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Temperature scans, self-serve kiosks, less human contact key in return of air travel

Travelers pick up luggage where signs remind them, with classic Pacific Northwest icons showing the size of two Chinook salmon, to stay six feet apart at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Monday, May 18, 2020, in SeaTac, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Air travel will probably be a more socially distant, do-it-yourself experience, relying on travelers to wear masks, submit to temperature scans and check their own bags, according to a “road map” outlined Tuesday by international aviation experts.

Airports, airlines and health officials will have a role in developing systems to track and contact passengers in the event a traveler is diagnosed with covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; in guaranteeing that people maintain proper physical distance as they move through airports; and in ensuring that the spaces through which they travel are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

The goal of the plan outlined by the International Air Transport Association is to assure a jittery public that once travel restrictions and stay-home orders are lifted, it will be safe to resume flying.

The gradual reopening of air travel requires changes to an industry that for years has thrived on volume. More passengers meant more revenue for airports and airlines. The size of the average airplane seat shrank as airplanes were reconfigured to accommodate more passengers.

But officials, now operating in a world where social distancing has become the norm and where hand sanitizer, gloves and masks are no longer considered extras but essentials, acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic will change the old ways of doing business.

"Meeting this challenge will mean making significant changes across the air travel experience, be it preflight, at the departure airport, on board and post-flight," said Nick Careen, senior vice president for airport, passengers, cargo and security at IATA. "It will require governments to assume broad new responsibilities."

IATA, which represents nearly 300 carriers in 120 countries, has been collaborating with aviation organizations around the world for nearly two months to develop a plan it hopes will be embraced worldwide by governments, airlines and airports. The hope is to finalize details by the end of this month.

"Even as the pandemic continues, the foundations for an industry restart are being laid through close collaboration of the air transport industry with the [International Civil Aviation Organization, the [World Health Organization], individual governments and other parties," Alexandre de Juniac, director general and chief executive of IATA, said Tuesday during a briefing with reporters. "Much work, however, remains to be done."

The Air Canada check-in area is deserted at Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa, Ontario, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic Saturday, May 16, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

By creating uniform guidelines, officials hope to avoid the piecemeal approach that dogged efforts to revamp security in the months and years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The restart will go much more smoothly if governments cooperate," de Juniac said. "As I have said before, we must avoid the mess that followed 9/11 when governments acted unilaterally. This created confusion for airlines and travelers alike. And it took many years to clean up."

At a time when there is no vaccine and significant gaps remain in testing for the novel-coronavirus, Careen said, IATA is recommending a layered approach that relies on technology to reduce the amount of time people spend at the airport, temperature scans and detailed health questionnaires to identify sick travelers, along with social distancing.

Travelers should complete as much as the check-in process as they can before they arrive at the airport - that includes printing boarding passes and bag tags. Airlines should take advantage of self-service kiosks as much as possible to limit person-to-person contact.

IATA is also proposing temperature scans be done as soon as travelers arrive at the airport and potentially, again when they land at their destination if local health officials deem it necessary. Passengers and crew members should also be asked to wear masks both in the airport and while on the airplane. And airport access should be limited to workers, travelers and those critical to a traveler's journey.

Careen said another key to IATA's plan is the need for governments to collect more detailed passenger information to allow better tracking of individuals in the event of an outbreak.

"This is crucial," he said. "Where possible this data should be collected in electronic form and in advance of passengers arriving at the airport."

IATA also said that carriers should consider limiting carry-on baggage as another way to speed boarding and reduce contact aboard the aircraft.

Careen emphasized that many of the proposed measures would be temporary and would be re-evaluated as experts develop new strategies for combating the virus.

IATA officials offered no estimates for how much it would cost to implement such measures, but several airports and airlines have already begun adopting such practices.

Frontier Airlines, for example, recently became the first U.S. airline to announce it would do temperature scans and collect health information from passengers. And airports including San Francisco and Los Angeles International airports recently announced that members of the public would have to wear face coverings when at the airport.