The U.K.’s Heathrow Airport is trialing new measures for screening passengers as the aviation industry looks for a way to emerge from the current crisis. With no definitive end to the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the measures taken could become the new norm for travel by air.

First to be implemented at Heathrow is facial recognition thermal screening technology, which monitors passengers moving through Terminal 2’s immigration halls. This will then be scaled up to other areas such as departure areas and security screening, followed by other terminals.

Image copyright Heathrow Airport Limited

Passengers showing unusually high temperatures are prime targets to be carriers of the coronavirus and a threat to fellow passengers.

Following this, Heathrow will also trial ultraviolet (UV) sanitation screening to check the cleanliness of security trays and introduce contract-free screening equipment.

Setting a new standard

The trials being carried out at Heathrow are intended to be part of the development of a Common International Standard aimed at assessing the effectiveness of new technologies and practices which can then be rolled out as the new standard globally.

The purpose is to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 while traveling, and all tests being carried out at Heathrow are medically grounded and are considered practical for airports to deliver.

What do passengers want?

Heathrow has a lot to gain from implementing successful new measures. Having been one of Europe’s busiest hubs at the start of 2020, operating at near capacity and pushing for a third runway to be built, it is now facing a huge drop in passenger enplanements and uncertainty around the future of its two biggest operators, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

However, ahead of returning to profitability and a full departures board, airports must address passenger confidence and what might put them off returning to air travel.

A new study by Lufthansa Consulting argues that top among six priorities for passengers in light of COVID-19 is confidence that measures such as automated queue management for boarding, check-in, security screening and passport control are implemented. This is where many airports are now focusing. The challenge will be in maintaining these new standards and processing passengers safely and swiftly once numbers increase again.

Heathrow’s CEO, John Holland-Kaye, informed the House of Commons Transport Committee that he hoped the trials will form a common international standard for global airport health screening. But the airport is not the first to have to deal with measures for passenger safety. Four weeks ago I reported on the reopening of Wuhan Airport in China — the radiating point from which the novel coronavirus spread.

Following a deep clean of the airport, passengers and flights were allowed to return. As the Chinese government encourages people to take advantage of bargain air fares to return to the skies for the holiday period, temperature screening, social distancing and encouraging the use of personal protective equipment are all happening at China’s airports and many others around the world.

Avalon and Canberra airports in Australia, and Vienna in Austria have rolled out body temperature checks in the past week, and social distancing is the norm in most worldwide airports.

Meanwhile Pittsburgh Airport has rolled out autonomous cleaning robots using UV light technology to eliminate germs in high-traffic areas.

All airports face the same challenges and cannot generally wait for Heathrow’s findings to become standard. Each is implementing its own measures and looking for innovating solutions to pave the way for passengers to return to flight. With the aviation industry suffering incredibly from the crisis, the sooner a standard is adopted, the greater the chance of recovery and restoration of traveler confidence.