April 24, 2024

Falling out of contact

The shift towards touchless travel is accelerating amid the pandemic. Gill Upton outlines the latest developments

Return-to-travel strategies are taking many shapes and forms but two items prevail: duty of care to the traveller and minimising human and machine interaction. It seems the post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’ is seeing an acceleration towards innovative and digital transformation strategies which redefine hotel, car, airport and airline experiences for travellers.

Industry observers hope new contactless technology will help restore confidence in the battered travel industry.

“We’re seeing a drive for touchless across all aspects of life but especially in travel, and in every category of travel from air to hotels to car rentals,” says Mark McSpadden, VP Global Product Strategy and Experience for American Express Global Business Travel.

Airports are installing AI and biometric-powered face recognition and thermal sensing for a seamless, hygienic customer experience. Star Alliance member airlines in Europe launched a biometric programme in the summer which negates the need for passengers to show their passport or boarding pass at the airport. Their biometric identity will travel with them to any airport or on any airline within the alliance.

Airlines including Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss and KLM have instigated electronic bag tag technology, which has removed passenger check-in from the airport. Lufthansa has taken it one step further with a contactless bag tracing service at selected German airports for passengers to report delayed luggage. The service uses technology from SITA and early trials showed two-thirds of passengers opted to use the service instead of visiting a baggage counter.

Emirates has introduced 16 self-service bag drop machines and eight self-service kiosks at Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport.

The kiosks will be continually upgraded to offer new features, including going touchless and enabling customers to make rebookings on their own. More self-service facilities are also planned in the coming months.

In early October, Lyon Saint Exopery Airport became the world’s first airport to introduce facial recognition technology which allows passengers to complete the entire airport journey (except for border control) without physical contact.

Called Mona, travellers download a free app to their smartphone and use dedicated lanes to pass through the airport – from bag drop to boarding – simply by showing their face. Developed in close collaboration with the French Civil Aviation Authority, the airport’s operator, VINCI, has launched a one-year trial for passengers travelling through the airport with Transavia (on flights to Porto) and TAP Air Portugal (on flights to Lisbon). If successful, travellers can expect to see it rolled out to VINCI’s other 44 airports worldwide, which are mostly in France and Portugal but also include London Gatwick and Belfast in the UK.

Of course, there was a shift towards touchless before Covid. Delta Air Lines launched a virtual queuing feature on its app, which lets passengers know when their seat is boarding. Etihad and Avalon Airport in Australia trialled contactless technologies to control self-service devices using head movement rather than touching a screen.

The touchless experience at Heathrow was already underway with increased use of biometric e-gates and trials of 3D security scanners to reduce the need for bag search, for example. It is also looking into technologies that would remove the need for passengers to touch self-service check-in machines, allowing them to control the kiosks from their phones.

“We understand that it is likely that post-Covid there will be a new normal, one which prevents a pandemic of this scale from ever occurring again,” says Steve Armitage, Head of Technology, Design and Integration at Heathrow. “To achieve this with minimal impact to the airport experience, technology will need to play an even greater role. New technology will be key to helping us provide a touchless experience.”

“We’re seeing a drive for touchless across all aspects of life but especially in travel, and in every category of travel from air to hotels to car rentals”

Armitage believes that in the future there will be a Common International Standard for security screening, similar to the processes in place for security. “These will work together to screen passengers for diseases like Covid and reduce risks of transmission to help restore confidence in flying,” he says.


Hotels have long gone down the touchless travel route, with global operators including Hilton providing a digital contactless experience for touchpoints such as check-in and room keys. For a number of years Premier Inn has offered check-in kiosks where guests can self-check and obtain their room keycard. What’s coming next are mobile apps to open the guestroom door, control room temperature, adjust the lights, operate the TV and order room service.

Amex GBT’s McSpadden expects to see independent hotels adopt new technology. ”Platforms such as Vouch can provide digital concierge services that don’t require an app, so a larger spectrum of properties can provide digital solutions,” he says.

Car rental

Car rental companies have also been heading in the same direction. Avis for example, began the touchless journey in 2018 with its app’s self-service functionality.

“This started our trend to provide an increasingly contactless and touchless rental experience, by reducing the amount of time it takes for a customer to collect their rental keys and time spent at the counter,” explains Jeanette Harper, Director Travel and Partnerships, Avis Budget Group.

“With the Avis App, Preferred customers can book and manage their rental through their smart device, including changing or upgrading their rental at the very last minute, choosing the make and model they want and, if their plans change, extending or cancelling their rental.”

Over the last 12 months the company has piloted 3D imaging of vehicles to automate the process of inspecting the vehicle for damage, freeing the customer to get on with their trip. It means that customers in connected cars can bypass the exit gate and don’t need an attendant to check the car back in upon return. The data is then automatically sent to the accounting system and a bill is generated electronically in near real time. This summer the group launched digital check-in, an online service enabling customers who book direct to spend less time at the counter. Avis Budget is also piloting WhatsApp and phone check-in.

Enterprise is making similar moves, explains Adrian Bewley, AVP European Business Rental, Enterprise Holdings.

“Our LaunchPad tablet technology used in every Enterprise branch enables employees to conduct speedy and socially-distanced rental transactions outside a branch or at any external location, even without WiFi, to offer a low-touch kerbside service,” he said.

‘Key rental information is pre-loaded and vital data on vehicle condition and customer options speeds up the collection process and reduces the need for contact.”

Renters have low and no-touch rental options, such as advanced check-in at neighbourhood locations using SMS texts and enhanced kerbside and delivery processes.


Adoption of contactless corporate payments has been slow to date but Covid may well convert the cynics away from card readers, keypads or pens. In a BCD survey in May, 67% of 1,260 business travellers rated contactless payment systems as the most important regulatory measure to aid safe travel amid Covid-19.

Encouragingly, the share of contactless transactions made on all Bank of America-issued corporate cards in Europe rose by 30% year on year in the second quarter of 2020. The fact that payment card networks raised the amount limits for contactless payment transactions during Covid-19 has helped the conversion.

“What’s coming next are mobile apps to open the guestroom door, control room temperature”

In the long term it is predicted that virtual cards will be the default payment. AirPlus believes that its virtual card, A.I.D.A, will overshadow its plastic card and lodge card to be its biggest product. Virtual payments could also revolutionise traveller expenses as they can be sent to a digital wallet, making reconciliation more seamless.

That a virtual card can be sent to an app and payment made via a phone via Apple Pay neatly bridges the gap between a physical and virtual card and may help conversion. The Conferma Pay app, for example, allows payments using ApplePay or GooglePay.

But incorporating hi-tech into a travel programme requires strong IT/Compliance partnership and a robust comms plan, says McSpadden. “Ensuring internal security and compliance teams are aware and comfortable with the technology and its data and privacy implications is key to bringing these features to travellers. It’s important they know what’s available to them and the benefits.”