How many times do you touch the cabin around you in an airplane when you fly? How about the airport? How many times do the people working there touch your belongings?
The answer today is, as a rule, “quite a lot.” But airlines, airports and the aviation industry want the answer in the near future to be “quite a bit less.”
“Touchless travel” comprises a fairly wide collection of individual changes and additions to the environment around us, everything from hands-free flushing in airport and airplane lavatories to automated scan-and-board gates, controlling your inflight entertainment system from your 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 includes not just touch-free but also “less-touch” and “fewer-touch” travel: both the need to touch physical things in the travel environment less and also fewer times during each interaction.
Making touchless cabins is very complex
“In the cabin, the most promising area is the lavatory,” explains Baron. “It is common knowledge in the cabin interiors industry that even before Covid, 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 automated, such as infrared sensing faucets, but some of it is also redesigning physical parts of the experience, such as doors or trash bins you can open with your feet.
Of course, adding new features to the aircraft cabin can get complicated because there are many safety regulations.
“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, some of this work is already under way.
The Independent Aircraft Modifier Alliance is a group of companies that carry out these kinds of modifications for airlines, which has for several years now been pushing for harmonization and clarification of the various national regulations.
“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.”
Noack cites electrical load testing, electromagnetic interference and general safety testing as the key safety certification elements that need to be overcome.
But there are other issues of technological equity – “techquity” if you will – to overcome, too. Videos of automatic soap dispensers not being engineered to detect hands with darker skin tone are numerous.
New solutions must also be accessible to the full range of travelers and be usable by people of various ages, sizes and levels of ability or disability. Airlines do not have a good track record on serving passengers with disabilities and mobility restrictions or who are in any other way outside the mainstream, so it’s even more vital that any new changes take the full range of passengers’ needs into account.
The touchless airport is arriving ahead of schedule
At the airport, touchless technology is speeding up.
“Airports have been quicker to adopt touchless travel than aircraft cabins,” says 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 implementation, this all ranges quite widely across your journey. One element is checking in online and keeping your boarding pass on your phone. Another is remote bag drop, either the first-generation tap-the-kiosk-screen versions or, increasingly, the newer scan-your-app-barcode versions.
Touchless boarding has been around for a while, although updating these systems for the Covid-19 distanced boarding processes has been complicated in places. Whether it’s local regulations or simply the fact that most airline IT involves getting numerous decades-old systems to work together, any new technology is complex to introduce.
At baggage claim, meanwhile, a Lufthansa spokesperson 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.”
The airline says it is also developing touchless self-service options for delayed or canceled flights. They include automatic voucher issuance, the use of the digital boarding pass as a meal voucher at the airport and even a direct push-message trial to select a hotel nearby in the event that unexpected overnight accommodation is required.
After arrival, and sometimes on departure, there’s touchless immigration scanning, too. Rather than handing over your documentation, you scan it and the gate opens, with either a staffer or an automated facial/biometric system verifying your identity if needed.
“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.”
There has previously been some pushback around gathering, processing and storing such valuable and potentially dangerous biometric data. The general problem is that if it’s hacked, you can change a password but not your face or fingerprint.
Will the “corona-normal” situation of handing over personal details for contact tracing reduce objections to the next generation of the touchless cabin?
On the ground, many people are now willing to hand over personal details for contact tracing or to scan QR codes for Covid-19 tests and contact apps into their biometric-scanning phones. That wider acceptance, previously in question, could well be what accelerates its use in aviation.
John Walton is an international transportation and aviation journalist based in France, specializing in airlines, commercial aircraft and the passenger experience.