Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group

Optimising Airport Operations under the Shadow of COVID-19

2020 has started as a time of unprecedented difficultly and complexity for the aviation industry, as airlines, airports and industry partners attempt to adapt their operations to the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic. For some, the goal is merely to keep their heads above water until some form of assistance package arrives. For others with greater resources and room to manoeuvre, boosting operational flexibility and resilience is the best path ahead. Either way, there is a pressing need to enact quick and decisive change in the face of the pandemic.

COVID-19’s economic impact on aviation

While many countries governments’ are hesitant to completely curtail domestic air travel, international flights are experiencing a staggering reduction to the point of near-total shutdown for many of the world’s biggest airports and airlines. the International Air Transport Association recently estimated that airlines' passenger revenue in 2020 will be cut by more than half, the equivalent of  about $314 billion. In the Middle East, aviation supports around $130 billion in economic activity every year, making it equivalent to around 4.4% of the region’s GDP while supporting 2.4 million jobs.

In the midst of an industry-changing event, the challenge now is for every airport to understand the extent of their exposure to the global impact of COVID-19 and formulate their own tailored response to it, not just in terms of preventing further spread of the virus, but also securing the future of their operations and even their very existence.

Looking towards the future of the industry by encouraging operational excellence

While every airport constitutes a completely unique setup, with its own infrastructural and operational needs, strengths and weaknesses, there are several priorities that are consistently held by all airport operators facing the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation.

Gain holistic oversight: The spread of the virus through airports and other points in ingress to countries around the world has highlighted the crucial need for attaining a more holistic view of an airport’s entire operational setup. From the moment passengers land to the moment they leave, it is essential for operators to maintain the ability to make accurate and detailed analysis of their activities. Flight and passenger traffic flows, security check data, baggage conveyance, usage of airport facilities and partner services – every element of human interaction within an airport is an invaluable source of operational data with the potential to literally save lives in the context of combatting COVID-19.

Improve current operational resilience: As we discuss in more detail in our airport COVID-19 response article this month, airports around the world have entered a new phase of scaling up their ability to protect their staff and customers against the virus. From advanced screening technologies and processes, to heightened awareness campaigns, rigorous disinfection and cleaning routines and more, airports are enacting all viable measures to curtail the spread of the pandemic. While this is clearly a moral and commercial necessity in the middle of the unfolding crisis, it will also serve as the basis for future advances in operational resilience, as the ‘new normal’ of proactively working to prevent future pandemics takes hold.

Create conditions for recovery and ‘futureproof’ against new pandemics: While many airports will be delaying or even cancelling the implementation of new technological innovations as their revenues dwindle, now is the time for embracing new thinking in the face of our globally interconnected vulnerability to fast-spreading diseases. Analysts are already citing the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the winter of 2020, and the past months have already exposed the grim reality of how the existing aviation setup is not sufficiently robust enough to stop its spread. As such, the ability to keep airports running without unnecessary human interaction should be a rising priority for leading international airports. From the introduction of more advanced automation-based processes, to more ‘touchless’ services and self-processing customer options, the airport of the future will have to be one which has the ability to keep its users insulated from the spread of all manner of virulent diseases.

Six steps to success

Multiple solutions providers in the operational performance improvement space point towards a six-point plan for boosting airport efficiency and safety:

Assessment and analysis: Being able to fully see and understand the extent of an airport’s operations is the first step towards making viable improvements in the most cost-effective manner with the best chance of long-term positive impact.

Developing a holistic strategy: Designing a plan to futureproof all elements of airport operations is an essential requirement to avoid disjointed, piecemeal upgrades that fail to realise their full potential.

Creating bespoke solutions: Specific solutions need to be tailored to fit the existing operational realities of the airport while at the same time guiding them towards greater efficiency, flexibility and resilience.

Implementation: Turning all of the designed solutions from concept to reality is the most delicate part of the process, as it requires the faithful execution of the operational concept while taking into account the daily challenges that can derail any improvement efforts, especially during the current pandemic crisis.

Post-implementation analysis and continuous improvement: Assessing the extent of the new solutions’ success in a transparent and open manner will drive invaluable feedback from all relevant sources while highlighting areas for further necessary improvements.

Moving beyond COVID-19

More than anything, this is a time to be proactive. While there is a great level of uncertainty around the future behaviour of the virus, and the response from government and international authorities, this does not suggest that doing nothing is the safest option. Instead, the airports experiencing measured successes in retaining traffic while preventing further infections are those who have met the challenge head on, assessing the extent of their vulnerabilities and proactively forging a holistic response.

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

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