We will travel again, but it will not be the same. Even if borders reopen, travellers must trust that boarding a plane is safe and that they will be able to enter the destination country. New health safety protocols and systems will need to be in place, and these have yet to be defined. As governments and industry plan for recovery in this new context and adapt to changing traveller behaviour, the use of digital identity and biometrics technologies could restore trust while also ensuring a seamless journey. However, these tools will only be effective if users feel that their data is protected. Privacy, consent and transparent data governance must be at the heart of any technical solution.
1. The queue at immigration will be longer than ever before
We’re already seeing with China, Singapore, and South Korea, countries that feel like they are on top of their outbreaks, that the biggest worry now is new infections coming from outside. Korea is ordering all persons entering from the US and Europe to isolate for two weeks, even if they test negative for COVID-19. Those without a permanent residence are being sent directly to an isolation ward. Manufacturers of heat cameras are seeing a spike in demand. Even when lockdowns in Europe are over and we start to travel again, countries will test at the border. If you thought the line at JFK immigration control was torturous before, now consider what it’ll be like as you line up, take a swab test, and wait for the results.
2. You’ll need more than a passport
Some countries will not even take the chance of testing at the border. Especially if you’re coming from an outbreak hotspot. Entrance will be refused unless you have a certificate of immunity since you’ve recovered from an infection or because you’ve been vaccinated (once there are vaccines available). Wristbands with barcodes like those in the movie Contagion are a very real prospect. Certainly in the short-term, travel will become more defined by purpose. Any business travel will need to be strictly validated as an economic activity, with companies tightening the numbers of employees who travel for them. Countries will likely only open their borders where there is merit and it’s safe to let travellers through. This may mean temporary visas and more documentation that you’ll need to take with you when travelling.
3. Travel will have different (expensive) seasons
A very influential paper from Imperial College London speculates that governments will need to turn lockdown measures on and off to keep demands on healthcare systems at a manageable level. This means there will be windows of opportunity to travel that last only weeks or even days. Even with airlines desperate to get airborne again, seats will be limited and we could see dramatic increases in pricing during those windows.
4. Recovery will be uneven
We’re seeing already that the factors influencing this pandemic are numerous. Strictness and timing of lockdown measures, robustness of healthcare systems, the weather, luck, and other factors are all at work. Meaning some countries and regions will recover first. We will see corridors of recovery open back up one by one.
5. You’ll pack differently
We may well see the relaxing of liquid carry-on restrictions as travellers want to take more than 100ml, especially on long-haul flights. Along with hand sanitizer travel packs, it’s a pretty easy prediction to make that a lot more people will travel with masks. In the same way that companies like Away have made luxury, fashionable travel baggage, we will most likely see “desirable” travel masks worn by Instagram influencers.
6. You’ll tick that little box every time
We’re all very used to aeroplane bookings coming with tens of add-ons once we’ve chosen our flight. Let’s be honest, most of us skip past speedy boarding, extra baggage, car rental, and even seat selection. One box that we won’t be skipping past as much as the one asking us if we want to ensure the flight. Be careful though, often this “insurance” doesn’t cover you for many things, including the outbreak of a pandemic. Either airline providers or insurance companies are going to have to change to accommodate our new reality.
7. Society won’t like you when you’re sick
Even those who have recovered from COVID-19, and have built up immunity (if the virus doesn’t mutate too much) won’t want to travel with a cold. The current situation and the conviction with which the world is adopting social distancing will make it socially unacceptable to travel with a cold or any symptoms. The looks you will get if you cough or sneeze at an airport or on a plane will be scathing.
8. You’ll take the train before the plane
Domestic travel will recover first (there’s no border control) and for most countries that means taking a train. Not only will we be able to get back on tracks (ha, a pun) first, we’ll also be more secure about it. Trains are less crowded, have windows that open, and also are much more environmentally friendly. Once the lockdowns we see in Europe now are lifted, I predict people will rush to take a train, just because they can.
9. Air quality will be an advertised feature
Any idea what grade air filter Lufthansa uses on their flights? How about British Airways? Korean Air? Which Airbus model has the cleanest air? Do Boeing planes have fewer microbes in the air? No idea? Well, you may not know now, but once we’re flying again, airlines will start boasting about their filtration systems. Some have already started emailing customers about their current systems in a bid to stop people cancelling. By the end of the year, it’ll be a question many people will be asking—how safe is the air onboard?
The most immediate and perhaps most visible change will be a shift to touchless travel from airport curbside to hotel check-in. Even with strict cleaning protocols in place, exchanging travel documents and touching surfaces through check-in, security, border control, and boarding still represent a significant risk of infection for both travellers and staff.
Automation across the entire sector will become the new norm. Biometrics is already a widely accepted solution for identity verification, and their use will become more widespread as physical fingerprint and hand scanners are phased out. More touchless options will come into play including contactless fingerprint, as well as iris and face recognition. Moreover, technology for touchless data-entry such as gesture control, touchless document scanning and voice commands are already being tested. Care must be taken to ensure these technologies are inclusive and to eliminate the risk of potential biases.