Commentary: To help us travel safer with COVID-19, airports need new checkpoint technology

SINGAPORE: COVID-19 has caused incredible disruptions to air travel. It has reduced international passenger traffic by up to 71 per cent so far according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), hitting airlines in the Asia Pacific the hardest – almost a decline of  US$113 billion.  

Closer to home, Singapore Changi Airport had recently announced a pause to the construction of the new Terminal 5 for at least two years to re-think its design for our health and safety.

That said, history shows that the effect of pandemics on air travel is usually temporary. “Even in the outbreak of SARS, monthly international passenger traffic returned to its pre-crisis level within nine months,” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) noted in its official magazine Airlines.

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We are already seeing that the aviation industry is getting ready to bounce back onto its feet, such as with the recent travel bubble established between Singapore and China, and news of a potential one between Australia and New Zealand.


As eager as we all are to resume our vacation plans, we also want to know that our safety is ensured and that the reopening of air travel can be sustained. And it’s clear that the aviation community understands, and is tackling, the public need for health and safety before we are confident of flying again.

For instance, in early June, international organisations, like the ICAO, shared global guidelines to harmonise COVID-19 related measures across airport hubs. 

These emphasise a multi-layered approach — restarting air travel in stages like with the travel bubbles, and implementing mask wearing, temperature taking, submitting travel declarations in advance and testing.

READ: Commentary: Airlines have it bad with COVID-19 but airports have it worse

But there are additional measures airports should take. 

Contactless check-ins and security screening processes will make a world of difference in helping us maintain social distancing, and keep us, other passengers, and the security officers safe.

A thermographic device displays the temperature of arriving passengers before they enter immigratio

A thermographic device displays the temperature of arriving passengers before they enter immigrations at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand March 14, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The challenge is putting together various, existing technologies that make “touchless travel” possible. A few airports across Asia are already doing that. 

READ: Commentary: We will fly again. Here’s what’s needed to safely restart flights and resume air travel

For instance, the Narita Airport in Tokyo has installed walk-through body scanners while airports across India, like in New Delhi, are in the midst of installing them.

The scanners precisely highlight suspicious items on our bodies to the operator who informs us from a distance to remove the item by ourselves, reducing the need for a physical pat-down. This helps us maintain social distancing while speeding up our security checks.

The Melbourne Airport and Changi Airport have already implemented Computed Tomography (CT), which is a technology used in hospitals.  It produces 3D images of our baggage and allows electronics and liquids to remain in bags. 

This means we won’t have to spend time removing items from our bags, making our screening quicker without sacrificing accuracy.

The Melbourne Airport and the Kansai International Airport in Japan are examples that have adopted automated tray return systems known as SMART lanes, on top of CT tech.

The system automates movement of trays which we put our baggage in when sending them through the machine to be scanned. This keeps travellers moving to speed up baggage checks and minimise bottlenecks, as well as having to excessively touch common trays.

The Jeju International Airport in South Korea is an example which has adopted remote screening in addition to CT tech and SMART lanes. 

Since image analysts will be stationed in a remote location away from checkpoints, operators will have no direct contact with passengers. Remote screening also allows analysts to clear more images at a faster rate — reducing our time in screening.

With the right solutions in place, going through safer checkpoint processes doesn’t equate to more time taken for travellers.

Automation and advanced technology increase the efficiency of the security checks and reduce our time spent at the checkpoints, helping us to spend less time in close proximity with others, while knowing that security standards are not compromised.

Beijing airport

Travellers wearing face masks inspect their tickets after conducting self check-in procedures at the Beijing International Airport. (STR/AFP)

Globally, airports in Japan, Korea, Singapore and China, are among the fastest in their modernisation of both technologies and processes. These airports will have a better foundation to evolve and accommodate the post COVID-19 health and safety requirements.

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Outside Asia, airports are also piloting ultraviolet (UV) technology to disinfect surfaces to kill up to 99.9 per cent of bacteria and viruses.

A study done in 2018 by researchers from the BioMed Central Infectious Diseases journal found that the plastic trays used for depositing baggage for screening pose the highest risk of transmitting respiratory viruses.

Besides automating the trays to reduce contact, integrating UV light into tray return systems before the next passenger reaches the same tray will boost safety of the screening processes by leaps. 

London’s Gatwick Airport is one of the first airports globally to trial this technology, but I’m certain we’ll see this introduced in Asia very soon.

Airports will also want to consider proofing the arrivals process in the future. From bag tracking technologies to help reduce crowds at the bag collection carousels, or using UV to also sanitise the baggage itself to protect staff handling bags, the aviation industry will want to improve processes every way possible.

Ultimately, as the industry begins reinstating operations, I believe globally and regionally harmonised measures will be essential in tackling fears of spread or imported cases for governments to begin lifting restrictions and passenger flights to take off.

If the aviation industry is able to respond to the new requirements of air travel with agility, the right policies, and leverage technological tools, I have no doubt that we can all return to traveling safely soon enough.

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Desmond Lian is Head of Aviation Solutions at Smiths Detection Asia Pacific.​​​​​​​

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