After Major COVID-Related Setbacks, The Air Travel Industry Turns to Technology

The Virtual Information Assistant at the Miami International Airport allow passengers to speak with a live agent through a screen located at information counters. Photo obtained from the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.

Greer Jackson, Reimagined Futures for Howard University News Service

When freelance photographer Ricardo Nelson travelled to Mexico City for a shoot in February last year, the COVID19 pandemic was in its beginning stages.

He returned to New York, where he was living at the time, in early March.

“I remember coming back, the plane was like, very empty,” he said.

Nelson was concerned that it might be difficult to get back into the country, based on what he was reading in the news and feedback from friends. To his surprise, the process was relatively painless.

“The customs guy goes, ‘Where are you coming from?’ And I was like ‘Mexico City’, and he was like ‘Oh, I hope you had some good tequila.’ And I was like- that’s it? That was it.”

Shortly after Nelson’s return, he realized something was wrong.

“When I got back to New York, by the second day, I was like okay, I need to get tested. And I tried to get up and couldn’t. And I was like, well, clearly something’s going on here. So I just kind of quarantined for two weeks. I was sicker than I’ve ever been in my life.”

His doctor later confirmed that based on the time period, he likely contracted the coronavirus at the airport.

Nelson has travelled since recovering from the virus – and so have millions of Americans and people worldwide. Experts say that the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a plane is relatively low as long as airlines ensure passengers are screened, that they wear masks and they’re appropriately spaced out on board. However, despite stringent health measures being put in place, there are ongoing concerns for safety and virus control, resulting in a major decline in the number of people travelling. And as the aviation industry recovers from the impact of the pandemic, emerging technologies could be the answer to its revival.

Air Travel’s Worst Year

“2020 was the absolute worse year the airline industry has ever had,” said Perry Flint, head of corporate communications (North America) at the International Air Transport Association.



IATA is the trade association for the global airline industry, which currently represents 290 airlines, or 82 percent of total air traffic. Its activities involve formulating industry policy on critical aviation issues and collaborating with other international air transport organizations to solve problems within the airline industry.

IATA estimates that the industry lost $118.5 billion.

“You’re basically saying the market has shrunk down to 20 percent, or less than a quarter of what it was in 2019,” Flint said. “There’s absolutely no comparison to anything. Not the global financial crisis. Nothing compares to that.”

 Turning to Technology

In its white paper “A New Normal”: The Changing Face of Air Transport Post Covid 19, The Societé Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronotiques (SITA) hints at how crucial technology will be in the industry’s recovery. SITA is the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology.

“During the recovery and beyond, the smooth, efficient and safe flow of passengers means increased social distancing. Digital technologies will play a critical role in meeting these new requirements,” it said.

Technology has already been revolutionizing the aviation industry for the past several decades: from apps used to book flights and check in, to the self-service kiosks and digital flight displays at airports.

Nathan Sims, an aviation systems project manager at engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, believes that the pandemic provides an opportunity to build on these technologies, especially through enhanced use of artificial intelligence.

“I think right now, the stakes are extremely high. And AI in particular, when you start looking at the data driven nature of an airport operation, it’s critical,” he said.

While AI can seem like a complex concept, Sims explained that fundamentally, it’s all about one key element: data.

“To put it into perspective, if you took a globe that could represent the field of AI, and then narrow it down, you could see machine learning as a subset of that,” Sims said. “So machine learning wants to analyze a vast amount of big data. And it produces various data models, and the intent behind it is to see patterns and predict some outcomes to help optimize the operation in the physical world.”

Sims referred to examples of familiar technologies that make use of this data, such as Google Maps, social media, and virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon Alexa.

“These same kinds of concepts are being brought and applied to the airport to make travel safer and more enjoyable,” he said.

He also spoke about the concept of a digital twin, which is a virtual 3D replica of a physical asset.

“It can be applied to the entire airport, or it can be applied to a terminal facility, or a cargo facility. And it’s built from these large cumulated real time data models,” he said, explaining that information from the replica can be used to optimize airport facilities.

“Right now, in a pandemic, we always think about levels of comfort in a public space. As you know, people are a lot more focused on how we make this environment cleaner and safer for passengers. So the digital twin can be used for operational purposes or situational awareness.” Digital twin technology has already been implemented at airports such as Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and Hong Kong International Airport. Recently, SITA developed a digital twin of New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

So what exactly do these new technologies mean for the passenger experience throughout the travel journey?

Airports such as Miami International (MIA) are currently implementing data driven technologies, some of which may not be obvious to passengers. The TSA wait time system, for example works behind the scenes to ensure that airports are better able to handle passenger flow. While this is not a new technology, MIA spokesperson Indira Almeida-Pardillo suggests that its use cases have increased since the pandemic began.

“It gives us the possibility of studying the distance between passengers and that way, we’re able to determine how many passengers are in a checkpoint, and given the distance or the length of the checkpoint, we’re able to determine the waiting time,” she explained.

Others such as the Virtual Information Assistant allow passengers to speak with a live agent through a screen located at information counters, thereby reducing the amount of physical contact needed.

“These are monitors that will transform the traditional customer service experience for the traveling public,” Almeida-Pardillo said.

Digital Health Passports

As more countries announce that proof of a negative COVID test or immunization against the virus is required upon entry, digital health passports are becoming a hot topic.

A digital health passport is an app or online certification that can give passengers information on a country’s testing requirements and where they can go to get a test, while also allowing them to display their health data, such as test results and immunizations, to authorities.

Many variants of this application have been developed and tested so far and will allow passengers to download them onto their mobile devices at no cost. IATA’s version, ‘Travel Pass’, uses blockchain technology to securely store a passenger’s health records. Data on a blockchain is stored via cryptography, where each participant has their own private key that acts as a personal digital signature. Any record data that is altered or tampered with becomes invalid and this activity is flagged as suspicious.

“So you will have this on your phone, and you’ll say ok, I’m going to the UK, what do I need? It’ll tell you,” Flint said. Currently, about 20 airlines have announced they will be accepting the IATA Travel Pass, including Etihad Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

UK-based cyber technology company VST enterprises was one of the first companies to develop and test a digital health passport. CEO Louis-James Davis believes that their iteration, the V-Health Passport, has one big advantage over others: it doesn’t rely on barcodes or QR codes- rather, it uses authentication technology that they themselves have developed: VCode.

“We’ve invented every part of our solution. Because we are the issuer of the VCode, and we are the centralized system that manages all the different codes, nobody can decode it separately,” said Davis.

VCode was initially developed for digital payment mechanisms and identity verification, which would allow users to store personal effects like bank cards, health details and tickets. When the pandemic hit, the company built on this technology to create their health passport.

“We’ve created a technology that has been made for modern age smartphones, whereas QR codes and barcodes were invented before smartphones existed,” Davis continued, explaining that all it takes for vulnerable information to be exposed via a barcode or QR code is to scan it with the wrong reader.

“It doesn’t leak any personal information to the general public,” Davis said of the VHealth passport, adding that each authority you present your pass to will only see information based on the permissions they have. “If you worked for an airline, it would only show the person’s picture, their name, their[JGC2]  passport number and also the boarding pass,” he added.


As promising as these technologies are, challenges exist.

Widespread adoption of the digital health passport, for example, will have to involve coordination between the many providers.

“Any number of different entities are involved in it; the World Health Organization is developing their standards. The key thing is to have the standard in place so that everyone can develop,” said Flint.

Still, he went on to explain that because of the need, people can expect faster progress with these technologies like the digital health passport.

“ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization] is working on the standard for the digital passport, WHO is working on the digital vaccination they call the smart certificate. We’re doing pilots with a number of airlines…. It usually takes a crisis to move a lot of these standard-setting exercises forward.”

Sims agrees, adding that “it’s a true partnership between government and private industry when we’re talking about fielding new technologies.”

As far as privacy concerns, Sims says that most data used for AI-driven applications is not personal identifiable information.

“Outside of totalitarian governments, these fears are misguided because privacy by design principles are employed,” he said. “A more likely event is a data breach, so passengers should compare the risk of using biometric facial comparison to using social media apps or online banking.”

Some travelers, like Nelson, see technology like the digital health passport as a major convenience, and view the potential privacy concerns as nothing new, given the amount of information that we surrender to tech companies on a daily basis.

“Having a dedicated portal to show my results would actually be very helpful,” he said. “And I’m not too concerned about privacy, because I use social media. I know how that works.”

Still, not everyone is convinced that this is an optimal solution. Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which champions user privacy, sees both medical and ethical issues associated with digital health passports.

“Since the vaccine is not widely available yet, you don’t want to create a sense of safety that’s not actually there, especially if a person is traveling internationally,” she said.

Additionally, having medical information available on digital devices is outside the context of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law designed to prevent disclosure of sensitive patient health information by entities subject to the privacy rule.

“The vaccine passport solutions that we’ve seen are mainly through private entities and companies. Having medical data sync with private companies could be correlated with other pieces of private information that you may have [online], because of the fact that we don’t have uniform privacy laws across the board,” Hancock continued. ­­

She highlighted a major data leak that occurred in Singapore, where the health details of more than 14,000 HIV positive individuals were released in a data breach.

“There’s also the fact that not everyone uses smartphones or can obtain an up-to-date model of a smartphone,” she added. “There is a convenience factor in being able to present something digitally, and that’s up to the user. But when it comes to something that’s mandated or required, that’s when we’re worried.”

The alternative? U­­­­­sers should have a choice.

“I hope that there are paper options for people who aren’t comfortable with storing the medical information on their phones,” she said, noting that even sophisticated technologies like blockchain don’t guarantee security. “I think we should focus more on public health measures and public resources to help the public feel better about being vaccinated, help them be informed about being vaccinated, rather than establishing permanent digital systems,” she continued.

 Looking Ahead

Experts estimate that it could be a while before the industry recovers from the many setbacks it has been experiencing.

“Honestly, right now, we don’t see passenger numbers coming back until 2023,” Flint said. “And we don’t see traffic coming back until 2024.”

Even as airlines continue to adopt new measures to handle this crisis, the importance of individual passenger responsibility cannot be underscored enough.

“I think we’re all cautious about our own health. And I think that the ultimate responsibility falls indeed on us as individuals,” said Almeida-Pardillo. “I know at the beginning, it’s going to be hard because we need to get used to that. But we’re parents, we’re sisters, we’re daughters, and we want our family to be safe; to be in a safe environment. So we all have to get adapted pretty quickly.”