Airport security & COVID-19

Airport security & COVID-19

The acceleration to contactless checkpoint solutions by Kevin Riordan, Head of Checkpoint Solutions

As COVID-19 travel restrictions around the world continue to hold back the recovery of the aviation industry, the focus has been on restoring consumer confidence in flying and ensuring as minimal disruption to travel possible. For airports, adjusting the operating environment and exploring innovative health solutions to protect passengers and staff from potential virus transmission has been a continual process, which is still ongoing.

The priority for airports continues to be minimizing the risk of contagion during the passenger journey through implementing anti-viral measures that limit contact at all possible touchpoints, maintain social distance and minimise face-to-face interaction. Many of these measures are typically deployed in indoor public spaces, such as face coverings, routine sanitization of contact points and COVID-19 testing.

In an airport environment however, the most challenging procedures to adapt take place at the security checkpoint, as the security outcome can never be compromised. Not only do screening processes typically require contact and interaction, but the checkpoint is usually the pressure point in any passenger journey, with bottlenecks making physical distancing difficult.  

Adapt to survive, or innovate to thrive?

As identified by IATA, these challenges can be addressed through the adoption of self-service options at passenger touchpoints, and a “general move towards greater use of touchless technology and biometrics.” Whilst a fully contactless self-service checkpoint is still very conceptual, technologies that already exist and are in development are paving the way to making this a reality. These automated solutions have the potential to support airport recovery by enabling a more contactless checkpoint experience, whilst also creating long-term competitive advantage in enhancing operational agility and security.

Hygiene first

As with all indoor environments ensuring maximum levels of hygiene and cleanliness is critical for giving passengers reassurance. The ICAO recommends that airports enhance cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched and exposed surfaces, including trays at the security checkpoint. While this can be done manually, spray coating protection dissipates over time. A more effective method which provides maximum protection and reduced risk of passing on infection is to deploy UV-C light. The ultraviolet germicidal irradiation used in the process has been deployed in disinfection applications for over a century, most frequently in medical environments and the food sector where sterile work facilities are critical.

UV-C light kits harness this proven technology to kill up to 99.9 percent of disease-causing micro-organisms found on trays as they are transported from the reclaim area back to the divest station, helping to reduce the transmission of illness as passengers pass through security checks. Smiths Detection and Gatwick Airport partnered on a one-month trial of UV-C light kits on a single security lane in July 2020, with the new system being rolled out on five lanes in Gatwick’s North Terminal by the end of September 2020. More recently airports such as Narita International and security authorities such as New Zealand Aviation Security Service (AvSec) have introduced the UV disinfection kits. Narita is installing 62 units, and AvSec 18 units across four of its major airports. At Hamad International Airport (HIA) this UV system is being fast tracked, so that HIA will be one of the first global airports to roll it out across all of its departures and transfers passenger screening lanes later this year.

To ultimately reduce the risk of virus transmission however, airports should go beyond routine disinfection to adopt technologies which support a low-touch and low-interaction environment.

Enabling a low-touch experience with next-generation scanners

With automatic detection capabilities and low false alarm rates, cabin baggage scanners using computer tomography (CT) reduce the need for re-checks and unnecessary interaction between passengers and operators. CT technology generates 3D, volumetric x-ray images, enabling security operators to inspect baggage from every angle. Automatic explosives detection algorithms and automated object recognition software, which can detect prohibited items such as weapons, support operators in making fast and accurate decisions, and when combined can enable alarm- only viewing of x-ray images. With liquids and laptops being allowed to remain in bags during screening, the number of trays handled by both staff and passengers is drastically reduced, reducing the potential for transmission and improving the overall efficiency of the checkpoint process and the security outcome.

The growing adoption of this technology around the globe is great news for passengers, with CT scanners having the potential to drastically cut queue times and create a more frictionless experience at the checkpoint. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example, has rolled out more than 300 CT scanners across US airports, and major hubs such as Heathrow Airport and Hamad International Airport are currently working on implementing CT scanners, allowing passengers to keep laptops and electronic devices in their carry-on bags to minimise touch points during the screening process.

The use of millimetre-wave people screening portals also help to minimise touch points, by reducing the need for full physical pat-downs by identifying specific areas of the body that need to be investigated. Further down the line, these portals could facilitate a reduction in intrusive rechecks by enabling self-clearance, with passengers who have set off the alarms removing any potential trigger items without any involvement of the security operator.

Remote screening

Another solution which directly addresses the need for physical distancing and a low contact operation is remote screening. Enabled by centralized image processing, remote screening allows operators to analyse images in separate rooms away from the checkpoint, reducing passenger and operator interaction as well as queue times through increased operator efficiency. Depending on the scanned images, each tray is either sent straight through to the passenger or automatically diverted to a recheck point. Any suspicious areas are classified on the images so operators in situ can target secondary examinations in a precise manner – speeding up the recheck process and reducing contact with unnecessary items.

To further enhance contactless productivity, an approach known as ‘multiplexing’ can be adopted, which networks images from all security lanes across an airport and sends them to a group of analysts in a central location. This improves throughput by sending an image to the next available analyst, while the previous image is still being analysed by another operator and the corresponding tray is travelling along the decision conveyor. A steady flow of trays can be maintained with no need to stop the belt to wait for the analysts to have finished the image evaluation. With multiplexing comes increased operational agility, as the ratio of operators to lanes can be tailored in line with passenger volumes. This level of flexibility is vital for airport recovery as passenger demand continues to fluctuate.

Rebuilding trust

To restore passenger and employee confidence in the wake of the pandemic, the airport environment has had to be adapted. Headway has been made in creating sanitary conditions but this is going to be an ongoing challenge for airports, especially as passenger numbers begin to rebound. The good news is that there are techniques and technologies that are readily available to promote hygiene and physical distance, without compromising the security process. Indeed, the pandemic represents an opportunity to fast track the adoption of these digitally enabled and automated solutions which both address the demands of the COVID-19 era whilst delivering significant improvements in passenger experience and operational efficiency. If ever there was ever a time to innovate, it is now.

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