Japan airports aim to utilize new tech for post-pandemic travel

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Travelers are seen using JAL’s contactless check-in machine at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

Major airports nationwide are aiming to utilize new technologies to make travel more convenient and secure for passengers after the novel coronavirus is brought under control.

Amid the pandemic, such devices as touchless self-check-in machines and autonomous baggage tractors, which carry passengers’ luggage to an aircraft, have been utilized. Such technologies have been implemented with post-pandemic travel in mind, as the industry is likely to experience a recovery in demand, as well as a labor shortage, at the same time.

Apps seen as key

Japan Airlines Co. is installing touchless self-check-in machines, which can be operated by a person holding their finger near the screen. They were installed at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido in April. It is the fifth airport where these machines have been set up, including Haneda, Itami and Fukuoka airports.

JAL is accelerating efforts to introduce a new system in which travelers will go through the entire check-in process, which includes checking in and dropping off their luggage, without having to come in contact with any employee, to prevent infections on both sides. The system has been put in place at Haneda and New Chitose airports, and the company is planning to expand it to Fukuoka and other airports.

At an in-person check-in counter, the process takes an average of three to five minutes per passenger, but by utilizing the new system, it can be completed in less than two, according to JAL.

Smartphone apps are seen as the key to further enhance contactless services, as they are relatively easier for elderly people to use. ANA Holdings Inc., which is the parent company of All Nippon Airways Co., is improving its app so users can reserve a ticket and complete boarding procedures more easily.

Labor-saving efforts

The labor shortage had been an issue at airports before the coronavirus crisis, especially in the baggage handling department. Currently, there is a surplus of personnel because of the severe drop in the number of passengers. However, the industry will likely face another labor shortage when the coronavirus is gradually brought under control. As a result, related bodies are preparing for such a situation.

In December, ANA and Toyota Industries Corp. held a joint demonstration of an automated machine that loads luggage into containers. The physically demanding job is known to have a high turnover rate.

Autonomous baggage tractors, which carry cargo to an aircraft, have also started being utilized. JAL introduced the machines at Narita Airport in March, while ANA tested it at Haneda Airport the same month.

In both cases, drivers were inside, but the companies aim to have driverless baggage tractors in operation by 2025.

Efficiency required

Companies are seeing an increase in demand for domestic flights this summer. As more people get vaccinated, airports could experience a drastic increase in the number of travelers if the virus is contained in autumn or later.

“It is important for more airports to run highly efficiently to cope with the labor shortage, as well as being a place where infections are not easily spread,” said Yasuo Hashimoto, visiting professor at J. F. Oberlin University and an expert on the airline industry. “To increase the number of passengers, airlines need to promote the use of new technologies.”