airports

More ways airports are going contactless

5 Ways Your Next Airport Visit Could Be Contactless

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for USA TODAY)

In addition to cleaning, sanitizing, and setting up COVID-19 testing stations, airports are responding to the pandemic by making the journey through the terminal increasingly touch-free.

In pre-COVID days, some of the new contactless services would have been presented as convenient amenities. Today, they are part of the tool kit for keeping passengers safe and healthy, and confident enough to travel.

Contactless Airport Parking

Before the pandemic, some airports offered travelers the option to reserve and prepay for parking online. An assured spot in the terminal garage during busy times was the attraction. Sometimes perks such as close-in spaces and discounted rates enticed travelers to give the amenity a try.

Now, many more airports are promoting and launching touch-free parking systems. Travelers can avoid having to push a button to get a ticket on the way in and bypass the payment kiosk or staffed booth on the way out.

For example, at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) customers who book parking online get a scannable QR code via email that opens the garage gate. A license plate reader recognizes their vehicle when they exit. San Francisco International Airport’s new touchless online parking system, rolled out right before Thanksgiving, works with scanned QR codes as well.

Contactless check-in & bag drop, biometric gates

 

Pre-pandemic, most passengers knew about but did not always use online check-in, digital boarding passes, and technology that let them print their own luggage tags at home and check in their own bags at the airport. Now those no or low-contact options are all but mandatory.

Airports and airlines are also piloting and fast-tracking a wide range of biometric technology and other tools that make the airport journey a bit more touch-free.

Aviation technology company SITA and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) recently piloted a system that allows passengers to use smartphones to operate check-in kiosks and avoid having to touch the communal screens. SITA’s Smart Path biometric touch-free boarding and exit gates are also operating at Orlando International Airport.  

And multiple airlines are now testing a digital health passport, called CommonPass. The app will safely store health information needed for travel and eliminate the need for passengers to hand over paper copies of COVID 19 test results.

The security checkpoint

The Transportation Security Administration is reducing touchpoints at many airport security checkpoints. 

More than 834 Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) units that reduce the time needed to confirm a traveler’s identity and allow travelers to put their own IDs into the scanner are now in use at 115 airports. And new computed tomography checkpoint scanners at 267 airports give TSA officers a 3-D view of carry-on bags. This decreases the need to open and touch bags and reduces the contact time between TSOs and passengers.

Touchless food ordering and delivery

Before COVID-19, the Grab app let hungry travelers skip lines and use their mobile devices to order meals for pick-up from a limited number of restaurants in a limited number of airports. 

Avoiding airport lines is more important now. So, airports in Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities are partnering with Grab to create accessible platforms that expand touch-free ordering options and broaden the number of participating concessions.

In a growing number of airports, runners for At Your Gate make in-terminal deliveries of meals and other items ordered via mobile devices from airport restaurants, newsstands, and retail shops.

The service, currently offered at LGA, JFK, EWR, DEN, BOS, SAN, MSP, PDX, and PHL is getting even more convenient and contactless at SAN and some other airports with the introduction of robots.

In partnership with Piaggio Fast Forward, At Your Gate delivery teams in JFK, MSP, DEN, and SAN will soon be joined in their rounds by small Gita robots. Each follow-along robot has a bin that can carry up to 40 pounds and will be used for contactless delivery of meals and retail items ordered.  

Virtual information booths

Many airport information desks are going contactless. At Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), LAX, DEN, BWI and other airports, passengers now use a touch-free tablet, a kiosk, or their own mobile device to connect with customer service agents who answer questions live, but from a distance.

Airlines are jumping on this bandwagon too. In December United Airlines debuted its “Agent on Demand,” service which lets customers in the airline’s hub airports use a mobile device to call, text, or have a live video chat with a customer service agent.

How will the pandemic leave its mark on travel?

Dreaming about travel? Us too. But how will our journeys be changed by the pandemic?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News.)

Sanitizing stations, “stand here, not there” floor stickers, and cotton swabs up the nose were not part of the travel experience before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as travelers edge their way back into airports and hotels and onto airplanes, cruise ships, and ski slopes, they will be dealing will all that – and more.

But for how long? We asked some industry experts to tell us which new travel trends, technologies, and protocols they think will stick around.

Who will travel and what will they expect?

“Businesses are connecting with their customers virtually and leisure travelers are discovering the joys of staying local,” says Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business. “Many business travelers will lower their number of trips, and leisure travelers will shift from ‘hyper-global’ to ‘hyper-local’ travel for the foreseeable future.”

For well into 2021 travelers will be expected or required to wear masks and observe physical distancing. And airlines, airports, hotels, and cruise lines will be expected to continue making health, safety, and cleanliness a priority.

“People will look at a dirty rental car or bus or airport or airline cabin or hotel room and wonder, ‘Uh oh, am I putting myself at risk?’ says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Travelers will continue to hold travel brands’ feet to the fire to keep their facilities clean.”

Entertainment

Once we move past this pandemic “we’re going to have amnesia about some of this and likely go back doing many of the same things we used to do before,” says Devin Liddell, futures and design strategist with Seattle-based Teague global design consultancy.

Theme parks, museums, and other attractions will reopen, and Liddell says the best operators will retain systems put in place to orchestrate the flow of people. For example, “ski resorts that require reservations will likely create a better experience for everyone on the lift lines,” he says.

Hotels

Hotels will likely maintain flexible cancellation policies and keep in place the intensive protocols for cleaning guest rooms and public spaces.

But instead of housekeeping only upon request or not at all during a stay, “elective housekeeping will be more about providing guests with an easy ‘opt-out’ of housekeeping services,” says Bjorn Hanson, adjunct Professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. 

Cruising

Most major cruise lines are maintaining – and extending – the voluntary suspensions of sailings until sometime in 2021.

When sailings resume there will be changes onboard.

“The buffet will move away from the more traditional self-serve approach toward a more crew-served style – something that lines have already said will likely be a more permanent change,” said Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic. And “changes to muster drills could also stick around beyond the pandemic. Rather than mass events that put all passengers in small spaces at once, we’ll continue to see this more self-driven.”

Airports

At airports, “the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of countless new technologies and protocols to keep people healthy and safe and streamline the entire air travel experience,” says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America.

“Many of these changes will outlast COVID-19,” he adds.

Those technologies and protocols include sanitizing robots, restrooms that alert maintenance crews when cleaning is needed, contactless check-in, bag check and credential authentication, and the increased ability to order and pay for food or duty-free items from a mobile device and receive a contactless delivery anywhere inside the airport.

The current pandemic will change future airports as well.

“We plan to implement many public health procedures into the design of our new terminal building,” scheduled to open in 2023 said Christina Cassotis, CEO at Pittsburgh International Airport, “It will be the first post-pandemic terminal to open in the country that will be designed with these issues in mind.”

Materials in airports are going to change, too, says Luis Vidal, president and founding partner at Luis Vidal + Architects. “The use of new photocatalytic devices based on antibacterial, antiviral, and ‘autocleaning’ material, such as titanium dioxide, silver or copper, in high-use areas will become the norm.”

Airlines

(PRNewsfoto/United Airlines)

Airlines will maintain stringent cleaning and sanitizing protocols. Generous rebooking and cancelation policies may stretch out for a while. But most airlines will soon stop blocking middle seats.

Coming back soon: the full range of in-flight services, especially at the front of the plane.

“The traveling public is not happy with the bare bones on-board experience right now,” says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. “They understand the need for limits, but people are saying they won’t accept paying for a premium experience and getting something that is subpar.”

Vaccines, Travel Corridors, and insurance 

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, it may become a ‘must-have’ for travelers.

The new normal for global travel may also include digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status and, by spring, travel corridors (also known as travel bubbles) that allow travel between countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, says Fiona Ashley, VP Product & Solution Marketing SAP Concur.

While there are some great fare deals being offered right now, as demand returns, so will higher prices.  And going forward, travelers will likely need to factor in the added costs of COVID-19 tests and travel insurance.

“Travel insurance may become a non-negotiable as destinations continue to require medical insurance, and travel suppliers tighten their refund policies,” said Megan Moncrief Chief Marketing Officer of travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth

“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of the global travel industry. I think travelers will be more cautious about investing in expensive trips without insurance.”

Not a joke: Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport (BER) ready to open.

After 9 years of delays and false starts, Germany’s third-largest airport, Berlin Brandenburg “Willy Brandt” Airport (BER) is scheduled to open on October 31, 2020.

We won’t be able to be there for the opening, but we’re looking forward to a visit once this COVID-19 business is resolved.

In the meantime, here’s a recap of our 2014 visit to the airport site, when we joined a bus tour of the unopened airport.

Our report first appeared on USA TODAY.

Berlin  Brandenburg Airport is late for an important date

The highlight of my late June visit to the unopened and much-delayed Berlin Brandenburg  Willy Brandt Airport was racing down a runway as a passenger in a tour bus going more than 60 miles per hour.

It was also one of the saddest parts of the tour.

That’s because due to technical glitches, cost overruns, corruption and project mismanagement, tour buses – not airplanes – are likely the only vehicles that will be barreling down the BER runways for quite some time.

Under construction since 2006, Berlin’s much-needed new airport was designed to serve 27 million passengers, with an initial opening target date of November 2011.

That date was pushed back to June 3, 2012, and, despite trial runs during which the airport authority did tests of the baggage carousels, check-in desks, and security checkpoints, and simulated what it termed “all imaginable scenarios,” a problem with the airport’s fire safety and suppression system was discovered.

With just four weeks’ notice, opening day was called off.

Since then multiple target dates for a new opening day – six or seven, it’s hard to keep count – have come and gone. Now all the company managing the project will say is that “an opening date is expected to be announced at the end of the year.”

2016 has been bandied about as the next possible opening date, but additional problems and embarrassing operational revelations keep cropping up.  

In May, there was an announcement of a suspected corruption case involving bribes for the awarding of contracts. In early June, there was out-of court settlement between the airport management company and airberlin, the major tenant at Berlin’s outdated Tegel Airport, over claims the airline felt it was due because of delays in the switchover.

And at the end of June, it was revealed that the engineer responsible for designing the new airport’s fire safety system was in fact just a draftsman, not a real engineer, and had been fired.

Besides showing off any progress, one reason the airport authority offers BER tours “is because it’s important that people don’t only read about the airport in the newspaper and see the reports on TV,” said an airport spokesman.

Tour buses stop first at a 105-foot-tall observation tower offering a bird’s eye view of the unopened airport terminal, the unused runways, empty parking lots, and assorted other facilities-in-waiting.

At the bottom of the tower is an airport information center, with a scale model of the airport and a glass cabinet of souvenirs emblazoned with the BER logo.

The staff on duty the day I visited said they don’t sell many of these souvenirs to tourists. And they seemed amused when I asked about purchasing some BER t-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, inflatable plastic beach balls, and small, plastic lunch boxes.  

Our tour bus then drove slowly past the very quiet office, cargo, and airport security facilities and by the railway station, where empty trains run each day to make sure systems remain working.

Photo ops of the front of the main terminal building were only offered from inside the bus, but the terminal’s glass façade offered a glimpse of “The Magic Carpet,” by Pae White. The large, red, work of art, one of several pieces specially-commissioned for the airport, hovers over the check-in lobby.

Out back, the bus pulled up at BER’s one A380-compatible gate, which has a jet bridge draped with Olaf Nicolai’s “Gadget,” a piece of art that looks like a string of giant pop beads and is designed to change colors to match those of the livery of the airplane at the gate.

Tour-goers were allowed off the bus here and invited up a set of not-quite-finished stairs for a look at a gate area where seats were installed, but still wrapped in plastic, and ceiling panels gaped open.

“It’s not unusual for big projects like this to be over budget,” said Johann Bammann, a retired architect whose tour ticket was a gift from a friend. But delays are dragging on too long, he said, “it’s time for the city to have a new front door.”

After a stop near the control tower, the bus made that dash down the runway, stopping to let passengers out to run around and pose for photos.

“It’s just unbelievable. I can’t understand why it’s taking such a long time to open this airport,” said Barbel Liedtke, a former Berlin-based Pan Am Airlines employee taking the tour with a friend. “But I’m sure there are a lot of people to blame.”

More airports embrace the “How it started” meme

Our first post sharing examples of how airports are embracing the “How it Started Twitter meme got so long that we’ve started a new post.

Please let us know if you find new responses that should be added. We’ll add them as we find them.

Newest airport amenity? Pre-flight COVID-19 testing.

Because so many countries, and some states, require arriving travelers to have proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test, airports and airlines are rushing to make those tests available at the airport.

We listed some of the programs in our recent post about the new normal in air travel.

Those services, many of which are labeled as pilot programs, include COVID-19 sniffing dogs at the Helsinki Airport; XpresSpa’s new XpresCheck program at JFK International and Newark Liberty International airports: and Alitalia’s COVID-tested flights.

In advance of Hawaii reopening its doors to travelers on October 15, United Airlines is offering COVID-19 testing at San Francisco International Airport. And Hawaiian Airlines is setting up drive-through testing at both SFO and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Elsewhere, COVID-19 testing is available at Vancouver International Airport (YVR), and at airports in Frankfurt, Munich and other German airports.  

In most cases there is charge from $80 to more than $250 for the tests. In some cases, the tests are free.

More COVID-19 tests for air travelers.

A new bundle of airport and airline-hosted COVID-19 testing programs was announced on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Tampa International Airport (TPA) will run a pilot program in October offering travelers both rapid antigen tests and PRC, Polymerase Chain Rection tests. Fees apply.

Oakland International Airport (OAK) will begin offering free, rapid-result COVID-19 tests to employees and the public beginning Oct. 6. An expansion of the program is planned for October 15, when travel to Hawaii reopens.

JetBlue Airways will begin offering flyers an at-home COVID-19 saliva test via provider Vault Health. Fees apply.

And American Airlines announced it is working with several foreign governments to offer pre-flight COVID-19 tests for customers flying to international destinations.

The program starts in October with flights from Miami International Airport to Jamaica for residents returning home and for flights to the Bahamas.

There are plans to expand to other markets soon.

For American’s domestic flights from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to both Honolulu (HNL) and Maui (OGG), the airline is working with a vendor offering several testing options, including onsite rapid testing at DFW airport. Fees apply.

No doubt other airlines and airports will be rolling out COVID-19 test programs soon. But already the offerings are confusing and, in many cases, costly. Here’s hoping some sort of consistency evolves in the next few months.