How Technology Could Transform Post-Pandemic Travel
The coronavirus brought global business and leisure travel to an almost total standstill. But now restrictions are beginning to lift, the travel and tourism sector is looking to lure people back to the skies. However, things are not going to be the same. Ellen Daniel finds out more
Technology has already changed how travellers plan, book and embark on their journeys drastically over the past decade. Long gone are the days of booking through a travel agent before being issued a physical boarding pass, with travellers now able to coordinate almost every aspect of a trip from a smartphone.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the travel and tourism sector like never before.
Once lockdown restrictions are fully lifted, many will be eager to travel internationally once more. However, the world of travel will likely be very different to the one they remember.
So what could travelling look like in the wake of the pandemic?
Thanks to the likes of Airbnb and Skyscanner, booking holidays and flights has never been simpler, with cheap airfares facilitating last-minute city breaks.
However, considering the potential health risks now associated with travel, it is likely that you may choose to travel less often, taking greater care to research not only the local tourist attractions, but any Covid-19-related restrictions when you do.
“AR will be a way to enhance and extend their offerings to new markets and audiences. It will open up new channels of communication, engagement and feedback.”
Glenn Gillis, CEO of Sea Monster, believes that immersive technology may become part of this:
"For travel operators, AR will be a way to enhance and extend their offerings to new markets and audiences. It will open up new channels of communication, engagement and feedback ‒ giving you data to inform your future business strategy.
"One advantage of technology for the tourism industry is that it allows you to more carefully sculpt your experiences for specific sets of users or markets. AR will become integral to both the planning and marketing of all travel."
The booking process
With over 50% of global international travel trips cancelled or changed due to travel restrictions, according to GlobalData’s Covid-19 consumer survey, when booking a trip in the future, it is likely that you'll pay much closer attention to what could go wrong.
Travellers may take greater care to ensure they are insured, and may prioritise the ability to easily cancel plans in the event of future disease outbreaks.
This may in turn see the rise of travel tech startups offering increased flexibility and reassurance.
For example, British fintech start-up Fly Now Pay Later, which allows users to pay for trips in flexible monthly installments using the Fly Now Pay Later app, announced last month that it had raised £35m in Series A equity and debt funding.
“The biggest change will be that flexibility will be much higher up their agendas.”
Another startup, TravelPerk, has introduced FlexiPerk, which allows the users to cancel or change for any reason, and if they do, they get at least 80% of their money back.
“Post-Covid, business travellers will have a different set of priorities,” says Avi Meir, co-founder and CEO of TravelPerk.
“The biggest change will be that flexibility will be much higher up their agendas. The pandemic has amplified the unpredictability of travel, and future waves of the virus could disrupt movement again.
“The industry needs solutions that are tailored to this new reality; traditional ‘flexible fares’ are just too expensive, often costing 60% more than the standard fare, while typical refund processes are drawn-out and complex.“
The deployment of travel technology has been impacting the travel industry for the last decade, but adoption will likely accelerate amongst many travellers, with a new focus on hygiene and social distancing on top of convenience.
According to research by GlobalWebIndex, although holidays are the top priority in terms of post-outbreak purchases, consumers have reservations about travelling again.
11% of UK and US consumers said that immunity passports would boost their travel confidence, while one in four said a contact-free boarding process would encourage them to travel.
“Travel in the Covid-19 era has been marked by frustrations such as short-notice cancellations, rearranging plans and difficulty in getting hold of information.”
Smartphone apps will likely be an integral part of this, both in keeping passengers updated on things that may affect their journey, and country-specific rules they may need to be aware of at their destination.
With the risk of transmission posed by queueing, apps are a way of allocating specific time slots for passengers to check in, board and collect luggage. Businesses must offer the necessary channels to ensure passenger safety while not compromising user experience.
“Travel in the Covid-19 era has been marked by frustrations such as short-notice cancellations, rearranging plans and difficulty in getting hold of information,” says Jay Patel, CEO of IMImobile.
“This has heightened the importance of real-time communication between travellers and organisations, as the crisis left many customers irritated when they struggled to get hold of travel companies over the phone, waited in virtual queues, or had emails ignored.
“To overcome these problems, the travel industry has begun to recognise the value digital messaging channels can bring, enabling instantaneous, two-way interactions via messaging, calls and video chat – all in one channel.”
Digital identities and immunity passports
Aside from your passport, additional documentation may soon become crucial to travelling overseas.
One aspect of post-Covid society that the industry is currently grappling with is immunity passports: digital certificates confirming that an individual has Covid-19 antibodies, meaning they are in theory immune to the disease.
In the private sector, technology companies are working towards solutions that could become a requirement for travellers in the future. For example, identity verification provider IDnow is in talks with UK government on providing technology for the development Covid-19 immunity passports.
“Although immunity passports could be an option for kickstarting industries including travel, security and privacy concerns have been raised.”
Although immunity passports could be an option for kickstarting industries including travel, security and privacy concerns have been raised, and the World Health Organization has warned that there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.
Quarantine measures for travellers entering a country may also bring new technology with them. For example, those travelling to South Korea are currently required to download an app that tracks their movements and must be used to record daily temperature readings.
At the airport
Electronic check-in and baggage kiosks have become a common sight at many airports, but the process of boarding a flight may look a little different post-Covid.
Considering the risk of spreading the virus through touchscreens and other surfaces, there may be a rapid acceleration in touchless biometric technology.
According to the World Economic Forum, this could see a surge of interest in technology such as contactless fingerprint scanning and iris and face recognition. Technology for "touchless data-entry such as gesture control, touchless document scanning and voice commands" may also enable further aspects of a journey to be touchless.
Health checks will almost certainly become an everyday aspect of travel. Many airports have already implemented thermal scanning, in which travellers pass through a scanner to detect if their body temperature is elevated, and this may become a permanent feature at border control.
Building management systems and solutions provider Johnson Controls is working with various public and private facilities to supply and install body thermal detection technologies. Lee Jasper, head of product solutions at Johnson Controls, believes that although thermal scanning is not a "silver bullet" against the spread of Covid-19, it is an important line of defence.
“Body thermal detection technology gives security teams a first-line filter to identify those entering premises who may have an elevated body temperature. It is not a silver bullet.”
“Body thermal detection technology gives security teams a first-line filter to identify those entering premises who may have an elevated body temperature. It is not a silver bullet,” he says.
“This technology is a useful tool to control the potential spread of the virus, but it cannot prevent the spread of the virus. Body thermal detection technologies will serve as an important addition to the roster of protective measures keeping places secure and people safe. It’s an important weapon in the armoury.”
As well as the now-common sight of gloves, masks and visors, some airports have also rolled out Smart Screening Helmets, developed by KC Wearable, which enable members of staff to detect raised temperatures using built-in infrared cameras.
In the future, disinfection may become a part of the travel process too. Hong Kong Airport is reportedly testing a full-body disinfection device, CLeanTech, with individuals sprayed with sanitiser for 40 seconds inside a booth. The device is currently being trialled on some members of staff but could be extended to passengers in the future.
The airport is also trialling the use of “intelligent sterilisation” robots to clean some areas.
In the air
Once on board a plane, it is likely that the experience may be notably different to pre-Covid-19.
The International Air Transport Association has predicted that global passenger demand could be 24-34% lower than 2019 levels, with long-haul travel particularly affected, so reassuring passengers that it is safe to fly will be a top priority for many.
As well as human air stewards making their way down the aisle, it may soon be commonplace for robots to do the same. Dimer UCV Innovations has developed a plane cleaning robot, known as the GermFalcon, that uses UV-C light to kill germs within the cabin. The company recently entered into a deal with Honeywell to bring the technology to the aviation industry.
While passengers may have previously been accustomed to sharing close quarters with others whilst travelling by plane, social distancing measures may see this dramatically altered in the future, with seats carefully allocated to minimise the risk of infection.
“While passengers may have previously been accustomed to sharing close quarters with others whilst travelling by plane, social distancing measures may see this dramatically altered in the future.”
Anshuman Singh, VP and head of Mindtree Interactive predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will play a role in managing this.
“AI can also improve booking and check-in efficiency as well as using generative algorithms to reduce pressure on staff by auto-allocating seating and space while adhering to safety-guidelines, loyalty-tiers and personal preferences,” he says.
A report by Simpliflying predicts that "digital menus and cashless cabins" could be deployed to limit contact between staff and passengers, and safety videos will have a new focus on sanitisation, warning that “you won’t find any in-flight magazine to entertain you on board, but look out for the disinfectant wipes as part of the in-flight service”.
In-flight entertainment has become a standard offering on long-haul flights, but with the risk of contamination posed by touchscreens and remotes, alternative solutions are needed. This may include VR or AR technology, or even gesture-controlled devices that minimise the touching of surfaces.
You have reached your destination
The prominence of technology will likely continue once you have reached your destination.
Jay Patel, CEO of IMImobile predicts that in the future, customers will seek a greater level of communication with travel operators once they have arrived.
“Digital messaging channels can help keep people safe during their holiday. They will update customers about local social distancing rules, what transport they should be using, and how to minimise negative effects on the local environment or communities,” he says.
“For example, travel companies can warn of busy days at tourist attractions, with proactive travel advice enabling customers to avoid big crowds while also helping to ease the flow of people at popular hotspots.”
While some have predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic could see travellers favour self-catered accommodation in an attempt to limit contact with others, for those who choose hotels, the experience may be quite different, with guests' smartphones becoming their main point of contact.
Rather than checking in at reception, being handed a key and shown to your room, you may be greeted by a notable increase in self-service and automation.
“The increased use of ‘no-touch technology’ in a range of operations for hotels may become permanent.”
Ralph Hollister, Travel & Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, predicts that offering "no touch technology" will be key.
“The increased use of ‘no-touch technology’ in a range of operations for hotels may become permanent. The use of automation in the industry has been growing swiftly in recent years, but many more touchless options will be introduced due to Covid-19,” he says.
“Options may be introduced such as contactless fingerprints instead of room keys, or the use of iris and face recognition when checking in to a hotel.”
Perhaps a more unusual sight could be the presence of robots, enabling cleaning, customer service and other vital functions to be carried out without putting members of staff at risk.
In fact, the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California has already implemented a new way of keeping rooms clean in the form of a robot called Kennedy, which is responsible for disinfecting guests' rooms using ultraviolet light.
Hollister believes this is not only for safety, but also reassurance.
“The increased use of service robots to limit the frequency of human contact in a hotel may also be implemented by larger chains,” he says.
“The application of service robots in the hotel industry is on the rise and has been for several years. With the added factor of a need to reassure potential guests that their stays will be safe through minimal social contact and human interaction, service robots may now be seen by guests and operators as less of a gimmick and more as a necessity.”
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