The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will probably take some time for us to grasp. But what is clear is that virtually every aspect of our daily lives has felt the impact of guidelines and restrictions put in place across the globe. Today, the world is looking towards the future but with one eye firmly on preventing further spread as we search for a vaccine. Adversity is often the catalyst for innovation and the adversity we face today will factor heavily in the next industrial revolution, or what we at RPG are calling Life 5.0. What role will tech and healthcare play in bringing core industries back on track? This week, Mark Fowler, VP of our London office, takes a look at the travel industry.

After a long few months, the summer is certainly in full swing now and despite some weather that goes against the received wisdom that UK is only every grey and drizzly, a lot of people are looking abroad for some time away.

And although as we’re seeing with Spain right now that these are slightly more fragile agreements than first thought, the opening of ‘air bridges’ ad loosening of FCO rules have put international travel back on the table. Tour operators and airlines are offering deals and guarantees while insurance companies are providing cover for coronavirus-related issues with the hope of rebuilding consumer confidence.

Understandably, there is still significant apprehension about going abroad. As ‘R’ numbers fluctuate and fears of second waves dominate the news, some find it impossible to reconcile the relaxed luxury of two weeks in the Mediterranean resort of their choice with the possible risk. But the truth remains that tourism is the cornerstone of many economies. The tourism industry is the third-largest socio-economic contributor in Europe, while the UK – not exactly known for its weather – derives 7.2 per cent of GDP from the tourism industry, according to the Tourism Alliance. As we look to transition life back to ‘normality’—in whatever form that might take—tourism and travel will be a large part of that.

Following a near-complete shutdown that saw traveller numbers fall by as much as 96 per cent, ensuring safety and rebuilding confidence are two separate but equally important jobs that will need to be done.

Check-in, bag drop, testing then duty free

While there appears to be progress on a vaccine, for the time being the focus will need to be on mitigating risk. This comes down to testing. Unfortunately, testing is a fairly lengthy process and not necessarily viable at the scale of airport traffic: Heathrow, for instance, processes on average 220,000 passengers each day, with an extra 15-20 percent spike on the busiest days. Airports in Italy are already trialling low-cost swabs which can generate results in as little as 12 minutes, but even that isn’t enough at the expected passenger volumes. The answer will lie in a highly optimised process for identifying, verifying and mitigating risk.

Anyone who has travelled through Asia has likely been subject to a temperature check via an infrared thermometer. We can expect that to become a norm, much like the wearing of masks. As traveller numbers increase, there is cause to automate this further, whether incorporated into ticket scanner gates or elsewhere. Those identified as having a high temperature will be subject to a full test. While exact rates for asymptomatic infections are under debate, between those cases and others which are pre-symptomatic (thanks to the virus’ incubation period), it is clear that there is a need for fast and effective testing in order for international travel to be safe again.

Ticket, passport, luggage, wallet… health records?

As society gains greater control over the pandemic, some of the more stringent restrictions in place may well be loosened. Increased testing processes in airports will inevitably place stress on resources and add extra steps to a passenger flow that relies on fine margins when it comes to timing. Enabling passengers to prove their good health will help alleviate some of that pressure.

Electronic Health Records are well-established at this point and they are likely to have a big role to play in the future. The term has been used elsewhere but the implementation of more literal digital health passports seems a surety. While there has always been a burden of proof on travellers that they have had the required vaccinations to enter a country, these have not always been rigorously enforced. In a post-corona Life 5.0 landscape, this will likely change.

We have seen the airport passenger flow automated and streamlined drastically in recent years, thanks to technology. Tickets, check-in and bag check can all be directed from a mixture of your smartphone and a terminal at the airport. There is no reason that this shouldn’t be the case for health records, too. Whether tied to existing passports or through approved supplementary applications, providing access to electronic health records, as opposed to physical vaccination certificates, could potentially become standard.

This poses some interesting questions about data privacy and security. Healthcare data is sensitive and private information so ensuring that this is protected and controlled by the traveller will be vital. With trust of airlines already dented thanks to numerous high-profile data breaches, this could easily become a point of contention as we look to rebuild public confidence in international travel.

What comes after a golden age?

As Joni Mitchell said (or Counting Crows, depending on your age): you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. It’s fair to say that is probably the case right now with international travel. Whether for business or pleasure, the opportunity to visit other countries, continents and cultures had never been greater. Likewise, the advent of low-cost airlines and platforms like Airbnb have made it far more affordable. We were in a golden age of international travel.

Whether we have hit pause or move into something new depends on the steps that are taken now. Lessons learned and changes made today have the potential to help get us back on track and actually create a more resilient travel industry, where we safeguard public health internationally. As we’ve seen with physical security measures put in place at the turn of the century, over time, this can be integrated more deeply into the process to create something far more frictionless. And frictionless is a key watchword of Life 5.0.

About the Author

Mark Fowler

Mark is a Vice President in RPG’s London office, working with the technology team. He has ten years of experience in technology PR, having worked across leading B2C and B2B brands including Huawei, ARM, Auth0 and Barclaycard.