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COVID Accelerates Airport Automation and Unemployment

HOST INTRO (Anya Schultz): In the past two months airline travel has dropped 96 percent. Thanks to coronavirus, airports are quiet, and many of the workers have been laid off. Reporter Tay Glass looks at how airports are turning to new technology to keep passengers and staff safe from the virus.

TAY GLASS (Byline): Saeed Bacchus has been working in security at JFK International Airport for over a decade. Up until recently, he was helping to oversee the passenger pickup and dropoff area. Bacchus turns 60 next week. He has pulmonary issues. So he’s high risk.

SAEED BACCHUS: So I was very, very worried. 'cause I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna die now. I don’t wanna die the way I saw them loading these containers with dead bodies in bags.

GLASS: On March 19th, Bacchus called in sick to work. He was ok, but when he went back to work, they told him that he was furloughed, effective immediately, with no pay.

BACCHUS: I'm not getting anything from the employer. Nothing. I'm trying to look into the New York State Department of Labor to see if I can get any financial benefits that help me to pay my rent, buy food. I have no, no financial income right now.

GLASS: He’s put a little money aside, but he doesn’t know how long it’ll last, especially if he gets sick. In March alone, 1200 airport employees in New York lost their jobs with no severance pay. Vladimir Clairjeune also worked in security at JFK. He said that before coronavirus, his subcontractor employed 250 or so people. Only 10 or 15 of them are left. He wasn’t one of them. In addition to his salary, his work gave him a sense of purpose.

VLADIMIR CLAIRJEUNE: I miss being on the front lines, I miss helping people. I miss my coworkers.

GLASS: The airline industry is responding to two crises simultaneously - the massive loss in revenue and the safety concerns of the passengers and whatever workers are left. Ken Jacobs is the chair of UC Berkeley Labor Center. He says the airlines will likely try to meet these challenges by rushing to adopt more automation in airport terminals.

JACOBS: The COVID-19 crisis is going to speed up automation in places where it could then be used. So fewer workers means fewer workers close to each other.

GLASS: Al Lyons works for HOK, a design firm. He’s helped design airports all over the world, including JFK. He lives near LaGuardia and he says there is at least one positive outcome from the decline in air traffic.

AL LYONS: It's kind of nice not hearing the planes overhead all the time though (laugh).

GLASS: Lyons also thinks that coronavirus will accelerate the adoption of contactless technology in airports. Less contact means less potential for a disease like COVID 19 to spread. Eventually, he says, a traveler could get from passenger drop off to their seat on the airplane without interacting with anyone. Biometric data, Lyons says, like your eyes, your fingerprints, even your voice, can be used to let people move through airports seamlessly.

LYONS: The systems could identify me as Al or you as Tay and bring up an image of your license and all, without any interaction between you and the TSA. So that automated process would be a lot safer than what it is today because you wouldn’t have to pass a license to anybody or pass a boarding pass to anybody.

GLASS: Lyons says this kind of contactless technology will make the process of getting through airports faster for passengers, and safer for everyone. Contactless technology can already be found in airports in Amsterdam and Dubai.

LYONS: There's always some good sides to tragedies and I think you know, one of the good aspects of this is, I could see it happening in two, three years. Even quicker, because the technology is here to do it today.

((SOUND: Clear Ad music: “And with Clear, your eyes and hands get you through security faster, at airports, stadiums, and more...”

GLASS: This is an ad for Clear, a security machine that scans your eyes and fingerprints. It is meant to do the job of the worker who makes sure the photo on your id is actually you. A worker like Saeed Bacchus. Clear is already installed in over 65 airports across the country, including three terminals at JFK.

((YOUTUBE CLIP: “Please come a little closer to the camera”

GLASS: Al Lyons thinks that these kinds of services could do a better job of assessing threats than their human counterparts.

LYONS: Ya know, the people that are guards, they’re not the highest paid people. They do great jobs, but I think if someone wanted to fool them, they obviously could, in my opinion.

GLASS: One of the former security personnel at JFK, Vladimir Clairjeune, disagrees.

CLAIRJEUNE: I think automation is a really, it's a really bad idea.

GLASS: These kinds of technologies, he says, lack human intuition.

CLAIRJEUNE: You noticed, ya know, you get that gut feeling when you feel like something is off.

GLASS: Ken Jacobs, from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, says that as airports move towards these types of contactless technologies, workers like Clairjeune should be more involved in the design process.

JACOBS: Technologies will work best if the people who have been doing the work are part of that planning, and engaged in the discussions that lead to the designs. And then of course in the implementation.

GLASS: Contactless technologies could make airports safer. They also might mean fewer jobs when travel gets closer to normal. But one thing is clear - coronavirus has pushed the throttle forward on automation. We were already on the runway. Now we’re hurtling down it. Tay Glass. Columbia Radio News.

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