When you fly, how many times do you touch the cabin around you on an airplane? How about in the airport? How many times do your belongings get touched by the people working there?
As a rule, the answer today is “quite a lot.” But airlines, airports and the aviation industry want the answer to be “quite a bit less” in the near future.
‘Touchless travel’ involves a reasonably broad collection of individual changes and additions to the environment around us, from hands-free flushing in airports and aircraft washrooms to automatic scan-and-board gates, being able to control your inflight entertainment system from a phone or tablet and much more.
“Touchless travel promises peace of mind,” explains Daniel Baron, who operates LIFT Aero Design, an aircraft cabin design studio with offices in Tokyo and Singapore, calling it “the state of not having to even think about ‘clean,’ made possible by technologies and processes to mitigate angst along the journey.”
It also involves not only touch-free, but also “less-touch” and “fewer-touch” travel which means both the need to touch physical things less and also less times during each interaction in the travel environment.
“In the cabin, the most promising area is the lavatory,” explains Mr. Baron. “It is common knowledge in the cabin interiors industry that even before COVID-19, many passengers hesitated to use lavatories out of negative perception. In other words, having to touch dirty surfaces. We have seen incremental improvements over the past decade, mostly touchless faucets and toilet lids and flush buttons. Next will be soap dispensers and hand dryers, plus the doors and locks.”
Some of this is automatic, such as infrared sensing faucets, but some of it also includes redesigning the physical aspects of the experience such as doors or trash bins that you can open with your feet.
Of course, since there are many safety regulations, adding new features to the aircraft cabin can become difficult.
“Any change to the aircraft architecture requires consultation, testing and validation to achieve certification,” explains Matt Round, chief creative officer at Tangerine, a design consultancy in London. “There is, therefore, a need for accelerated certification and conversations earlier within the process and a need to look at relationships across all parties to enable faster certification.”
Fortunately, there is already some of this work underway. The Independent Aircraft Modifier Alliance (IAMA) is a collective of companies introducing these kinds of airline modifications, which has been calling for harmonization and clarification of the various national regulations for many years now.
“The technology is ready,” says IAMA Managing Director Nicole Noack. “Before COVID-19, the return on investment was the key challenge. But with the new normal, those technologies might become crucial to have passengers trust again in air travel.”
As the key safety qualification elements that need to be overcome, Noack cites electrical load testing, electromagnetic interference and general safety screening.
But there are other questions of technical equality or techquity to overcome. There are videos of automated soap dispensers not engineered to identify hands with a darker skin tone.
New technologies must also be open to the full range of travelers and can be used by people of all ages, sizes and ability or disability levels. Airlines do not have a great track record in serving travelers with disabilities and mobility limitations or who are beyond the standard in any other way, so it is much more important that any new changes take into account the full range of needs of travelers.
Airports are way ahead
At the airport, touchless technology is speeding up.
“Airports have been quicker to adopt touchless travel than aircraft cabins,” says Mr. Round. “We are already seeing touchless security, and more and more processes are moving out of airport infrastructure and into the digital world thereby reducing the number of contact points in the airport.”
In execution, all this varies very widely throughout your journey. Checking in online and having your boarding pass on your phone is one such instance. Another is remote bag drop, either the tap-the-kiosk-screen models of the first-generation or the newer versions of scan-your-app-barcode.
Touchless boarding has been around for a while, but it has been difficult in places to upgrade these systems during COVID-19 for the distance boarding processes.
At baggage claim, meanwhile, a spokesperson from Lufthansa which is the largest airlines in Germany reveals that “we have just released a new self-service that in the rare case of delayed bag delivery, [the airline] pushes a text message to the respective passengers informing them that delivery is delayed. It saves time and now using the new self-service to report the delayed bag and give the airline instructions where to deliver it gives [passengers a] way to leave the airport without further queuing.”
For delayed or cancelled flights, the airline says it is also creating touchless self-service options. They include the automatic issuance of a voucher, the use of the digital boarding pass as an airport meal voucher, and even a direct push-message trial to pick a nearby hotel in the event of a need for unexpected overnight accommodation.
There’s touchless immigration screening after arrival, and occasionally on departure, too. You scan the documentations and the gate opens, instead of handing them over with either a staffer or an automated facial/biometric device confirming your identity if necessary.
“These changes are increasing safety and efficiency at the same time as well as gathering vast swathes of data about passengers that enable the airlines and airports to personalize the travel experience to a much higher degree,” Round notes, explaining that this kind of biometric data is “starting to play a key part in rapidly getting people through airport security and check-in.”
Previously, there has been some pushback around collecting, processing and storing such important and potentially dangerous biometric data. The general issue is that you can change a password, but not your face or fingerprint if it’s hacked.
Can the “corona-normal” situation of handing over personal contact tracing information minimize objections to the touchless cabin of the next generation?
On the ground, many individuals are now ready to send their personal information for contact tracing or to scan QR codes for COVID-19 tests. This wider acceptance, previously in doubt, may well be what speeds up its use in aviation.