IATA says without process improvements, the average time spent at an airport globally could reach 5.5 hours per trip at 75 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, and eight hours per trip at 100 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic volumes. Image Credit: Seyyed de L'lata/Gulf News

My holiday plans for the coming year are in the making. So are yours, I am sure. And why not? We’ve been resting on the wings of hope long enough, haven’t we?

But as we weigh our options with regard to destinations, flights and accommodation, we will have to consider other factors too. Notwithstanding where the world is currently poised in terms of the pandemic, there is no denying that COVID-19 will continue to influence our decisions.

You will agree many questions come to mind: What is the current COVID-19 situation at the chosen destination? Is it likely to change? What are the entry requirements and health guidelines there? Should I book now or later? Fixed-price ticket or flexi-booking? Small group or big group? And so on.

Given how fluid things still are, there are no easy answers. So in order to get a better idea of what to expect in the coming months, I approached the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global body which has on board 290 airlines representing 83 per cent of global air traffic. And guess what?

The way things are, we will have to factor yet another element when we embark on our travels: Wait time at airports around the world.

Sharp rise in wait times

From what IATA tells me, wait time at check-in and other airport checkpoints during peak times doubled from an average of 1.5 hours to three hours with travel volumes at only 30 per cent of pre-COVID levels. Without process improvements, it says the average time spent at an airport globally could reach 5.5 hours per trip at 75 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, and eight hours per trip at 100 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic volumes.

While COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our travel journey, IATA explains how the biggest change has been the introduction of new health measures and travel requirements. Travelers must verify entry requirements, health measures and protocols before a trip and ensure that they meet those requirements. There’s also the pre-departure PCR tests and proof of vaccination stipulations. While many countries expect travelers to download digital apps to validate their requirements, some governments still want paper certificates to board the plane. These requirements coupled with the need to verify them at airports have resulted in the sharp rise in wait time.

Significantly, IATA’s last Global Passenger Survey (GPS) revealed in November last year that passengers worldwide want to spend less time queuing and are willing to use biometric identification if it expedites travel processes. IATA says to facilitate a seamless and scalable restart, there is a need for digital tools and solutions to facilitate air travel and ensure a safe and smooth journey.

How Dubai airport manages its queues

Fortunately for us in Dubai, reducing wait time has long been a priority for Dubai Airports - pandemic or no pandemic. The introduction of Smart Gates, advanced versions of the e-gates introduced over 15 years ago, and realtimeDXB, a cloud-based platform, have been game-changers in monitoring and managing passenger traffic since 2017.

The Smart Gates allow registered passengers to seamlessly pass through at DXB. Emirates has even launched a contactless biometric path. This has brought down transaction times to just a few seconds. Similarly, a highly advanced motion sensor system enables the airport to track queues in real time. The sensors calculate wait times and queue lengths based on passenger movements. The data is then transmitted on a mobile app to key operational staff from the airport and other government departments, besides airlines. This helps the teams to manage staffing levels and lanes by quickly identifying bottlenecks and deploying additional resources if there are delays.

Even after COVID-19 struck, Dubai Airports, in a classic case study perhaps, has continued to manage the smooth flow of passengers despite being the world’s busiest airport. Among the first to open up for tourists in July 2020, Dubai Airports went on to effectively meet the uncompromising entry protocols for RT-PCR testing, thanks to a 24/7 in-house laboratory, the world’s largest, that could handle 100,000 samples a day and generate results within a few hours.

Due diligence a must

Getting back to our holiday plans, IATA advises us to prepare well, and do our due diligence before booking a trip. And this includes checking airport wait time at our destination.