The Future of Air Travel is Touchless

Rapidly upgrading airport self-service safety with software

With air travel rapidly nearing pre-pandemic levels and no end in sight for the current crisis, a renewed focus on keeping current and future travelers safe is arriving in the form of sweeping new protocols and practices.

At all levels of government, across industry associations, and at the individual facility level, airports globally have recognized that the air travel process is susceptible to interruptions from public health crises and requires significant upgrades to ensure traveler safety. Many temporary protocols implemented to address COVID-related issues are becoming institutionalized into permanent solutions as airports seek to manage ongoing challenges, prepare for future public health threats, and adapt to permanent changes in traveler concerns and expectations.

Air Travel Needs an Urgent Upgrade

Airport touchscreens show some of the highest levels of bacterial contamination.

While travelers can expect masking and social distancing requirements at least in the near term, a significant movement is afoot to address risks associated with touching shared surfaces. Existing physical and technological infrastructure will require significant changes and upgrades to accommodate this new reality. Science has shown that disinfection of surfaces is only fleeting and temporary, and the potential for transmission of pathogens from touching shared surfaces reaches far beyond COVID. The cost and effort to replace existing systems can be overwhelming, so many airports are looking for upgrades to existing infrastructure to minimize operational disruption and TCO and maximize impact and ROI.

Consensus: Touchless is Inevitable

Security technology firm Genetec recently held a roundtable with representatives from eight major North American airports, and “all panelists unanimously agreed that touchless technology, although costly to implement, is the future of travel.”  One of the top priorities resulting from the IATA’s NEXXT initiative was that “airports and airlines will promote touchless check-in processes by investing in touchless kiosk technology.” Deloitte’s recent analysis of the air travel industry, “How COVID-19 is challenging orthodoxies in airport customer experience” specifically calls out that “passengers are placing greater emphasis on airport cleanliness and expressing a reluctance to engage in processes that require physical touch.” Deloitte’s summary concludes that facility cleanliness will likely be top of mind for travelers, from check-in and security to boarding their flight and that “no touch may be the new priority for self-service kiosks and other passenger-facing technologies.” The authors make special note: “We expect to see similar shifts in behavior in air travel, with passengers placing greater emphasis on things like airport cleanliness, and potential reluctance to engage with technologies or processes that require physical touch.”

We expect to see ... shifts in behavior in air travel, with passengers placing greater emphasis on things like airport cleanliness, and potential reluctance to engage with technologies or processes that require physical touch.

Traveler Privacy is Paramount

An increased interest in biometrics is touted as a potential solution, but airports across the globe have grappled with rolling out biometric passenger processing technologies in the wake of growing privacy concerns. Airports are not alone in these concerns. 6 Flags announced a $36mm settlement in June of 2021 for unauthorized collection of fingerprint scans at a theme park in Illinois. The notable takeaway here was that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that “an individual need not allege some actual injury or adverse effect, beyond violation of his or her rights” in order to qualify as an “aggrieved” person under [the Biometric Information Privacy Act of Illinois], and be entitled to damages and other relief. McDonalds also recently found itself in court for illegally collecting consumer biometric information in violation of the same act. These are examples from just one U.S. state - more prominent acts like the CCPA and GDPR are already proving to be significant challenges to rolling out biometric-based touchless solutions.

Software-based Touchless Is Becoming the New Standard

Many carriers have taken the lead and embraced this direction already. United, for example, has created an entirely touchless bagtag printing process, and JetBlue is letting customers use their own phones as remotes for in-flight entertainment instead of having to touch the shared surfaces.

JetBlue lets customers use their own smartphone to interact touchlessly with in-flight entertainment seatback touchscreens.

These changes are elevating traveler expectations for this kind of interactivity. However, with each carrier implementing their own solution, there is a high potential for inconsistent customer experiences throughout the travel process. Also, carriers typically have access to significant internal development resources and can leverage their own proprietary apps, which leaves most airports looking for third-party solutions for common-use touchpoints and shared infrastructure.

Freetouch Provides Touchless CUSS Kiosk Conversion Today

At Freetouch, our touchless interaction solution helps airports meet these urgent needs today. With our software-based product, existing touch-based infrastructure can be converted to touchless in minutes. For example, we’re working with a variety of teams globally to help quickly convert Common-use Self-Service (CUSS) kiosks to touchless without the need to install new hardware or to modify enclosures. Unlike some proprietary solutions provided by kiosk manufacturers, Freetouch does not require that travelers join the airport WiFi network, greatly increasing traveler throughput and reducing frustration (although it works just fine on airport WiFi as well). Software-based touchless lets travelers use their own device with a near-zero learning curve, and requires no modifications to existing software platforms aside from installing the Freetouch software. Freetouch is also fully CCPA and GDPR compliant, providing a secure means of accessing connected displays without exposing personally-identifiable information, avoiding the pitfalls of biometrics. And Freetouch isn’t limited to touchless CUSS kiosks, either — it can be used for wayfinding, QSR, digital signage, and more, with the benefit of providing a consistent user experience across all systems it is installed on.

As airports move quickly to implement permanent new solutions to keep travelers safe and moving quickly, Freetouch can be the first and simplest step towards a new touchless future.