Battling the Pandemic: How are Airports responding to COVID-19?

At the time of writing, COVID-19 has spread to 210 countries, infecting over 3 million people and killing more than 210,000 worldwide. For the aviation industry, this ongoing pandemic is the most damaging and complex challenge to practically every facet of its operations since the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the impact of COVID-19 took longer to be felt, the continuation of travel bans, mass cancellations and groundings means that the industry remains in a state of crisis with no firm indication of an end point in sight. Across March 2020, global flight numbers were less than half that of a typical week in March 2019.

However, while traffic has been massively reduced in most major international airports, flights continue to be made as the industry pivots to the ‘new normal’ of operating under pandemic conditions. From freight conveyance, to emergency flights, citizen repatriations, military/government/NGO personnel transportation, domestic travel and a much reduced number of international commercial flights, airports are operating as best they can and processing the traffic that remains viable.

Accordingly, we are seeing a new reality in all airports as they adopt new policies and innovations designed to counter the threat of COVID-19 as effectively as possible while maintaining daily operations. Across the board, prevention and protection measures are being stepped up to secure both staff and customers against the pervasive threat.

New measures and innovations in containing COVID-19

Strengthened screening measures: The presence and effectiveness of screening measures at practically all airports across the world has necessarily strengthened in recent months as the pandemic continues. These include much more prominent messaging and information about COVID-19 displayed across airports; rigorous health screening questions from immigration, security and other airport staff; purpose-built isolation areas and facilities; thermal imaging and other temperature screening innovations; manual temperature checks and further medical investigations of any passengers suspected of having symptoms.

Improved education, health monitoring and protection protocols for airport workers: The daily fight against COVID-19 at airports across the world is not limited to screening the passengers who pass through them. The airport workers, temporary staff and other transient visitors are all equally at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Accordingly, airports are adopting much higher standards of protection, education and health monitoring for their staff. On the education side, this means running a wide range of training simulations regarding the prevention and containment of potential outbreaks, while bolstering staff knowledge levels about the nature and characteristics of the virus. In terms of physical protection, airports across the world are adopting much more stringent measures for their employees, requiring them to wear forms of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), adopt more rigorous hand-washing techniques and other hygienic routines, and minimise all forms of social contact while now wearing PPE.

Enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols: Killing lingering traces of COVID-19 on surfaces is another vital method of curtailing its viral spread. As such, high-traffic areas and frequently touched surfaces are now the focal point for much more regular and vigorous disinfection as part of airports’ daily operations. Elevator buttons, tabletops, stairway bannisters, charger plug sockets, any surface or area likely to attract human contact is now a hotspot for disinfection.

Isolation measures in-flight and in the airport: Given the long incubation period of the virus, incidents of infected persons first displaying symptoms in the airport or even mid-flight are sadly a situation that has become more of a common occurrence worldwide. Accordingly, airports and airlines have adopted much swifter isolation measures in these circumstances, keeping symptomatic passengers segregated from others as quickly as possible in isolation areas on planes and in airports.

Looking ahead: Going autonomous and hands-free

While airports across the world have had to scramble to put in place the most effective response plans as quickly as possible, the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is continuing to shift the focus of leading airports towards the introduction of new technologies and innovations to better combat similar outbreaks in the future. From completely hands-free passenger self-processing, to autonomous baggage handling, security checks and on-boarding, creating a swifter mass conveyance system with fewer human interactions may prove vital in reducing the risks of viral pandemics while boosting airports’ operational resilience at the same time. 

Until the appearance of more effective treatments and a viable vaccine, COVID-19 will continue to force airports to enact stricter measures around cleaning, disinfection and the shielding of their infrastructure and everyone who uses it. Months after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, the global response to the virus has moved into a new phase of thinking strategically and in a long-term manner about how best to contain it, while eyeing the opportunity to improve airports’ resilience against future pandemics of this severity.

This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 26-28 October 2020. 

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