Airports are becoming increasingly well versed in protecting passengers from the virus
The Covid-19 pandemic, and the uncertainty associated with it, has left aviation in an extremely vulnerable position as airlines and stakeholders strive to remain afloat, sums up Joseph Suidan, head of ground operations at IATA.
“The constantly changing and varying local and regional regulations, and the unpredictable flight schedules, are making it difficult for ground handlers to plan the appropriate numbers of resources, supplies and equipment,” he says.
Handlers are doing all they can in this complex and unpredictable environment to ensure the safety of the travelling public.
Dnata regional CEO, Asia Pacific Dirk Goovaerts says: “We introduced enhanced sanitisation processes and increased the cleaning of our facilities, including staff facilities. We also introduced split shifts … to minimise any disruption to our operations.”
Dnata supplies its staff with PPE including masks, gloves and shields. Plastic screens, hand sanitisers and social distancing were all introduced at its check-in desks right from the start of the pandemic.
Goovaerts says: “Check-in is now a longer procedure because we have extra document checks, such as PCR test results.
“We have to work with the airlines, and consider the requirements of different destinations – so the process is now more bespoke. Plus, it can change at any time.”
Transfer passengers are even more complex, he adds. At Singapore Changi Airport, they are subject to more stringent procedures.
“We have to group and escort arriving transfer passengers to a holding area, where they are segregated while they wait for their connecting flight. If you are working with two different airlines, then you also have to make sure the processes of airline A and airline B align,” Goovaerts says.
“The regulator in Singapore is looking at this and the airport is also playing an active role. We all want the few operations we do have to be done properly in order to restore confidence in air travel.”
Dnata has also reduced the capacity of its lounges in order to allow guests to maintain physical distancing. Food is now served as preset individual dining options rather than as a buffet. Plus, the handler has increased cleaning and sanitisation measures, with a focus on high-touch surfaces and lounge employees wear masks and gloves at all times.
Goovaerts says: “We are proactively engaged in early detection, in cooperation with the airport and the regulator. Our front-line staff are tested for Covid every 14 days through the Ministry of Health in Singapore. For some staff involved in aircraft interior cleaning, this has now increased to take place every seven days.”
The pandemic is changing the way the industry operates and causing the loss of valuable expertise due to layoffs and furloughs. Constantly changing flight schedules and short-notice cancellations are having an impact on manpower and other resources.
However, Suidan feels that the ground handling community has proven itself resilient and adaptable.
“They have been at the forefront of the crisis – initially with little in the way of formal procedures for doing tasks that have sometimes never been done before; they have faced uncertainty about the future as jobs and work suddenly contracted; and yet they were always there when needed – they have been true unsung Covid heroes,” he says.
Nor are handling companies unaware of the value of their staff. Highlighting the importance of retaining talent in order to secure the recovery of air travel, Goovaerts outlines some of the measures dnata is taking to support its employees.
He says: “In Australia and Singapore we have redeployed over 1,000 people where there were labour shortages or where demand had increased due to Covid. This includes postal duties to handle the rise in e-commerce, while customer-facing employees such as check-in staff have been redeployed as Covid Ambassadors in the community.
“In Victoria, Australia, we are helping the government by providing administrative staff to work at testing sites and in hotels.”
Dnata is also upskilling its staff to prepare them for deployment in different functions going forward.
“This has mostly focused on customer-centric skills and on embracing technology to ensure we have a large pool of staff available who can use the latest technology,” Goovaerts says.
“Travel is becoming more device driven and we need our staff to be able to assist passengers if they struggle with that.”
On the technology front, automation of the various passenger verification procedures takes some of the burden off the shoulders of ground handling staff – and could help achieve a globally coordinated, more efficient recovery of the industry.
IATA Travel Pass (ITP) is a mobile app that the association is developing to help passengers manage their travel in line with government requirements for Covid-19 testing or vaccine information. Data security, convenience and verification are top priorities.
“ITP does not store any data centrally,” Suidan says. “It simply links entities that need verification (airlines and governments) with test or vaccination data when travel is permitted. It is more secure and efficient than current paper processes used to manage health requirements.”
The ITP will include a registry of travel requirements for all destinations as well as testing and, eventually, vaccination centres. It will also enable authorised labs and test centres to securely send test results or vaccination certificates to passengers.
Several carriers are trialling the ITP, including Emirates and Etihad as well as Copa Airlines; Panama’s government is the first to participate in the trial.
Other tools include SITA’s Health Protect solution, which allows airlines and passengers to submit documents such as test results or vaccination history safely and securely in line with specific government requirements.
Health Protect is compatible with other travel pass or health passport schemes, SITA says. It also incorporates advance passenger processing; passengers without the required documentation, or considered high risk, will be unable to check in.
At the airport, Health Protect integrates with existing passenger processing systems to verify the health status of the traveller at each point in the process using SITA Flex touchless passenger flow monitoring technology.
At Madrid Airport, a facial recognition project is developing into a broader biometric identification programme as the gateway moves towards contactless passenger handling. The technology makes it possible to identify passengers even when they are wearing face masks.
Dnata is also adopting the latest technology as it introduces new services, with a focus on reducing contact points and increasing the confidence of passengers.
Goovaerts says: “Passenger temperature screening was done manually at first but that’s now electronically integrated. Another example is the use of dry mist and UV disinfection for aircraft cabins.
“In Asia Pacific, we will also offer the option of disinfecting baggage to give passengers more peace of mind. In Dubai, DUBZ, dnata’s baggage technology and logistics company, introduced a home check-in solution that has been expanded to include the PCR test.”
These new services are all optional at present, but Goovaerts is keen to stress the importance of considering how changes in customer behaviour – like the increasing use of contactless technology – across other industries could apply to air travel.
Echoing that view, Suidan describes the current pandemic as “a unique opportunity for our industry to adapt and to collaborate with a passion that will drive transformation”.
He adds: “The crisis has really made sure that whatever service is still operating is done in the most efficient way possible. As we restart the industry all efforts should be made to maintain the level of standardisation and simplification that has been achieved for operations under Covid.”
It is likely that the recovery will depend upon a combination of vaccination, pre-travel testing, bio passports and alignment between governments. Goovaerts believes it will start gradually with the establishment of ‘travel bubbles’ (pairs of countries or cities), expanding over time as governments and processes align.
At the time of writing, Changi had in place special travel arrangements for visitors in different categories travelling to or from various destinations; such arrangements are, naturally, subject to change as circumstances develop.
“It’s all about restoring confidence levels,” Goovaerts says. “We need to work closely with airport operators, governments and airlines; an industry approach is needed.”