One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us is a step up in technology, particularly in areas that affect our travel and interaction with the world. When the downturn in the aviation industry has crippled many airlines and airports, anything that can be done to tempt passengers back is considered worthwhile for the future of the industry.

Now it seems the technology to allow the process of transiting an airport from door to gate could become as close to “touchless” as possible thanks to innovations in technology being fast-tracked by different companies.

The first point of contact for most of us when arriving for our flight is the check-in process. If you haven’t already checked in on an app, then check-in desks or machines are the place to announce your presence and print your boarding pass.

American Airlines already introduced a new touchless check-in for customers in July, whereby passengers need only to scan a bar code on an app, or printed at home, to produce tags for bags.

United Airlines have also introduced a similar scheme using their own app and trialing at London Heathrow airport, and Air Canada is now using touchless bag checks on all domestic flights.

Image courtesy Japan Airlines

Similarly, Japan Airlines recently announced its own trial of touchless check-in technology at Tokyo Haneda’s Terminal 1 from Aug. 24 to Sept. 15. Using infrared technology, simply holding your finger close to the screen will be enough to make selections and complete the process.

Yet beyond the check-in, passengers experience many places throughout the airport experience where touch has so far been necessary.

This is where a range of providers are stepping in to offer solutions.

At Abu Dhabi, 53 elevators are being switched to touchless technology to avoid contact with buttons. Its Etihad Airways check-in kiosks have also been upgraded to monitor a passenger’s temperature and heart rate to flag up anyone who is potentially unwell.

Many airports are introducing some kind of temperature screening, and this is likely to become automatic, scanning crowds for signs of carriers of the virus.

Airport food outlets are also giving customers the chance to order using apps, and hubs in Hong Kong and South Korea have introduced robots which will sanitize restrooms and other public areas.

Biometric boarding was already being trialed by airports before coronavirus hit but is now likely to be rolled out much faster. It allows passenger identification to be processed by scanning their retina, rather than presenting a passport or other ID.

It has the side benefit of speeding up boarding and could further be adapted in the future to include detailed medical histories of passengers, which is potentially a privacy minefield.

“Automation is of paramount importance. Contactless, self-service technologies at every step will facilitate passenger flow, cutting queues while ensuring a social distancing-friendly passenger experience through the use of secure biometrics and passenger mobile devices,” says SITA CEO Barbara Dalibard.

As yet, the touchless experience seems somewhat fragmented, with certain airports and airlines offering a solution to one touch experience, but none yet offering the whole range. But this is undoubtedly to come.

Many airlines will, despite costs of tens of thousands per machine in the case of those which monitor vital signs, roll out touchless check-in across their entire network once the results of trials are complete.

Touchless, clean security screening protocols will become standardized across all airports fairly soon, and concessions — particularly among the larger chains — will no doubt unveil touchless ordering and collection across their portfolios very quickly.

It seems unlikely this will become 100% touchless across the board, particularly in smaller airports which cannot justify upgrading elevators or hiring robots, or with airlines which do not offer check-in machines or apps. It is in these examples that the cheaper, easier-to-implement heightened cleaning protocols and passenger temperature screening will remain the norm, at least for the near future.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 has been a catalyst for technology in many areas, not least the airport experience, surely urged on by the ailing air travel industry’s need to see passengers flying again.