(CNN) — As the world slowly eases its way out of the Covid-19 lockdown, we're on the verge of a new era in air travel.
We could soon encounter armies of robotic cleaners patrolling airport concourses, disinfecting check-in counters and ticket kiosks. We might see passengers wafting through security and baggage checkpoints without touching anything.
And we might be boarding aircraft where hand gestures and eye movements open overhead stowage bins and navigate our inflight entertainment screens.
Everything could become touch-free. Out go the tailored uniforms, in come astronaut-style anti-Covid-19 flight attendant suits.
Most of these concepts are trials but could soon morph into realities that become as ubiquitous as the biometric gates and body scanners to which we've already become accustomed at airport terminals.
From the cloud to the clouds
As we shift from the virtual world of Zoom meetings and Houseparty chats back into the skies, what will the touchpoints along that journey look like -- and when might things get going?
"I'm making an assumption, and I think many of our clients are making an assumption, that at some point in 2021, this will be largely behind us," Alex Dichter, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, tells CNN Travel.
Dichter points to stringent measures implemented in China requiring validation that travelers are Covid 19-free, using a system whereby passengers travel with a QR code that is either green, yellow or red. Green means they've been tested and are free of the virus, and authorities know exactly where passengers have been.
"You need to scan in and scan out of every location, your temperature is checked multiple times, you're signing forms. It's hard to imagine those kinds of processes implemented in the West."
But data and tracking are key to our return to the skies.
Dichter suspects some countries are going to focus on these. Therefore protocols need to be established so that if a passenger tests Covid 19-positive after being on a flight, the airline can contact every other passenger that was on the plane.
"Airlines will take this opportunity to accelerate self-service. That's a trend that's been in place for some time, but airlines were probably slower at scaling these technologies out than many customers would like," he says.
Until these new technologies fully materialize, passengers returning to the air may have to make do with what's already out there.
Therefore, Dichter says, "there may be a bit more focus on premium products, providing people with the ability to be alone" -- already a long-time aspiration of the weary business traveler.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released an official statement on May 5, coming out against blocking off middle seats on planes, while recommending both passengers and crew members wear face masks on board instead.
Longer term, the financial shock airlines are facing combined with customers' sensitivity to price may bring us back to a world where airlines are taking things away and becoming leaner to reduce prices.
"If we look at the state of the industry in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the big question about what air travel looks like is going to have more to do with the economic fallout than it does to do with the virus," says Dichter.
Passport, boarding pass, mask
Qatar Airways has introduced PPE suits for its crew.
Courtesy Qatar Airways
In the new era of flight, we can expect personal protective equipment (PPE) to be integral to the passenger experience as airlines are beginning to demand -- rather than request -- their use.
European airlines Lufthansa, Air France and KLM have made mask-wearing compulsory for passengers and crew. In the United States, Delta, United, American Airlines and JetBlue have introduced similar measures. Air Canada has mandated their use since April 20.
In Asia, Singapore Airlines, Air Asia and Cathay Pacific have also made masks mandatory.
Qatar Airways, in the Middle East, is one of several airlines to introduce PPE suits for its cabin crew in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
"At least for the whole of 2020, passengers are going to be wearing masks," says Federico Heitz, CEO of Kaelis, a manufacturer of airline on-board supplies that is providing more than 20 airlines with PPE for crew and passengers.
Heitz tells CNN Travel there's high demand for its Self-Protective Pocket Pouch (SP.3), a package that includes a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and an info leaflet with tips on how to prevent the virus spreading. The pouch can be customized to align with the airline's branding.
"These are going to be like the new amenity kits for quite a long time I expect," says Heitz.
"What's going to happen five years from now depends on whether they find a vaccine and on how the virus evolves. For now, we definitely need protection." But who bears the cost?
"This is public health. My view is that it should be provided to all for free," says Heitz. "Wearing a mask is not only about protecting yourself; it's about how to protect the other passengers."
A clean bill of health
While airport terminals remain mostly desolate, initiatives are underway to verify passenger health preflight and assure that airports are scrupulously clean.
Various technologies are in trial phases now.
That includes a contactless voice-activated kiosk for monitoring passengers' temperature, heart and respiratory rates before check-in. It's being developed in partnership between Etihad Airways and Australian company Elenium Automation, and it's undergoing tests at Abu Dhabi Airport.
Etihad's Joerg Oppermann says the technology is an early warning indicator that will help identify symptoms that can be assessed by medical experts to help prevent further contagion.
The system automatically suspends the self-service check-in or bag-drop process if a passenger's vital signs indicate potential symptoms of illness.
"We believe it will not only help in the current Covid-19 outbreak but also into the future with assessing a passenger's suitability to travel and thus minimizing disruptions," says Oppermann.
In it, passengers and airport staff undergo a temperature check before entering an enclosed channel for a 40-second sanitizing procedure, using "photocatalyst" and "nano needles" technologies.
In another initiative at HKIA, invisible antimicrobial coatings that destroy germs, bacteria and viruses are being applied to high-touch surfaces in the terminal such as kiosks, counters and trolleys.
Hong Kong's airport is also testing autonomous Intelligent Sterilization Robots equipped with ultraviolet light sterilizers that roam the airport, disinfecting passenger facilities.
"Experimentation at a number of airports with UV lights, cleaning robots and other technologies is part of an attempt to minimize the distancing that's needed if you want to maintain throughput of passengers at airports," says Cristiano Ceccato, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, designers of the recently opened Daxing Beijing Airport.
"Otherwise," he tells CNN Travel, "you're going to need a bigger airport to space people further apart."
For the very long-term future, Ceccato ponders a possible scenario where passengers have some kind of chip injected in their arms that continuously monitors their health, "Star Trek" style. It would start beeping if it detects they've been infected with something.
"We're not there yet. And then, of course, there are ethical questions about people's privacy and the invasion of civil liberties. We used to joke that the airport today is basically an airport mixed with a shopping mall. Now the airport could be mixed with a hospital."
Nearer term, Ceccato anticipates that airports could have some form of high-tech arch that passengers walk through that scans for metals, liquids and gels, and also checks the passenger's health.
"That stuff is on the way, but we don't know exactly when it will happen. A lot of ideas for these kinds of technologies are tied to the profiling of people," he says.
Another motivation behind the adoption of security and health tech at airports is to accelerate the flow of passengers through the terminal checkpoints by reducing human-to-human contact, or contact between passengers and conveyor belts and trays at security.
"Eventually at airports, you won't have to grapple with getting your laptop and washbag out of your hand luggage, and you won't have to deal with the security guy fumbling through your stuff," says Ceccato.
While architects figure out how to adapt the airports to accommodate all the extra new health screening and sanitation technologies, Ceccato says that on the upside, "it might be reassuring for passengers to know, having passed all these preflight checks, that their health is in good shape."
Dogs are now being trained to detect people infected with coronavirus. CNN's Max Foster
Up in the air
The main focal point for air travel is the aircraft interior, and this is where traditionally there has been prolonged interaction between the passenger and the cabin surfaces -- seating, inflight entertainment systems, toilets and other furnishings.
"There's probably a future for a stowage bin that will be gesture-based, where passengers don't have to touch the handle, just wave their hand to raise or lower the door," says Devin Liddell, principal futurist of Teague, the Seattle-based design consultants that created the Dreamliner cabin and the interior of every Boeing airliner since the 1940s.
The other area where Liddell believes airlines will be focusing to reinstate passenger confidence will be the application of antimicrobial surfaces.
"That will be a big one," says Liddell. "I think airlines actually just heralding the cleanliness of their aircraft and the processes that they use to clean the aircraft will be something that we see both near term and far term, as well as the touting of advanced systems that strip viruses out of the air."
As touching things becomes poor etiquette in the cabin, designers of inflight entertainment systems will need to come up with new approaches.
"Eventually, we'll see eye movement tracking-based user interfaces when it comes to the inflight entertainment system, so not having to touch the IFE system at all," says Liddell.
Longer-term opportunities to improve the on-board experience are with rethinking the layout of the passenger cabin.
"Airlines will need to be smarter in the post Covid-19 world with zoning the cabin, and various airlines have tinkered with child-free zones and so forth," says Liddell.
But one of the biggest challenges in the cabin will be inflight catering. In the early days of the virus, carriers stopped serving food to minimize crew having to walk up and down the aisles. Liddell sees opportunities for robotics and automation inside the cabin to take on many of the catering tasks.
"The galley cart in particular is such a strange piece of tech in the sense that it blocks the aisle, and makes part of the aircraft inaccessible during meal service."
"There's an opportunity for aisle-based robots that would bring food to you, maybe when you want it, versus when the airline decides it's going to give it to you," he says.
The people have spoken
Ultimately, whether passengers will feel confident enough to take to the skies depends on consumer confidence and the sense amongst passengers of whether airlines are adequately addressing their concerns regarding Covid-19 and its bearing on air travel.
To gauge this, the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the International Flight Services Association commissioned data consultants Fethr, the aviation wing of Black Swan Data, to assess passenger sentiment.
Using data analysis and predictive analytics, Fethr analyzed more than 900 million naturally occurring conversations on Twitter, news, blogs and reviews related to Covid-19 and air travel.
"Over a third of the conversations at the moment related to safety and sanitation on board the aircraft are very negatively charged," Will Cooper, insights director at Fethr, tells CNN Travel.
"Passengers are expressing their concerns and frustration around not knowing whether it's safe to travel or how they protect themselves and are unclear about what airlines are doing."
Perhaps one of the longest journeys facing airlines today is restoring passenger confidence.