVID-19 presents a fever, and not everyone with a fever has COVID-19. This may be why (in one paper at least) stand-off detection of elevated body temperature was less than 50% effective in detecting COVID-19 .

To be sure, stand-off elevated body temperature detection is NOT COVID-19 detection, but it can help in screening. For even more assurance, other vital signs can be monitored , including heart rate, respiration rate, and blood oxygenation levels – albeit requiring a little more time to capture. Perhaps we will start seeing vital sign detection integrated in frictionless walk-through solutions - like metal detectors and millimeter wave imaging – at security checkpoints.

At least one airport recently announced that they will perform their own IR-based temperature screening AHEAD of the TSA checkpoint. Draft legislation in the Senate would require TSA to do temperature checks of travelers at all U.S. airports.XVI At least one airline and one airport have introduced on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers. XVII XVIII Advancement in testing now include a 45-minute PCT-based test for detection of contagious infected people who may be asymptomatic.XIX

Frictionless Travel and Privacy

Whether we see a stronger push to seamless, contactless processing of travelers is not only a technology question, but also a policy, privacy, and business-case question, which varies by geography and local travel ecosystem structures. The biggest impediment to efficient, touch-less travel is the varying policies and authorities within the travel ecosystem.

For instance, which entity will perform what functions, and who is going to pay for each part of this seamless, touchless travel solution is up for debate. Another impediment relates to privacy concerns regarding commercial and government interests, the touch-less process, stand-off biometrics and information sharing between entities.

Another important privacy consideration is associated with vital signs detection and health records. If, for example, stand-off temperature sensing is included in the process, privacy is an important consideration in the design. However, if temperature scanning is only used to detect and alarm when a febrile person passes a checkpoint, there may not be a privacy concern associated with the addition of the IR body temperature sensor. Standard protocol requires detected persons to proceed to a medical secondary, where the appropriate tests and medical history interview can be conducted. Absent any associated face recognition or network connection to a back-end database, there may be no privacy concern, at least for the checkpoint. Of course it is a different story at the medical secondary point, where privacy and HIPAA restrictions will apply.

We are headed into a new age of air travel, where permanent changes could impact the associated processes. We now have the technology options and process flows available to make air travel better than it was before the pandemic. Touch-less self-service and seamless, frictionless passage are possible with the innovations cited here, but only if we work together to make our travel experiences safer and more secure for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the January / February 2021 issue of Security Today.

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