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Can airports integrate health screening and security measures into a single process?

June 02, 2020

By Cecilia Einarson

In the face of COVID-19, air travel and airports are changing. Integrated passenger screening could offer greater safety and efficiency.

As governments and health authorities begin to relax some of the measures taken to control COVID-19, individual countries will progressively reopen their borders. One thing is clear with this pandemic, airports and airlines will have to make permanent changes in order to provide a healthy and safe environment and help boost the confidence of passengers to trust flying again. Aviation is undoubtedly one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, and until a vaccine is available, passenger traffic will return at only a slow pace.

The reopening of borders will vary from country to country. Domestic travel will come back first, followed by regional travel, and then international travel. Regardless of the type of passenger traffic or country, everyone who opts to travel soon will expect some level of symptoms detection or “health screening” to be required at the departure airport. Airports have the option to do symptoms screenings at parking areas, front doors, or inside the airport. Passengers could be facing two separate screening processes—health and security—and potentially double lengthy queues before they get close to boarding.

The airports who put in place a simplified and—more importantly—integrated screening approach for a security and health preventative check of travelers before they board, will be at the forefront of helping the industry recovery—while also providing a more tolerable passenger experience.

Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Healthy before embarking

An efficient travel process will largely depend on how airports, health authorities, and local governments are able to establish and follow up on common protocols for health screening processes. The areas of high passenger concentration—check-in, pre-board screening, and gate boarding—will have to be rethought to accommodate physical distancing and allocation of areas for “health screening.” Although pre-board security agents at checkpoints work with advanced technology, there is still a requirement for pat downs and searching carry-ons and personal items. Until reliable security technology can smoothly do all the screening without physical contact, the process will continue to be performed by a human agent.

In response to COVID-19, the aviation industry and health organization in some countries like the US have rolled out recommendations for basic health prevention measures in pre-board checkpoints, such as the use of masks and social distancing to minimize potential cross-contamination.

Angela Gittens, ACI World’s director general, recently stated: “It is crucial that security screening practices can be adapted to suit new circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, without affecting the overall security of the system.”

Current security measures implementation timeline. (Credit: Infographic by Gustavo Cadar)

Safety vs. health screening

Airports and airlines have access to the data required to confirm our identity but do not have the authority to conduct health screenings, nor do they have access to our physical health information. Public health agencies are responsible for decisions on health information protocols and maintaining the privacy of the information.

Currently there are aviation industry and health authority forums and discussions about immunity passports, which would be issued to individuals who have recovered from the virus and have antibodies to protect them from a second infection. It is a controversial proposition due to privacy laws and one that will require an agreement between public and government health authorities, which could take years. It is expected that biometric technology and new digital processing soon will be a reality, providing a simplified integrated solution for security and health screening. For now, passengers’ proof of testing within a reasonable period before embarking is perhaps the best measure, if it is well-implemented as a common and reciprocal standard in airports globally.

The future travel experience will be seamless, with a smooth walk-through processes using touchless and digital biometric technology.

Integrated screening

Most countries have similar security screening standards and follow the same policies as the United States Transportation Security Administration. Some countries distinguish levels of screening between domestic and international checkpoints. The ideal process is a simpler and faster screening process combining security threats screening and health screening at one point—an integrated screening process.

The future travel experience will be seamless, with a smooth walk-through processes using touchless and digital biometric technology. However, travel in the short term will look much different as airports, governments, and health authorities agree on a minimum common standard for health screening practices and measures. With most airports severely impacted financially by the pandemic, they will have to be extremely creative with capital funding investments. Thankfully, the integrated health and security screening checkpoints will also provide the opportunity to maintain commercial activity in the pre-board screening areas, a major source of income for airports, as well as a necessary resource for travelers.

A look at a possible future health and safety checkpoint. (Credit: Infographic by Gustavo Cadar)

Health and safety checkpoint

An Integrated Health and Safety Screening checkpoint makes a good case for a more efficient travel process. As shown in the graphic above, existing and new screening checkpoints areas should consider the following modifications:

  • Health screening (health proof) station
  • A negative-pressure room to separate passengers with potential symptoms
  • E-gates at pre-board security entry and document screening
  • Public handwashing stations
  • Agent handwashing stations
  • Remote stations for screening agents
  • UV cleaning rooms for personal effects/carry-on luggage trays

Travelers will be looking for a safe and healthy experience as they navigate our airports. Currently, passenger traffic is significantly reduced, allowing airports the opportunity to reassess the layout of their terminals and streamline their processes. Airports need to take advantage of this down time to implement these vital improvements, if they ever hope to return to a profitable status. If travelers don’t feel safe in airports, they simply will not fly. As the aviation industry recovers, airports will need to provide an increased focus on supporting wellness and creating a healthy environment as the new norm for the air passenger experience. 

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