Airports and COVID-19: Impacts and Adaptations

COVID-19’s impacts on the travel industry are vast and far-reaching. With the global pandemic affecting travel worldwide, air travel has plunged to post 9/11 levels. Disruptions to the industry are likely to persist as long as the virus remains a threat, and many people will choose not to fly long after restrictions are lifted due to COVID-related health concerns or economic constraints.  As travel resumes, the coming years in the airport industry are likely to include the following changes:

Economic Impacts
Drastically reduced passenger numbers will directly impact airport and airline finances and long-range budget projections. Not only will flights need to run at reduced capacity to allow physical distancing, but airports will also see diminished revenues from parking, concessions, and other services. This reduction in passenger spending intersects with the need to invest significant resources in new safety protocols and facilities retrofits to accommodate public health guidelines for physical distancing.

Passenger screening
Airports will need to consider implementing protocols for verifying passenger wellness. Technologies such as Infrared Fever Screening Systems (IFSS) may allow rapid detection of symptomatic passengers; airports will also need to create quarantine areas and procedures to isolate people who do not pass screening. Airport medical clinics may require expanded services to address passenger and staff needs and provide support for wellness and screening strategies.

Passenger screening could potentially extend to technologies to help border control agents quickly identify passengers who have traveled to or through areas experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks to isolate potentially infected passengers. Other technologies may include systems such as disinfection chambers, rapid antibody tests, and other tools to harness big data in the interest of passenger safety.

Infection control
In order to reduce opportunities for viral transmission and build passenger confidence in safety protocols, airports will need to consider every step of the airport journey from a safety perspective. Touchless technology such as automated doors, paperless ticketing, and new systems for check in, gate lounges, and baggage claim areas are likely to become the norm. Restrooms will integrate doorless entries, touchless fixtures, and motion sensors wherever possible.  Technology which allows contactless payment, self-service touchless kiosks, mobile ordering, and product delivery to the gate may find widespread use.

Airports will also need to consider policies and procedures for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) use for both passengers and staff. Many airports will require face coverings for all passengers in public areas, with exceptions for food service areas and security screenings. To facilitate this practice, airports will need to explore ways to provide PPE for those who need it such as touchless vending machines with stations for hand sanitizing and disposal of used face coverings.

Physical distancing
Physical distancing protocols will require careful planning for safer queuing, circulation, and waiting. Airports will need to create detailed plans which allow airport staff, concessionaires, airline employees, and passengers to maintain 6’ of distance for all airport functions. Strategies may include the use of facial recognition and Advance Imaging Technology body scanners in TSA areas to reduce wait times and alleviate pinch points and crowding at security. One-way circulation may be necessary for concession areas, rest rooms, and other public spaces, and airports and airlines will need to collaborate to develop space plans for ample distance for waiting and boarding areas, including removing seating and using environmental graphics and other signals to indicate appropriate distances.

Individual airlines will need to develop protocols for physical distancing between passengers, use of in-flight PPE, boarding and deplaning, and other flight procedures according to IATA standards. Maintaining distance between passengers will reduce aircraft capacity and further impact revenues, but may prove necessary for building passenger confidence as well as reducing viral transmission as air travel gradually resumes.

Using CPTED Principles for Safer Spaces
Many designers and public safety officials are familiar with the concepts involved in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). These concepts, which include natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement, maintenance, and target hardening, can also translate to safer spaces for public health. Strategies such as providing well defined entries and circulation routes, eliminating blind spots, maintaining facilities to the highest standards, and creating a sense of shared ownership of common spaces all encourage healthier behaviors among passengers and staff.

Though it may be several years before airline travel returns to its pre-COVID levels, operational and facilities adaptations can make travel safer for passengers and staff in the meantime using common-sense measures and new technologies. As our knowledge of the virus and its transmission continues to evolve over time, designers and clients can collaborate to continuously refine strategies which will support public health needs in the short term and a more robust return to pre-COVID levels of air travel in the long term.

About Brian

Vice President and Principal Brian Bresg is LS3P’s Aviation and Transportation Sector Leader and has worked exclusively on aviation and transportation projects for the past 20 years. Brian has relevant experience in all phases of aviation and supports facility design work, contracts, and construction contract administration. An experienced facilities designer, technical specialist, and code analyst, Brian manages LS3P’s most complex projects with large consultant teams. Current and past projects include commercial, public, and airport-focused parking garages; Consolidated Rental Car Facilities (ConRACs); integral structured parking facilities; new terminal and concourse development as well as existing terminal and concourse expansions and renovations in line-baggage handling systems; current airport specialty systems; facility central energy plants; airline hospitality clubs; terminal and concourse retail; and concession shell and fit-up packages.