Can airport health screening save air travel?

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airport health screening

I love to travel.  Friends sometimes ask me “don’t you get tired of it?”  Nope.  Most of the usual headaches associated with air travel haven’t been an issue for me since I’ve become enmeshed in points, miles, rewards credit cards, and elite status shortcuts.  Here are some examples:

  • Airport security: I breeze through identity check thanks to CLEAR and then breeze through security without removing shoes or items from my bag thanks to TSA Pre✓. CLEAR is free for me since it’s a Delta Diamond elite status perk (which I get through credit card spend).  And Global Entry (which includes TSA Pre✓) enrollment was free thanks to any number of credit cards I own or have owned in the past.
  • Airport lounge access: I almost always have free lounge access thanks to credit cards I own. This includes Priority Pass lounges thanks to several different cards, and Delta lounges, Centurion Lounges, Escape Lounges and more thanks to my Amex Platinum card.  Sometimes lounge access is granted thanks to using miles to book international business or first class.
  • In-flight comfort: I usually sit in business or first class in-flight thanks to either free upgrades from my Delta Diamond elite status or from booking premium cabin awards with airline miles.

Ultimately, for me, it’s the destination that matters.  But getting there comfortably with minimal hassle makes all the difference in the world.

These days, though, I’m thinking more and more about car travel.  Once the stay-at-home orders lift, I’m wondering where can we go without stepping on a plane? Can we find a hide-away with a view where we can enjoy travel while minimizing the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19?

It’s not that I’m scared of getting COVID-19.  Instead, I just don’t want to risk being part of the problem.  I don’t want to risk others by potentially spreading COVID-19.  And, as things stand today, it’s pretty hard to travel by air without coming in close contact with many others.  The chance then of getting a virus and passing it along to others seems pretty high.

If I’m hesitant to return soon to flying, what about those who don’t love air travel?  I’m betting that it will be a very, very long time before flying becomes anywhere near as popular as it was just a few months ago.

A potential partial solution

Elenium Automation has announced that they have a prototype touchless “triage kiosk” to help detect whether a traveler is infected:

To ensure the health safety of passengers and staff, Elenium has developed a self-service technology that can detect a passenger’s temperature, heart rate and ask a series of questions from a distance of 1.5 metres at any airport touchpoint such as a kiosk, bag drop, security or immigration – enabling the self-service device to act as a screening station for potential symptoms of COVID-19. In partnership with Amazon Web Services, Elenium has also developed “hands free” technologies that enable touchless use of self-service devices, thereby further minimising the potential of any virus transmission.

As reported by Runway Girl Network, Etihad plans to test this technology at the Abu Dhabi airport starting at the end of April.  The tests will be with volunteers at first, but later with outbound passengers.  The goal is to stop people from boarding aircraft if they present symptoms.

I’m not going to argue that Elenium’s technology is the solution.  They specifically assert that the device “is not designed or intended to diagnose medical conditions.”  At best, it is an early warning indicator.  Plus, I’d argue that it’s not enough…

My proposed solution

I don’t think we’ll ever have technology that can perfectly identify contagion hazards, but I do think that a combination of technology and policy has the potential to make things better.  It may be possible to significantly reduce the spread of contagion through air travel with two key changes:

  1. Install health screening technology in all airports and require passengers to pass this test before being allowed to enter security lines.  This will prove to be a very expensive solution since it requires med techs to be standing by to offer secondary screening to those who fail the automated test.
  2. Eliminate all flight change and cancellation fees.  I believe this to be a necessary part of the solution as I’ll explain below.

Airport health screening technology

No matter what technology is used, it won’t work perfectly.  Consider that up to 25% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms at all.  It’s very unlikely that any screening technology or processes will be able to catch these symptom-free contagion carriers.  Sure, it’s theoretically possible to add COVID-19 rapid testing to the health screening, but that would be extremely invasive.  Plus, it would do nothing to stop the spread of other viruses or COVID mutations.

I don’t think it’s necessary for airport health screening to work perfectly.  Instead, I think we need people to believe that it is reasonably likely that they’ll be stopped if they’re contagious.  As long as this is true, individuals who suspect that they might be contagious will likely change or cancel their trip.  I believe that no one would want to pack and make their way to the airport only to be told to go home.  Those who know that they’ve been in contact with others with COVID-19 or any other dangerous virus will hopefully choose to put off their trip until they know that they are healthy.

Eliminate flight change and cancellation fees

The whole reason that I believe that airport health screening has a chance of working is that I think that many people will choose not to show up at the airport in the first place.  Imagine, for example, waking up with a sore throat on the morning of planned travel.  Maybe you have seasonal allergies or maybe you’re truly sick.  You don’t know.  But, in this future scenario, you do know that you might get to the airport and be turned away.  Or, worse, you might fail the screening at the end of your trip when you want to return home.  So, instead of chancing it, you change your travel plans.

Most people won’t change their travel plans if doing so requires paying change or cancellation fees.  Instead, they’ll risk it.  And, most likely, a large percentage of these people will pass the screening and get on board.  Some percentage of these will be contagious.

So… eliminating flight change and cancellation fees is a necessary component to make this work.  We need people to police themselves and stay home when there’s a chance that they’re sick.  This will happen only if there are no financial losses when doing so.  Of course it would help to also eliminate hotel, tour, and cruise change and cancellation fees…

It may happen without legislation…

If health screening technology is added to all airports, travel providers are likely to find that it’s in their best interest to waive change and cancellation fees.  Consider, for example, if you’re considering booking a big trip, but the tickets or lodging or tour or whatever is nonrefundable.  Maybe in the past you would have risked it, but now you know that there’s a chance that you’ll be turned away at the airport.  You then may decide not to book the trip, or maybe you’ll pay very expensive “cancel for any reason” travel insurance.  Travel providers who offer free changes and cancellations will have a huge competitive advantage.

Bottom Line

I think that it’s theoretically possible to drastically reduce the spread of contagions through air travel with two major changes: 1) Add touchless health screenings to all airports; and 2) Eliminate travel change and cancellation fees.

I don’t think that my suggestions are likely to happen anytime soon.  It’s too expensive and, in some ways, too radical for a democratic nation to enact.  I also don’t think that what I’ve proposed here is anywhere near a perfect solution.  It’s unclear how we would enforce social distancing as lines grow long while people wait to be assessed.  Assessment technology will raise serious privacy concerns.  And false-positives (where people are turned away from the airport despite being healthy) will lead to many, many issues.

I also don’t believe that I know best.  This post is nothing more than my naive musings.  I have no doubt that better minds than mine can come up with better solutions.  Unfortunately, I expect that any solution will be nearly impossible to put into practice.

On the other hand, a few months ago I wouldn’t have believed that a virus could lead to our current situation with most businesses shuttered, travel at a stand-still, and nearly everyone stuck at home.  Maybe the world is ready for radical change after all.

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