Less Touch, More Travel

Dec. 17, 2020
Airports are speeding up touch-free technology implementation due to the global pandemic.

Restroom cleanliness information is one of the most valuable data points for an airport when it comes to making sure travelers are comfortable with the facilities. ATL utilized touchscreens placed outside of restrooms where travelers could rate their experience with the restroom and staff could address maintenance issues in real time.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a new environment where everyone is discouraged touching common areas and items to halt the spread of the virus. This means airports like ATL must look at touchless options if they still want feedback.

Steve Mayers, airport director/customer experience and ADA coordinator for ATL said they work with Avius to pilot Gestures, a touchless AI-powered thumbs up/thumbs down survey experience.

“You have the option of still touching the device or going touchless,” he said. “It’s a simple upgrade to the software. Everything is already within the device you’re using.”

To engage with Gestures, customers stand in front of a kiosk terminal, show a thumbs up for a good experience or a thumbs down to report a negative experience. Gestures can also be used for a series of yes/no questions.

Travelers can also use the SmartCode feature to begin the survey on their own device.

Ben Story, CEO of Avius, said the company knew it needed to investigate touch-free options once the pandemic took hold. Gestures needed to be simple and respect the privacy of travelers.

The front-facing camera is permanently scanning the feed for recognized gestures like thumbs up or down. It uses machine-learning so it can detect different kinds of thumbs up or gestures.

“We try to make the leaving of feedback simple and not try to slow down someone’s day,” he said. “We wanted to give passengers a chance to give feedback and not worry about the cleanliness of the screen or if they just witnessed a passenger in front of them go to the restroom and not wash their hands and touch the device, it was a concern.”

A lot of the traveling public has not avoided touching the feedback screens. Mayers said ATL gets about 2,000 feedbacks per day now compared to upwards of 10,000 during the pre-pandemic era when substantially more travelers were going through the terminal. Travelers will still be able to touch the devices, but a touchless option gives more people a chance to report concerns.

“We’re doing everything we need to do to take care of them from a health and safety perspective,” he said. “If someone doesn’t like these germs, how can we get to hear from them too.”

Story said the company added new devices to the atrium of ATL asking questions to travelers about the airport’s safety and hygiene measures. They kept it to a quick survey and they can rotate the questions.

“The way the airport has it running, they’ve got three different questions, so each time a different one is picked, so they’re getting multiple key performance indicators from one device,” Story said. “But not only does the screen still react to touch, we can adjust the length of time it takes to recognize a thumbs up or down.”

The airport is testing it with plans with rolling out more data collection in the concessions spaces as well. The devices will be moved to different locations to see how it’s working.

The airport purchased 12 devices on top of the two already used in the testing, but 102 of ATL’s bathrooms are monitored with an Avius survey device. All of the existing systems can be upgraded via a software upgrade and replacing the faceplate. Some existing systems at restrooms will be upgraded to see how receptive travelers are.

“Our assumption is it will be fantastic, but with everything we like to go with a crawl, walk, run approach,” Story said. “We don’t want to annoy passengers.”ngers.”

A Recognized Solution to a Challenge in Tijuana

When operators of the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) at Tijuana International Airport (TIJ) needed more information about how travelers move, they turned to technology to find a solution.

CBX officials wanted to know how long it takes for travelers to move across the 390-foot bridge connecting the U.S. and Mexico between terminals at TIJ to ensure an efficient and safe passage. The solution to this issue came in the form of facial recognition software and video analytics.

Eric Hess, senior director of product management, security and surveillance for RealNetworks, said when a traveler reaches the first checkpoint, cameras capture a facial image. Once they reach the subsequent checkpoints, cameras search for the new enrollments to capture how it long it takes them. While it does use facial recognition, he said it’s completely anonymous and images are kept for a limited time.

“We’re not a VMS,” Hess said. “When an individuals go past a particular set of cameras, we’re able to capture a face and store that image in a temporary database and at a later time when they pass another one of the cameras that’s doing the recognition against this temporary database, that’s when were able to calculate the enrollment time, a subsequent capture time and determine the total traversal time.”

Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC chose SAFR from RealNetworks’ video analytics technology to be used throughout the San Diego - Tijuana terminal in order to optimize operations and improve passenger flow.

The cross border bridge is a hub for many daily situations where technology, process and people work together to create a safe and efficient passenger experience. AI video analytics technology ensures CBX staff have actionable data as they monitor passenger flows and make real-time decisions.

Travelers are wearing facemasks en mass while traveling during the pandemic, but Hess said they’re able to overcome this issue. The SAFR 3.0 program can capture more than 90 percent of faces while wearing a mask.

It also recognizes uniquely identifying characteristics of the face, so they can focus in on those instead of the area covered by the mask.

“Our algorithms have been developed to be able to improve recognition when persons are wearing masks,” he said.

Hess said a couple of cameras needed to be upgraded. The server sits alongside the existing VMS and all it needs to connect with the cameras are their IP address and password information. It can also be pulled directly from existing VMS platforms, which can allow the return of metadata for security officials.

Hess recommended airports looking for a facial recognition software determine what business purpose it would serve, determine if there’s a reason other persons would need to be identified and also understand the government regulations surrounding facial recognition in the community.

Biometrics New Role

Fort Lauderdale International Airport (FLL) recently installed biometric boarding at its gates to better accommodate its travelers. This allows passengers to board aircraft with biometrics at the airport.

Spirit Airlines is the first carrier at FLL to start boarding its international flights using the touchless procedures. Passengers are verified to depart when they step in front of one of new “Biopods” from ICM Airport Technics, an Amadeus company, installed at 14 of Spirit’s traditional departure gates in Terminal 4.

Each Biopod has a high-resolution 3D camera and encrypted connectivity to the CBP Traveler Verification System (TVS), where the image captured at the boarding gate is matched against the images stored by the CBP.

Betros Wakim, senior vice president, Americas, IT, for Amadeus, said the company has focused on creating a frictionless passenger experience from curb to airplane seat for several years.

“The queuing aspect in our airports has been a challenges, especially because of the COVID,” Wakim said. “We’re seeing the strategy they we put together a few years ago is helping us now to solve unanticated problems around us.”

The pandemic has pushed more airports to look at technology to protect travelers. Using touchless technology reduces queuing and keeps people from touching surfaces, therefore reducing the risk of contact with the virus.

“Airports are investing. At the same time, they’re making sure their investment is going to survive past COVID,” Wakims said.

Christopher Forrest, vice president of airport systems for Collins Aerospace, said the first challenge facing airports is keeping travelers safe and still efficient as possible during the curb to gate journey. They can’t add processes with a lot of cost or extra processing time. They also need an adjustable solution to handle the post-COVID world.

“They want the flexibility that if they had increases in passengers they can quickly adapt to that, but not have a permanent infrastructure that isn’t flexible,” Forrest said. “And if they have a decrease in passengers, they can quickly adapt and scale down both their infrastructure and their costs related to passenger traffic.

The industry is accelerating its move to cloud-based computing due in part to the pandemic. Forrest said it’s a more cost-effective solution because it’s a shared infrastructure. It can also change the business model by adjusting costs based on how often the service is used.

“Traditional IT, an infrastructure upgrade could be a four- to nine-month upgrade to upgrade the systems within the airport environment,” Forrest said. “Now with cloud computing, it’s more of a dev-ops. It’s quick upgrades, you can do most of it remote and in a short time.”

RIOgaleão – Tom Jobim International Airport (GIG) uses several Collins systems, such as AirPlan, AirDB, AirVue, PAS (Public Announcement System), VeriPax and BICs (Baggage Input Console). Marcio Sager, operations manager for GIG, said the airport is seeing passenger terminals growing in size and commercial demands associated with the operational aspects increasing. This creates a need for an intelligent behind-the-airport resource allocation. AirPlan provided artificial intelligence that assists and performs the resource allocation based on a pre-defined score registered with the AirPlan rule database.

“This enables you to add all the resource allocation parameters to the database and AirPlan will suggest the best resource allocation,” Sager said. “The capabilities are infinite. Another challenge was to have a system capable of integrating with all other existing technologies at the airport, which proved to be easy and efficient with AirPlan.”

GIG submitted an RFI requesting information from the main providers in the market. After collecting some information, Sager said they were able to submit an RFP, where the main providers did participate. They had four players participating in this so the airport divided the process in three parts:

The first part was based on a compliance matrix, where they asked the providers if they were able to deliver.

GIG asked them to come to the airport to show their product and how they would achieve expectations.

The airport selected two providers and went to airports where their software was already implemented.

After seeing AirPlan in action, with some integrations very similar to what they were look for, GIG made its decision.

RIOgaleão involved all airlines since the first day of the project. Sager said they built a laboratory and all airlines were invited to participate in the project. So when they went to the training phase, it was much easier than expected.

“When it comes to an implementation of this size, we are talking about a change that will impact the routine of more than 17,000 employees at the airport. The biggest challenge is to guarantee that all employees see themselves as part of the change,” Sager said. “Everyone’s engagement is a fundamental part of the success of such a change.

“Another important aspect is to have a change management process that is strong and clear. I believe that clear and transparent communication is the key to success for this project.

Forrest said it’s important airports have robust connectivity in order to utilize cloud computing for its hardware. The advance of 5G and other technology makes this possible and efficient.

Initiatives likes the IATA single token ID will accelerate because of the pandemic. It will also push more services off airport like bag drops. It will reduce operations on site and reduce queues within the terminal.

“I think you’re going to see an acceleration of the full biometric journey,” he said “It’s a more efficient way of getting passengers through the airport, it’s a better passenger experience for those who choose to use it because it’s automated, so you’re not standing in lines waiting for a human interaction and it’s more secure,” he said. “It’s also contactless and you can have that whole journey through the airport fully automated, you’re not handing over any documents. That’s a much safer journey through the airport in a time where people worry about minimizing contact with handing over different documents.”

Forrest said biometrics implementation will take effort from all stakeholders to make it a reality at an airport. The airports, airlines and vendors need to all buy in and commit the training.

An airline partner working with Collins Aerospace on biometric boarding was able to board an A321 with 109 passengers in nine minutes.

“If you think you’re going to have two weeks of training and walk away, it’s never going to work,” he said. “It has to be completely repetitive, months of making sure everyone is following processes and tweaking things that don’t work. The technology is fairly standard, but the implementations all have a uniqueness to them.”

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Editor & Chief

Joe Petrie is the Editorial Director for the Endeavor Aviation Group.

Joe has spent the past 15 years writing about the most cutting-edge topics related to transportation and policy in a variety of sectors with an emphasis on transportation issues for the past 10 years.

Contact: Joe Petrie

Editor & Chief | Airport Business

[email protected]


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