December 6, 2023

Fast track

Extra checks will be required as air travel resumes but technology is helping to counteract any disruption, says Gary Noakes

Business travellers who breezed through empty airports during the pandemic must be dreading the return of normality and the crowds that will follow. The good news, however, is that technology is making getting moving again more seamless and less stressful.

Negotiating immigration control on return to the UK has been a challenge during the Covid crisis but the UK Government is due to finish upgrading e-Gates by the autumn, when corporate travel is expected to restart in a meaningful way.

According to a Government spokesperson, upgraded digital gates will then recognise Passenger Locator Forms and pre-departure test certificates. London City airport had upgraded all its e-Gates by July but bigger airports were still completing changes.

While Border Force deals with incoming passengers, airlines must process those departing and develop systems to do so.

“Carriers will play a critical role, checking passengers’ documents before boarding and ensuring people have the right Covid-19 certification,” said the Government spokesperson.

The whole departure and arrival process will take longer but there are ways travellers can make some up some of this lost time.

For British Airways passengers, the luxury of checking in their bags at the airline’s London Paddington station desks disappeared after 9/11 but Covid has prompted BA to revive this concept for Heathrow Express customers, who can drop their luggage on train platforms and get it taken straight to Terminal 5.

The new fast bag-drop is free to passengers who have checked in at home but is initially only available between 05.00 and 10.00. BA said it would continue to look at options for bag-drop areas “at other key locations”.

The stop-gap measure is in response to the extra time needed to check Covid credentials. BA’s partner on this, Airportr, is testing whether London Underground locations could also be used to alleviate queuing at terminals.

Airportr screens travel documents and tags bags, storing them in secure cages before shipping them airside. It also offers BA passengers baggage collection and check-in from home or the office up to 24 hours before the flight (from £19), in an area spanning Guildford, Oxford, Watford and Greater London – something Airportr feels will be in demand once airports fill again.

Its founder Randel Darby believes Covid prompted the beginning of the end of legacy airport processes. “If you look at trends coming from the pandemic, it’s e-commerce, home delivery and logistics. They appeal to consumers not previously engaged with delivery solutions,” he said.

Ground handlers, airports and airlines are examining long-term developments, shocked into action by the pandemic. The need to fast-forward integration of health credentials with bookings was one example, Darby said.

“The pace with which this is happening is really surprising. People would have laughed five years ago. In the near future the journey can be entirely contactless.”

The pandemic’s legacy means more passengers will arrive at airports readier to fly, having undertaken extra procedures at home that digital systems enable. “It all lends itself to the trend of doing it before you travel. You will be able to confirm your digital ID from home, check in, send bags, book a shared ride and proceed through a designated security channel,” said Darby.

For Airportr the next stage, from late September, is a luggage delivery service for inbound passengers using a digital customs declaration that will permit passengers to “entirely bypass” baggage reclaim.

Contactless travel is the new trend and while many airports already match boarding passes to travellers’ photographs taken at security, facial recognition technology is a step further, removing the need for handlers to check that faces match photos.

ANA introduced Face Express in July at Tokyo’s Narita airport for passengers using automatic bag check-in.

Travellers are photographed by the kiosk, allowing them to pass through Security and board without presenting their ticket. Following trials on Narita-Mexico City, ANA plans to offer the facility at Haneda airport and on other international services.

If Covid has prompted some radical innovations, others are more mundane.

Airlines are way behind theme parks, attractions, and retail in offering virtual queuing, but it’s coming. This summer BA completed trials of an intelligent queuing technology from Qmatic, which allows passengers to pre-book a timed check-in slot before they travel to the airport. The system is already used by the Post Office and during the trial BA passengers who had not booked a slot either proceeded as normal or joined the virtual queue by scanning a QR code.

All these things will chip away at the extra time needed to pass through airports post-pandemic. It is not all good news, however. From October, Heathrow will impose a £5 drop-off fee at terminal forecourts for all vehicles, including taxis and private hires, meaning the only free option will be in Heathrow’s long stay car parks, which entail a bus transfer to the terminal. Picking up at terminal forecourts is already forbidden.

The airport said the fee will help alleviate the £5 million a day lost during the pandemic, but as travel resumes it might well be this new development that frequent travellers remember, not all that new technology speeding their progress.