The coronavirus pandemic, which continues to unfold, has had a staggering impact on air travel and airport security, with the potential for its effects to be felt for some time to come. Yet the crisis also presents the industry with opportunities to trial new processes and, as Richard Thompson sets out, to fast-track safe and effective technological advancements from the drawing board, through research and development and to full deployment.

It is well documented that global passenger numbers are down and that the coronavirus pandemic is possibly the gravest business threat faced by the aviation industry. As travel bans and restrictions are put in place, the movement of many passengers is prohibited or severely curtailed; however, a longer-term concern is that passenger confidence in air travel will be impacted. According to statistics from IATA, 53% of travellers are now very concerned about personally contracting the virus – compared with 39% in February 2020 – and 84% are afraid to travel until the virus is contained.1

It is obvious that airports can’t simply turn on operations to full capacity once restrictions are lifted, and passenger confidence will be key to recovery. As we all adjust to the new ‘normal’, the airport experience will have to be different from what we knew before, with new procedures across luggage check-in, security clearance and boarding. What we do need to be sure of is the safe and effective security screening of all passengers.

The current situation provides an opportunity to adapt and improve current security screening measures to reduce the risk of infection and, looking further down the line, move towards a fully automated and technologically advanced self-service checkpoint of the future. This checkpoint will lend itself to any potential ongoing health protection measures and create a more flexible security environment to adapt to potential threats that may arise in the future.

“…the current pandemic may have given airports and suppliers the necessary jolt to kickstart a sustained move to a fully automated self-service checkpoint…”

Although governments globally will likely implement different measures across varying timeframes, airports can use this time to work with their suppliers and partners to implement systems, which allow for safe and efficient security screening using a logical mixture of technology and process.

Current Measures Being Taken

At the centre of the industry discussion around airport recovery is health screening, and the need for harmonisation of screening guidelines across airports globally. Some airports have been quick off the mark to introduce temperature checks to reduce the risk of passengers contracting or transmitting the virus, and most recently, Heathrow Airport announced that it will be testing technology and processes that could be the basis of a common international standard for health screening.

Beyond the introduction of thermal screening, there are other issues associated with screening that need to be addressed to help prevent the transmission of the virus at airports. In the typical passenger journey, security checkpoints create bottlenecks, particularly at busy airports and during high season. With social distancing measures, bottlenecks will be created even with airports at 50% capacity, and as airports adjust their processes to enhance health and hygiene, bottlenecks will continue for some time.

Conventional security processes tend to involve the close interaction between passengers and operators, as well as physical contact with surfaces at the security checkpoint. It is crucial that passengers are given the space and opportunity to keep the necessary distance from fellow travellers, security operators and members of staff at airports.

A number of ‘quick fixes’ have been implemented at airports that are operating at a very low capacity and therefore have been generally successful, such as plastic protection shields, the availability of hand sanitiser and floor markings to guide safe social distancing.

There are also security systems already in place, which minimise contact between passengers and operators during the screening process. These include millimetre wave portals, which reduce the need for full pat-downs compared to archway metal detectors, and which identify specific areas of the body that need to be investigated.

In addition to technology solutions, processes and concepts of operation are also being reviewed. Airports Council International recently launched their guidance for security screening during the COVID-19 pandemic, advising the use of explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment for alarm resolution instead of hand searches to minimise contact between security staff and travellers.

Technological Developments

Beyond these short-term solutions and quick fixes, there are several technologies already available that can be deployed at the checkpoint to enable a more seamless passenger journey and reduce human interaction during the screening process.

Using EDS CB C3 approved computer tomography (CT) cabin baggage scanners allows for liquids and laptops to be left inside passenger bags for screening. Some existing X-ray equipment can also easily be upgraded to EDS CB C2 approval via a simple software update, removing the need to unpack laptops. This significantly cuts down the number of trays handled by both staff and passengers, reducing contact points and the potential for cross-contamination.

CT systems reconstruct data from hundreds of different views into volumetric 3D images and, as a result of the data richness, the best can deliver a false alarm rate (FAR) as low as 5%. Some protocols allow alarms to be resolved by re-inspecting the suspect images on-screen without opening the bag; however, others require every bag generating an alarm to be opened and physically examined – requiring extensive direct contact between security officers, the bag and all its contents. Therefore, reducing the FAR is essential for any airport adapting to coronavirus measures.

“…automatically kill up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses on trays as they are transported back from reclaim to the divest station…”

On a more physical and tangible level, short-wavelength UV light (UVC) is successfully being used for the disinfection of surfaces in industries with high hygiene requirements; for example, the food and health sectors. Use of this technology would automatically kill up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses on trays as they are transported back from reclaim to the divest station. UVC light kits can easily be retrofitted into existing tray handling systems. This relatively simple implementation would give passengers – and personnel – an added sense of reassurance.

Remote screening, enabled by centralised image processing, could be employed to allow operators to work in separate rooms. Not only does this reduce unessential passenger and operator interaction, but dramatically reduces queue times through enhanced operator efficiency. Also, it allows for more space to be freed up by physically involving fewer people in the security screening process. Security operators working remotely can sit two metres away from each other, adhering to social distancing rules.

As discussed, security scanning can create a bottleneck during the passenger journey; however, queue management and people tracking technology can provide real-time data on passenger flow so that resource and queue management strategies can be put in place to prevent build-ups. Queue management and people-tracking technology can also be enhanced as needed; therefore, it can be scaled up as passenger numbers increase. Ultimately, the reduction of queues will be essential throughout the whole airport process to ensure necessary social distancing, and most importantly, giving the passenger the physical space to feel comfortable in the airport and throughout the security screening process.

Smiths Detection UVC light kit, currently on trial at Gatwick Airport (Credit: Smiths Decetection)
Smiths Detection UVC light kit, currently on trial at Gatwick Airport (Credit: Smiths Decetection)

Technological Developments

Though there is a range of technology available today that will assist airport screening during the coronavirus, there are other technologies that could be developed and adopted to reduce contact throughout the security screening process, reduce queues, and give passengers the peace of mind they need to return to air travel.

waiting with suitcase

It must be noted that all other security issues that airports face day-to-day, i.e. terrorism, cyber-security breaches and insider threats, continue to impact the aviation industry, and perpetrators may even seek to take advantage of the current situation. For example, if physical searches have to be adapted in order to adhere to social distancing measures, this could be taken advantage of by those with negative intent. Solutions that reduce the need for routine physical checks allow for the more efficient allocation of operator resource to mitigate serious threats.

The long-term vision is for a fully automated self-service checkpoint that would reduce both the need for close human interaction and the touching of surfaces, while preserving maximum security levels.

Key to the automation of inspection processes is the use of artificial intelligence (AI); more specifically, machine learning and its subset, deep learning. Machine and deep learning support the development of self-teaching algorithms, which imitate the way the human brain processes data and creates patterns for use in decision-making. By harvesting the huge amount of data and library of images that are available through checkpoint processes, it is possible to train and refine algorithms to achieve a highly reliable rate of automatic detection through object recognition.

Algorithms are readily available to be used at the checkpoint to support security operators with their decision making. This enhanced capability underwritten by AI could also enable alarm-only viewing of X-ray images to significantly improve passenger flow, reduce unnecessary interaction between operators and passengers, in addition to boosting security levels. The current need for this type of automation could very well accelerate the regulatory approval of this concept of operation.

At its most sophisticated, the fully automated self-service checkpoint would mean passengers could drop off their cabin baggage prior to the checkpoint – as they do hold baggage – before walking through a people-screening device, which screens at pace, and then collecting their belongings airside. Although such a system is a long way off from becoming a reality, we know that biometric technology could facilitate this process by linking passengers with their luggage.

AI and biometrics could also be used to gather, combine and analyse comprehensive passenger risk profiles to allow for the more efficient and targeted screening of passengers for coronavirus. According to IATA statistics, 86% of passengers would feel safer if all passengers were screened for COVID-19 at departure. However, screening all passengers would be an extremely time-consuming and complex process, which would not only create bottlenecks but cause significant delays to airline departure times.

The key enabler of this type of automated, risk-based passenger assessment or risk-based screening could be a biometrics-enabled checkpoint. Risk-based screening adapts the security screening process through individualised risk assessments based on a unique identifier, created using biometrics, combined with contextual information – such as ticketing information, passport details or even flight behavioural patterns. Once the passenger name or advance passenger information is amalgamated with data from third party sources, a risk score can be generated.

“…with social distancing measures, bottlenecks will be created even with airports at 50% capacity…”

In a COVID-19 environment, risk-based screening could be a more streamlined approach to screening for the virus; for example, by identifying if passengers have recently travelled to or been in a location known to have an outbreak.

By applying differentiated levels of screening and focusing operator resources on those with higher risk scores, this would certainly ease the pressure on airport screening operators and reduce costs – whilst also enabling more effective monitoring and identification of potential transmitters of the virus.

Looking to the Future

Ultimately, immediate changes need to be made in airports to rebuild public trust and ensure that passengers can return to airports with confidence. However, enhanced health and safety measures need to be implemented without compromising on the security outcome of screening processes.

The good news is that there are technologies available to create a more seamless and ‘contactless’ flow at the security checkpoint. For those technologies not yet commercially available but with potential to boost automation and self-service capabilities, we are likely to see an acceleration in their development and in situ trials.

Time will tell, but the current pandemic may have given airports and suppliers the necessary jolt to kickstart a sustained move to a fully automated self-service checkpoint. Human behaviours may be changed permanently following this outbreak, but a more technologically advanced checkpoint means that airports will be well placed to deal with future threats, both physical and biological.

Richard Thompson is Global Market Director Aviation with Smiths Detection.

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