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Travel In the Age Of COVID-19 – Where Can New Tech Make Us Safer?

  • Aqil 

This weekend, one of our employees flew internationally in order to see the state of post-COVID travel in North America. This is his experience – and where he sees opportunities for technology to make travel safer:

Unloading my bags at the airport, I had a chance to look around at those around me. I saw only a handful of improperly worn masks, hanging just below the nose. But honestly, my expectations were lower. Signage reminded patrons to utilize their masks, and airline personnel spoke to those who were not in compliance.

When I checked into my flight the night before, I was asked three simple questions:
• Do you have symptoms of COVID?
• Have you been around people confirmed to have COVID?
• Have you been tested for COVID?

Because I’d spent the last 14 days in a self-imposed quarantine prior to travelling, I could easily answer “no” to all these questions. When I arrived at the airport, I was asked the same three questions again (on a touch screen) before printing out my boarding pass. These are the same questions I’ve been asked when visiting the doctor’s office, but that was usually asked by a person, and they also took your temperature. When going to the newly reopened theme parks, they also have people in face shields, masks, and gloves taking temperatures. But here at the airport, the only safety was three questions on a touch screen. At no point in my journey, between checking in for the flight and landing in Canada, were my answers to these questions confirmed. And there’s no way to check the validity of my answers. MedCreds, one of our newest clients, is seeking to resolve this issue. They create digital confirmation for COVID testing. If I’d gotten a code on my phone, the airline agents could easily scan it and get confirmation that I’d been tested and found COVID-free, with the information encrypted from the doctor so that there’s no way I could lie about it (I didn’t, but people could).

Not only would this technology provide an accurate, secure standard, to make sure EVERYONE knows I’m safe, but their app would also eliminate the potential for viral transmission via the touch screen. I’d only have to touch my germs on my phone and not everyone else’s. I didn’t personally touch the touchscreen – this has been the perfect opportunity to bring an old tablet stylus back into regular use – but for those who did, unlike touchscreens in many locations like grocery stores, no hand sanitizer was provided here.

On Planes:
My first flight boarded back-to-front, 5 rows at a time (after the first class, of course). While there have been plenty of studies about how to board a plane efficiently and reducing crowding and passing on the plane, this seems like the best way to preserve the chaos typical of boarding a plane while also reducing (slightly) any unnecessary contact. The check-in counters feature the plexiglass stand found at every other counter at the airport however the ticket scanner was not covered, giving each passenger a brief yet intimate encounter with the gate agent while scanning our own tickets.

Upon boarding, we were each handed a hand sanitizing wipe. I pocketed this for later as I’d prepared with a pre-made travel kit, including a medical-grade mask, 8 sanitizing wipes, gloves and a headrest cover. I gave my seat a relatively quick wipe-down, but watching the others who boarded the flight, most did not. While waiting for the preflight checklist, a few friendly reminders popped up on the screen. The flight I was on used industrial-grade HEPA filters in their air circulation, “with similar performance to those used in hospital operating rooms.” One of our clients for years, XENEX, has been kind enough to share research about the air quality in hospitals. And while the filter does work for many pathogens, it can only clean the air that reaches the filter. Unless the air is completely vacuumed and replaced, there’s still the possibility of “dirty” air circulating.

Of course, that doesn’t even account for pathogens on surfaces. Our single-use wipe is not nearly enough to address all of the surfaces, but a quick pass from a XENEX Disinfection Robot would do wonders for the seats, tray tables and overhead bins. Thankfully, a friendly reminder popped up on the screen to keep our masks on, as well as an announcement from the fight staff to the same effect. Before the flight safety video, the airline I was on had created another COVID-safety video which reiterated the points displayed on the screen during boarding. They were voiced over branded b-roll footage of cleaning, hand sanitizing, mask usage, and social distancing measures that I had not encountered in my actual experience on this airline. Of course, it’s easier to stand on the “social distance” sticker when 1) you’re an actor in a safety video and 2) when there’s actually “social distance” stickers.

It’s tough to socially distance on a plane. This flight blocked off the middle seat in each row but still filled every row, reducing the social distance to about 2 feet in each direction. As soon as the plane was in the air, my social distance was reduced again by the person in front of me leaning his chair as far back as it would go. Because I’m taller than the backrest anyway, if I was not wearing a mask, this man would be getting a full face of my breath.

Once in the air, the screen in front of me stopped playing its ads and went dark. It’s then that I noticed the telltale streak of a quick sanitizer wipe, but also about a dozen or so fingerprints left untouched by the wipe. This is another touchscreen on my journey that I will not be touching.

I’m not sure if it’s due to international travel or just a difference of policy, but on my second flight, I had my temperature checked on the gangway toward the plane. It’s a little bit late to be checking symptoms, even if they catch something, that person would’ve had a whole airport of people to infect. Still, it’s the closest thing to a screening I received up to this point on the trip. I don’t want to belabour the point but if there were some sort of definitive way I could know the people I’m sharing a flying tube with had a negative test result, it would be preferable. The questionnaires at check-in and a single temperature check when we’ve got one foot on the plane does nothing to ease the tension of travelling during a global pandemic.

Boarding this flight, we were handed a loose disinfectant wipe, which I used on my seat since I couldn’t save it for later. The safety instructions on the second flight (not a video) had the addition of: “if oxygen masks are needed, please remove your face covering”. I’m not sure if that was added preemptively, or if some poor passenger once tried to put the oxygen mask over his normal mask. I can’t imagine how that went for them. This new message was not added to the pre-recorded French safety instructions, so I hope they get the message if cabin pressure drops. Instead of a pre-packaged snack, two flight attendants went down the aisle and handed out a cold 8oz water and a pack of beloved Biscoff cookies. No extra precautions here, just a simple handoff, and flight attendants didn’t even wear gloves.

International Arrivals:
Maybe it’s because it was dark already, or maybe it’s because I couldn’t see any faces, but the atmosphere upon landing in Canada was very different. They let us off of the plane one travelling group at a time. However, when I got off the plane, the other passengers were either so far ahead or so far behind that I didn’t see them throughout the winding hallways towards customs. Just like entering any other country in the modern era, entry depends on the use of a touchscreen. Unlike in the American airports, Canada took some measures for social distancing here: not just blocking off two out of every three kiosks, but turning them off so they’re not usable by even the most entitled of travellers. I didn’t see any cleaning or cleaning supplies so I once again used my handy stylus to interact. Once I filled out my customs form, however, an attendant in a mask and gloves hurried over to spray and wipe the entire screen, the edges of the kiosk, and the various document scanners. The baggage claim was hauntingly empty: just me and one security officer who double-checked my customs form. I was able to grab my bags quickly and head toward the exit.

Upon exiting the customs controlled area. I was met with a nurse in full PPE: face mask, gloves, goggles, face shield, and an entire disposable robe, covering her from head to sneakers. She welcomed me to Canada and held up a QR code that I could scan from a distance, which brought me to an online form. She then took my entire body temperature using a wall-mounted infrared camera and directed me to another nurse down the hall who had me stand on a sticker on the ground (socially distant from others, if there were others at the time) so I could fill out the online form on my phone. After my form was completed, I was directed by a third nurse to a bay of windows. A fourth nurse waved me over and I stood in front of her counter, separated by plexiglass, and presented with my form’s code. She verbally confirmed the information I’d inputted: my name and contact info, the address I would be spending my quarantine, and confirmation that I could get food and medicine delivered to me. If I had a simple verifiable tool for presenting recent negative COVID-19 test results to them, this process would have been much less complex. After everything was confirmed, I was sent on my way to sit in the back seat of an Uber with my mask on, as per Uber’s new policies. As I unloaded my luggage, the driver thoroughly scrubbed everything I could have possibly touched in his car (and some surfaces that were even out of my reach).

Quarantine Checkups
Fast forward to Tuesday, 3 days after travelling. I receive a call from the government of Canada. This was the second confirmation of my contact information and quarantine plan. They already had my information from the airport and just read it out to confirm, and reminded me to check for symptoms and call the national COVID hotline in case something comes up.

Fast forward again to Wednesday, the fire alarm goes off in my building. I quickly compared the risk between dying of COVID and dying in a fire so I left the apartment and stood across the street for a few minutes until a fire truck drove by unbothered. I learned on my way in that this was a scheduled fire alarm test, something I didn’t know because quarantine prevented me from seeing publicly posted signage in my building. Within an hour of returning home, I received another call from the Government of Canada. This was a more stern reminder of quarantine policies: I am not allowed to be in any public space, whether it’s the great outdoors or the not-so-great garbage room of my apartment building. This call made me a bit nervous because I had just been standing unceremoniously in the windswept streets of downtown less than an hour earlier. I remembered that I’d installed the ArriveCAN app on my phone, Canada’s faltering attempt at contact tracing. Before flying, I filled out my travel information on the app, and they presented me with a code. The app crashed the day before my flight and all my data disappeared. Looking at the comments on the Play Store, this was a common occurrence. I filled out the information again, this time screenshotting the code, thinking I would need it later.

I did not need it later.

I checked the app again after this call to see if it had been used for contact tracing, as is the case in other countries. Not only had they deleted the data I inputted again, but they also didn’t have location permissions on my phone, not that they’d even asked. Due to its flaws, the ArriveCAN app is a huge missed opportunity. It could have been a central place to keep my information (looking at you, “Unique Verification Code”) not only regarding my travel, but also my medical history, like the temperature they took on the plane and at the airport, and any COVID tests that I may have gotten, and my quarantine plans. Having secure information that’s verifiable by the government in my pocket would make travelling and contacting others a lot easier.

Overall, there have been attempts to integrate additional protocols to keep travelers safer, but many opportunities remain – in keeping environments cleaner than can be accomplished with a handful of disinfectant wipes, and in providing ways for travelers to easily present negative testing credentials before boarding or at international checkpoints, and to verify their daily procedures while in self-quarantine, like temperature checks. Several of the companies we work with, like MedCreds and XENEX, have found opportunities to leverage their technology in ways that improve overall safety for travelers and airline employees.