Big Tech: How airlines can drastically reduce the spread of COVID-19

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Hands-free technology allows passengers to fly without touching anything that isn’t theirs.

At least 10 percent of airport surfaces contain one respiratory virus, according to a study published online in BMC Infectious Diseases. These locations include kiosk buttons, stair handrails and the passenger side of the desk passport control point. The two most prevalent viruses found were rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, and coronavirus, another common human virus that causes upper-respiratory tract illnesses – including COVID-19, a new respiratory illness causing mild to severe symptoms in thousands around the world.

According to the CDC, a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.

In the past, the spread of infectious disease has relied on the general public to participate in common hygiene practices like washing hands and coughing into a sleeve or tissue. “Eighty percent of communicable diseases are transferred through touch,” says Darcy Koch, RN, MSN, manager of health epidemiology and infection prevention for UCI Health. “I sincerely believe that hand-washing is the No. 1 action we can take to stop the transmission of these diseases.”

Another option is to avoid touching altogether.

Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of people in airports have clean hands — meaning that they have been washed with soap and water within the last hour — according to the American Society for Microbiology.

“The tech world constantly focuses on eliminating or reducing human error,” says Ben Robertson, CEO of Simpello, a hands-free technology designed to drastically reduce the time and effort it takes for consumers to transact business with a company. “If we can reduce the number of physical touches that occur at airports, we can reduce the spread of disease.”

The new tech being introduced identifies an individual by their mobile device once they enter a designated area. For example, when a passenger is pulling up to the airport, a message appears on their phone, asking if they’d like to check a bag. If the answer is yes, the passenger is asked to report to printer 10. Their baggage tag will print as soon as they come within a 2 foot by 2 foot range of the printer. Baggage payments are also handled in advance through a mobile interface.

“This would eliminate the need to have passengers touch the baggage kiosk or visit the ticketing desk,” adds Robertson.

Similarly, the new technology involves a certified driver’s license. As passengers approach TSA, their driver’s license and photo appears on TSA’s screen. After they are cleared, passengers can go through security without ever handing over their license.

For years, the travel industry has been operating on a 1-factor system: “Meaning that your ticket is the only physical piece of information you need to get you to the jet bridge. By using the certified driver’s license, you don’t need anything physical to prove you are who you say you are,” says Robertson.

A multi-factor system, which is at the core of Simpello’s technology, is the ability to further enhance identity validation by having a secure driver’s license on file that is displayed to an agent for facial recognition.

“Once you touch a surface your hands are no longer clean. But by eliminating surface contact in public places, we eliminate the opportunity for germs to spread,” says Robertson.

Every day, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) provides service to more than 44,000 flights and 2.7 million airline passengers.

According to this research, if 2.7 million daily travelers interact with the 10 percent of infected airport surfaces, that means that as many as 270,000 people will be exposed to viral diseases in a single day. During the SARS epidemic, hand-washing reduced the risk of transmission by 30 to 50 percent, according to a recent New York Times article. Without surface contact, that percentage could drop even further.

“It is possible to go through the airport without touching a single thing that doesn’t belong to you,” says Robertson.

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