Smart Health Travel in the COVID-19 Era: Uruguay’s exemplar of best practice

Smart Health Travel in the COVID-19 Era: Uruguay’s exemplar of best practice

When managing the repercussions of a pandemic such as the one that is currently hitting the world, businesses face two choices: to follow others or to lead the way. As Eng. Ricardo Cerri reveals, Carrasco International Airport in Uruguay chose to lead.

In the middle of a continent considered the new (at the time of writing) epicentre of the pandemic, Uruguay is internationally recognised as one of the countries that is best managing COVID-19 response. The main point of entrance to the country, Carrasco International Airport, is a testament to that.

By employing an innovative approach to risk profiling assessment, establishing timely sanitary rules and enforcing strict operational protocols, the priority from day one was to make the air terminal a safe place for passengers and workers alike. The drive and dedication of its team, the close collaboration with national authorities and observance of guidelines and advice issued by international organisations has allowed the Uruguayan airport to become a safe haven in the midst of an historic crisis in the aviation industry.

Operational Impact of COVID-19

Only time will tell the long-term consequences of the coronavirus epidemic in the sector as a whole, but some immediate effects were felt by Carrasco International Airport from the outset. Usually a hub for 11 airlines and 12 destinations, a week after the government announced a state of national sanitary emergency on 13 March, operations decreased by about 98%. Only cargo and humanitarian flights are now allowed to fly in and out of the country, both pending approval from authorities.

“…usually a hub for 11 airlines and 12 destinations, a week after the government announced a state of national sanitary emergency on 13 March, operations decreased by about 98%…”

Adapting in such a time is a challenge, but Carrasco has managed to support this minimal level of activity by introducing creative initiatives. For example, it transformed its vacant parking lot into a drive-in cinema. In order to help compensate for the lack of entertainment during the pandemic, this space allows Uruguayans to enjoy a show from their own cars in a safe place that follows health and safety guidelines recommended by the authorities. Impact on the workforce has been consistent with the decline in operations, but initiatives such as the drive-in cinema have created a beacon of opportunity for staff to remain engaged and maintain morale.

AeroLife, drive-in cinema at Carrasco International Airport (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)
AeroLife, drive-in cinema at Carrasco International Airport (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)

Meanwhile, airport authorities have been in constant dialogue with the aviation community and national authorities to reactivate operations and resume regular activities as soon as possible. For operations to restart, the priority for Carrasco has been the adaptation of airport health security standards.

Through the development of the Smart Health Travel project by the Easy Airport Center of Excellence, the Uruguayan airport has adapted its operational protocols and rules to ensure the maximum health safety possible is guaranteed to facilitate that return to ‘normal’.

The Smart Health Travel Project

The Smart Health (SHT) Travel programme takes into consideration the recommendations and guidelines of the Airport Council International (ACI), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as well as those of local health and transportation authorities.

With vast experience in applying cutting-edge technology to airport processes, the Center of Excellence set the Smart Health Travel project in motion to develop a set of health protocols and propose technologies that mitigate health risks and build foundations for the gradual re-introduction of a regular flight schedule. Its objectives are to reactivate the industry and to re-establish Uruguay’s air connectivity with health controls at the air entry/exit checkpoints aimed at regaining passengers’ trust.

The SHT plan is divided into three phases, the first of which was set in place immediately after the pandemic hit the country. This includes physical distancing measures, the provision of sanitary items, staff protection mechanisms, use of mandatory facemasks, temperature screening for all passengers and workers, and enhancement of cleaning and disinfecting standards for the entire terminal infrastructure.

The currently ongoing second and third phases revolve around automating health safety rules and protocols to scale and adapt more efficiently as the flow of passengers gradually increases in the coming months. Technology and innovation are the building blocks that enable the advancement of these processes.

The technologies being applied are structured into two categories: big data and tech devices. Several are already successfully functioning, while experts and authorities are developing others together with the aviation community in order to ensure the best performance.

Becoming a Contact-Free Airport

Carrasco International Airport’s long-term focus on innovation gave the terminal a head-start in applying new SHT protocols, as several technologies were already in place and only had to be fine-tuned, upgraded or modified in order to adapt to the new situation.

Implementing as many contact-free solutions as possible is a key focus when facing a highly contagious virus that seems to be transmissible via surfaces. Carrasco began this journey several years ago when it became the first airport in Latin America to implement a 100% digital passenger flow. Initially a security-focused mechanism, it has now become a critical way to increase health safety.

“…transformed its vacant parking lot into a drive-in cinema. In order to help compensate for the lack of entertainment during the pandemic, this space allows Uruguayans to enjoy a show from their own cars…”

Through its Easy Airport programme, the Uruguayan terminal has self-service eGates at every checkpoint inside the airport, from its entrance to immigration and boarding, as well as arrivals.

This fully digitised flow of passengers is not only more efficient and more secure, it now also ensures an almost completely contact-free experience. It is also the first airport in South America to implement self biometric boarding eGates (SBGs) in a common use environment, allowing any airline to make use of this unique feature. An efficient passenger flow also significantly reduces queues and crowds forming in high-traffic areas.

Passengers are encouraged to complete the check-in process before their arrival so that they reduce their time inside the terminal. The existing self-service technology for check-in and tax return also helps towards the goal of becoming a touchless airport and reducing the contact of passengers and staff whenever possible.

Technologies to
Monitor Body Temperature

Initially done manually, the monitoring of body temperature has become a staple at arrival and departure gates all over the world. As the flow of passengers starts to increase, the automation of this process becomes necessary in order to safely and efficiently monitor all passengers, visitors and workers.

Carrasco International Airport relies on cutting-edge technology to make this happen. Modern thermographic cameras are located at the arrivals area before border control and at departures just before passengers enter the security and boarding area. These cameras automatically measure the body temperature of all passengers entering the area. A health official monitoring the information can thus immediately activate protocols or isolate a person for secondary assessment if the body temperature is grounds for any type of suspicion about the wellbeing of the passenger. A 24/7 medical team at the airport and a separate area for this type of assessment ensures better safety standards for everyone involved in the process.

For all other public areas of the airport, security personnel wearing ‘smart helmets’ equipped with the latest technology are able to monitor the body temperatures of passengers, visitors and workers that enter their field of vision in real-time. This enables airport authorities to take action immediately or activate protocols when needed, and broadens the scope of control, making the management of health standards more efficient.

Monitoring and Enforcing Physical Distancing

The airport has implemented clear floor and wall signage and seat blockage, urging people to follow social distancing measures. The responsibility for physical distancing lies with each individual; however, technology can play a big part in supervising and enforcing it. Using an innovative people-flow monitoring software based on stereo cameras and sensors in all high traffic areas, the Center for Airport Security and Control at Carrasco monitors distancing between people at key areas in real time. When measures are not being complied with or crowds start to form, the security department can immediately deploy staff and activate protocols to resolve the situation and maintain a safe distance.

The airport has also implemented crowd control systems in enclosed spaces such as restrooms in the entire terminal, installing software that detects when the capacity limit has been reached. Outside each restroom, a sign turns red when the maximum number of people has been reached, or green when there is still available space inside to maintain social distancing.

Health Risk Analysis Approach

In Uruguay, one of the most innovative measures put in place as a response to the pandemic was the use of big data to aid the national prevention and containment campaign.

“…security personnel wearing ‘smart helmets’ equipped with the latest technology are able to monitor the body temperatures of passengers, visitors and workers that enter their field of vision…”

Smart helmet with real-time temperature measurement  (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)
Smart helmet with real-time temperature measurement
(Credit: Corporacion America Airports)

The Center of Excellence, with the support of a team of IT experts and collaborating with a major global vendor and government authorities, enabled the use of existing border control information and technology, previously used exclusively for security, for national health purposes.

By integrating data typically used for risk profiling – ‘advanced passenger information’ (API) and ‘passenger named records’ (PNR) – into the border control system, the technology allows officials to identify passengers from countries classified as high risk by the World Health Organisation (WHO). When a passenger is identified as a potential health risk, an automatic alert is sent to immigration officials, allowing them to make informed decisions in a timely manner.

Self Boarding eGate, Easy Aiport Consulting (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)
Self Boarding eGate, Easy Aiport Consulting (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)

Whether it is used to request additional information or isolate the passenger for a secondary assessment or medical control, the use of this technology proved helpful in the containment efforts. This leaves the airport in a better position for the reactivation of the industry as it highlights the potential health risks posed by each individual passenger.

What’s Coming Next?

Several other potential measures are on the table and are being discussed with authorities, airlines and other relevant members of the airport community. These include immunity tests, SARS COV-2 tests, sanitary or health passports and digitalisation of official health declarations. All measures, current and future, are revised frequently by a team of experts, updated with new international guidelines, and adapted when new, more effective solutions are found.

Today, the focus is on ensuring business continuity with the highest health guarantees, making the most of existing technology, adding new devices and systems to make monitoring and enforcing measures and protocols more efficient, and ensuring a safe return to activities.

Thermographic camera view  (Credit: Corporacion America Airports)
Thermographic camera view
(Credit: Corporacion America Airports)

As all the necessary factors align for a reactivation of the industry, the main challenge shifts from how to keep passengers healthy, which will always be a key focus of the industry, to how to scale up health-related protocols and operations as the number of passengers increases.

Some measures we expect will become permanent and we are implementing them with the longer term in mind. Others might need to be modified and adapted to allow for the regularisation of commercial flights.

“…the Center for Airport Security and Control at Carrasco monitors distancing between people at key areas in real time. When measures are not being complied with or crowds start to form, the security department can immediately deploy staff…”

Technology is an ally, as is the open dialogue with authorities and the local and international aviation community. Moving forward, the focus will continue to be on finding solutions that strengthen health-related processes at the entry/exit checkpoints of countries and contribute to reactivating the sector. At the same time, we must continue to mitigate the impact of the crisis, while ensuring that the health of the local and foreign population are priorities for everyone involved.


Eng. Ricardo Cerri is the Chief Technology Officer at Corporación América Uruguay.