The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently released criteria for the use of Covid-19 testing. IATA dictates that testing must deliver results fast, be able to be conducted at scale, and operate to very high rates of accuracy. Additionally, testing must be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel. In the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) latest industry restart guidance, Takeoff, the body outlines layers of measures, including testing, to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission during air travel.
Technology for rapid point-of-care Polymerized Chain Reaction (PCR) testing could be a useful layer of protection for travellers from countries considered as higher risk, suggests IATA. Both IATA and ICAO see testing as an attractive alternative to quarantine measures, which will put passengers off air travel.
“Airlines are committed to reducing the risks of Covid-19 transmission via air travel and Covid-19 testing could play an important role,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s CEO. “But it must be implemented in line with ICAO’s global re-start guidance with the aim of facilitating travel. Speed, scale and accuracy are the most critical performance criteria for testing to be effectively incorporated into the travel process.”
Ideally, testing would be required in advance of arrival at the airport and within 24 hours of travel, says IATA. Passengers arriving “ready-to-fly” reduces the risk of contagion in the airport and enables early re-accommodation for any traveller who tests positive. If testing is required as part of the travel process, it is recommended at departure. Governments would need to mutually recognise test results and data transmission should take place directly between passengers and governments in a similar manner as e-visa clearances are currently handled.
Cost is also an important consideration. Testing should facilitate travel and not provide an economic barrier. With testing at some European destinations costing in excess of $200, this is a real concern for IATA. Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) requires governments to bear the costs of mandatory health testing. Where a test is offered on a voluntary basis, it should be charged at cost price.
Arriving at the Airport
Abu Dhabi International Airport has led the way when it comes to investing in new technologies to ensure passengers and employees are protected from the virus. Few other airport operators have adapted their processes and even their infrastructure to meet the new set of passenger demands. Abu Dhabi Airports has pulled in partners from all over the world to come up with innovative new solutions including AI motion sensors, touch-free elevator controls and robots that sanitise aircraft cabins.
General precautionary measures at Abu Dhabi International include thermal screening at passenger and staff entrances, free PCR testing for passengers and employees, workforce cluster management and regular risk assessments, enforcement of social distancing guidelines and roster realignment to ensure ample staffing at all times, in addition to the frequent sterilisation of workspaces and common areas throughout airport facilities.
On top of all that however, the airport has made some key investments. Notably, the operator installed touchless technology across 53 elevators to prevent cross-infection from elevator buttons. The touchless keypad technology, or Tchk, was designed and manufactured by Meta Touch, a UAE-based health and safety technology start-up. Tchk is a touchless control panel that allows users to command an elevator without physically pressing any buttons, by simply waving their hands in front of the panel to indicate the desired floor or direction.
Abu Dhabi Airports has also introduced a new robot designed to disinfect areas and sterilise aircraft cabins. The airport operator partnered with Tawazun Strategic Development Fund (TSDF) to launch the new CoDi BOT UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle), which is manufactured by UAE-based Marakeb Technologies. CoDi BOT UGV was first piloted in staff areas and cargo facilities as well as on aircraft. Specifically ensuring aircraft cabins are kept clean and sterile, the CoDi BOT UGV is designed to be able to manoeuvre through airplane cabins while being controlled remotely. The BOT has three central functions including targeting of virus strains on surfaces with controlled bursts of germicidal UV rays; screening of individual through thermal infrared monitoring; and disinfection of areas using liquid cleaning agents.
“Introducing CoDi BOT UGV at Abu Dhabi International Airport reflects our commitment to adopting innovative technology, which can bolster the protection of our passengers and frontline staff against viruses,” says Shareef Hashim Al Hashmi, CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports. “The acute impact of the pandemic would have heightened our overall sense of awareness toward hygiene, and as vital piece of public infrastructure, we have a clear responsibility to ensure our spaces remain clear of any virus threat.”
The Passenger Journey
Working closely alongside Abu Dhabi Airports, national carrier Etihad Airways has adjusted numerous parts of the passenger journey in an effort to boost customer confidence and encourage people to return to air travel. The airline says it has “completely transformed the travel experience” which includes changes both on-board aircraft and when passengers arrive at Abu Dhabi International.
Passengers can expect social-distancing signage, thermal cameras, surface swab technology, self-cleaning escalator hand rails and touch-free elevator buttons at the airport. Face masks are compulsory and new PPE vending machines have been installed at Abu Dhabi International so passengers can access masks before flights.
Passengers will undergo a self-service check-in and health screening system called Fit to Fly, which reads a traveller’s respiratory system, heart rate and temperature. The boarding process has also been adapted so that passengers board row-by row so there no queues. Etihad is also partnering with Austrian-based healthcare technology company Medicus AI to launch a Covid-19 risk-assessment app that allows passengers to check their probability of having contracted coronavirus by responding to a set of 22 questions.
Greeting passengers at the airport will be Etihad’s ‘wellness ambassadors’, who are employed to provide support throughout the passenger’s journey. The ambassadors are able to advise on each stage of the customer journey including culinary hygiene, aircraft cabin deep-cleaning, check-in, health screening, boarding, in-flight experience, crew interaction, arrival, and ground transportation.
Meanwhile, in the airport, Etihad has become the first airline to trial Covid-19 ‘self-checking’ devices at key touchpoints such as check-in and security. The system, developed by Australian tech firm Elenium Automation, automatically suspends the self-service check-in or bag drop process if a passenger’s vital signs indicate potential symptoms of illness. It then alerts staff on-site, who can make further assessments. Elenium has also developed hands-free technologies that enable touchless use of self-service devices through voice recognition, further minimising the potential of any viral or bacterial transmission.
While the technology has been brought in in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, such a device could help curb the spread of other diseases in the future and contribute to a safer aviation industry, Etihad says.
Emirates says it has taken multi-faceted measures for employee and customer care throughout the travel journey. The airline has introduced complimentary hygiene kits to be given to every passenger upon check-in at Dubai International Airport. These kits comprise of masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser.
Gloves and masks are mandatory for all customers and employees at the airport in Dubai, while only masks are mandated on Emirates flights. On arrival at the airport, thermal scanners at various areas monitor the temperatures of all passengers and employees. Physical distancing indicators have been placed on the ground and at waiting areas to help travellers maintain the necessary distance at check-in, immigration, boarding and transfer areas. The airport team has also installed protective barriers at each check-in desk and immigration counter to provide additional safety reassurance to passengers and employees during interaction over the counter.
Emirates’ boarding sequence has been staggered and passengers board by row, from the last row to the first, in small numbers. The waiting area has also been modified to ensure all customers observe social distancing. Emirates boarding agents, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE), will facilitate the boarding sequence. The boarding gates are deep cleaned and disinfected after the boarding of every flight.
All cabin crew on-board are fully kitted out in PPE. Emirates has also added a cabin service assistant (CSA) to the crew complement on flights over 1.5 hours. The CSAs will ensure lavatories are cleaned at frequent intervals of every 45 mins. Each lavatory has been equipped with sanitising soap and hand washing instructions.
To minimise the risk of infection by touch, magazines and print reading material has been removed. Comfort items such as mattresses, pillows, blankets, headphones and toys are being hygienically sealed. Cabin baggage has to be checked-in and customers can only bring essential items such as a laptop, handbag, briefcase or baby items on board.
Each of Emirates’ aircraft is going through an enhanced cleaning and disinfection process after every journey. And to safeguard its employees, Emirates’ flight and cabin crew are provided with cars for pick up and drop off at their home at the beginning and end of their duty.
“Emirates is implementing a comprehensive set of measures at every step of the traveller’s journey, to enhance the sanitisation of all touchpoints, and ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees,” said Adel Al Redha, Emirates’ chief operating officer.
“The risk of catching an infection on an aircraft is already very low, but we have spared no effort in reviewing and redesigning every step, from check-in to disembarkation. Every measure implemented is an additional reduction in risk, and taken altogether, our aim is really to make flying as safe as possible.
“We are working with all the stakeholders in Dubai - including the airport, immigration, health and aviation authorities to implement such measures, and we will continue to review and consult expert advice for any development and changes. We are all aware that we have to adapt to different practices during this pandemic in our day to day activities.”