Delivery robots to digital health apps: 5 ways your next airport visit could be contactless

Harriet Baskas
 |  Special to USA TODAY


In addition to cleaning, sanitizing and setting up COVID-19 testing stations, airports are responding to the coronavirus pandemic by finding ways to make the journey through the terminal touch-free.

Before the pandemic, contactless services would have been presented as convenient amenities for travelers. Today, however, they have become an important part of the tool kit for keeping passengers safe, healthy and confident enough to travel.

From touchless airport parking to check-in, bag drop and even robot food delivery, here are some of the ways – and places – your airport experience might be different during your next trip. 

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1. Touchless airport parking

Before the pandemic, some airports offered travelers the option to reserve and prepay for parking online. An assured spot in the terminal garage during busy times was the attraction, but sometimes perks such as close-in spaces and discounted rates enticed travelers to give the amenity a try.

Now, many more airports are promoting and launching touch-free parking systems that let travelers avoid having to push a button to get a ticket on the way in and bypass the payment kiosk or staffed booth on the way out.

For example, at Raleigh-Durham International Airport  in North Carolina, customers who book parking online get a scannable QR code via email that opens the garage gate. A license plate reader recognizes their vehicle when they exit. San Francisco International Airport’s new touchless online parking system, rolled out right before Thanksgiving, works with scanned QR codes, as well.

2. Contactless check-in and bag drop, biometric tech 

Pre-pandemic, most passengers were familiar with, but didn’t always use, online check-in, digital boarding passes and technology that let them print their own luggage tags at home and check in their own bags at the airport. Now those no- or low-contact options are all but mandatory.

Airports and airlines are also piloting and fast-tracking a wide range of biometric technology and other tools that make the airport journey a bit more touch-free.

Aviation technology company SITA and Los Angeles International Airport recently piloted a system that allows passengers to use smartphones to operate check-in kiosks and avoid having to touch the communal screens. SITA’s Smart Path biometric touch-free boarding and exit gates are also operating at Orlando International Airport.  

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And multiple airlines are now testing a digital health passport, called CommonPass, that will store health information needed for travel on a secure, easy-to-update app. This will eliminate the need for passengers to hand over paper copies of COVID-19 test results.

More: International travelers may soon be required to get COVID-19 vaccination before flying

3. The security checkpoint

The Transportation Security Administration has reduced touchpoints at many airport security checkpoints. 

Hundreds of Credential Authentication Technology units that reduce the time needed to confirm a traveler’s identity and that allow travelers to put their own IDs into the scanner are now in use at 115 airports. And new computed tomography checkpoint scanners at 267 airports give TSA officers a 3D view of carry-on bags. This decreases the need to open and touch bags and reduces the contact time between agents and passengers.

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4. Touchless food ordering and delivery

Before COVID-19, the Grab app let hungry travelers skip lines and use their mobile devices to order meals for pick-up from a limited number of restaurants in a limited number of airports. 

Avoiding airport lines is more important now. So, airports in Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities have partnered with Grab to create more accessible platforms that expand touch-free ordering options and broaden the number of participating concessions.

In a growing number of airports, runners for AtYourGate make in-terminal deliveries of meals and other items ordered via mobile devices from airport restaurants, news stands and retail shops.

The service, currently offered at LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York; in Newark, New Jersey; Denver; Philadelphia; Ontario, Orange County, San Diego and San Jose in California; Boston; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Portland, Oregon, is about to get even more convenient and contactless with the introduction of robots.

In partnership with Piaggio Fast Forward, AtYourGate delivery teams at JFK, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and San Diego airports will soon be joined in their rounds by small Gita robots. Each follow-along robot has a bin that can carry up to 40 pounds and will be used for contactless delivery of meals and retail items.  

5. Virtual information booths

Many airport information desks are also going contactless. At Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport in Kentucky, Los Angeles International Airport, plus in Denver, Baltimore and other airports, passengers now use a touch-free tablet, a kiosk or their own mobile device to connect with customer service agents who answer questions live but from a distance.

Airlines are jumping on this bandwagon, too. Last month, United Airlines debuted its “Agent on Demand” service, which lets customers in the airline’s hub airports use a mobile device to call, text or have a live video chat with a customer service agent.


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