Airports are an example of COVID-19 digital regression

Like many other foreign journalists descending on Japan amid a resurging pandemic to cover the Tokyo Olympics, Cathal Kelly had to endure nonsensical airport procedures on arrival:

…verify forms, verify apps, get new forms, verify those forms, get our forms all mixed up, get them unmixed, spit in a tube, wait to hear how that went, verify more forms, get credentialed, clear customs, get fingerprinted and photographed, run the gauntlet at immigration…

I’ve had more forgiving, yet still nonsensical, experiences as I flew through four airports on three continents.

No matter the locale, airport authorities have conjured up heavily manual and unintelligent procedures in clear violation of the prophecies of COVID-induced low-touch economy, accelerated automation, and radical transformation.

Given the clear evidence of international travel’s contribution to coronavirus transmission, one would have expected airports to lead the way in using technology to facilitate safe travel.

Instead, the COVID-19 international travel experience is riddled with forms, confusion, lineups, and opportunities for infection:

  • Useless declaration forms, vaccine certificates, and Covid test results must be either printed out or presented on one’s mobile phone. It became routine for airport staff to handle travellers’ mobile phones using their fingers to pinch in/out to confirm key information. A traveller’s phone would be handled by individuals who toy with thousands of phones daily, not very hygienic, I would say.
  • Hapless agents or officials are expected to read through and validate the many non-standard vaccine certificates. Not only is this a bottleneck, but the opportunities for fraud are obvious.
  • International airports, with their swarms of assorted travellers, are islands of nonconformity with Covid restrictions.

Where are the AI-powered automation tools that could zoom through vaccine certificate authentication? Or the AI algorithms that monitor and enforce social distancing? Or the robots that may help in something at some point of going through an airport?

Well, transformation is difficult. Especially when intricate international coordination is required and in the midst of a global emergency. And the signs aren’t promising for a leap in how international travel is conducted.

COVID has accelerated trends that were already in place, like e-commerce (Amazon is 27 years old) and remote work (Yes, VPNs and workplace hoteling did exist pre-pandemic).

It’ll take much longer for greenfield innovations to take hold, especially within our economy’s colossal and sluggish sectors.


Notes & Sources:

  1. Photo by @shawnanggg on Unsplash.
  2. Upon arrival at the Tokyo Olympics, common sense is nowhere to be found,” The Globe and Mail.


This article was first published on my Substack page on July 31, 2021.

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