Post-Pandemic Flying – What will Airports be like after COVID-19?

It’s clear that the effects of the present pandemic are inevitably going to be felt long after its passing, so what lasting changes will we see at airports around the world?

When it comes to the challenges involved in conducting daily airport operations while battling to contain COVID-19, there are a lot of them, and they are extremely delicate and complex. Across the world, airports are constantly juggling the need to provide the maximum level of services they need in order to stay financially afloat, while still ensuring that they can protect public health as they do so.

The past four months since the breaking of the pandemic have been a near-vertical learning curve for airports, who are still having to rapidly change and improve all manner of operational procedures to protect passengers and employees. Difficult as this process has been, the grim reality of what we have all been facing is almost certainly going to encourage a step-change in thinking about how airports are designed and run to better prevent the reoccurrence of a similar pandemic.

Like many other industries, aviation will be changed in its look and feel after COVID-19 has been fully contained.

Airport Design Changes – Making viral prevention and containment part of the structural strategy

Spatial considerations: Airports are inherently busy places and before the pandemic, demand for commercial flights was growing at pace. The future of airport design cannot simply be about ‘building bigger’, because that approach ultimately becomes economically unsustainable; it will have to also involve smarter considerations about exactly how people are directed. The emphasis will be on creating more open spaces where passenger traffic flows more swiftly and freely, while eliminating as many potential bottlenecks and areas for overcrowding as possible.

Airport Equipment – Developing heightened and improved surveillance

Thermal cameras: Expect to see much more of a physical presence of equipment and staff dedicated to observing and then isolating passengers showing signs of contagious illness. Thermal cameras used to check temperature levels have become a key part of airports’ viral containment measures, and will likely become even more prevalent in the coming months and years. In May, Heathrow airport began trialling thermal cameras in arrivals, with a view to expanding their use to departures, connections and security check areas.

Increasing automation: As this pandemic has already shown, using automated solutions over human-to-human interactions is a sure-fire way to prevent viral spreading. Expect to see a greater variety of increasingly advanced robots and automated tools being introduced to airports, from self-directed cleaning bots, to autonomous vehicles and even robots dedicated to providing assistance and security.

Baggage disinfection: While COVID-19 is mostly transmitted through airborne droplets, it can still survive on surfaces for days and even up to nearly a month in the right conditions. Therefore, all baggage will likely need to undergo a disinfection process, with UV light providing perhaps the most practical solution.

Airport Operations – Procedural changes to protect against infection

Self-service as a first choice: The health benefits of passengers using self-service elements across the airport processing journey are easy to see. Instead of crowding together in queues for check-in, baggage drop and so on, self-service options encourage social distancing and prevent cross-contamination. Accordingly, airports will need to raise their game in terms of providing more sophisticated self-service avenues with enough capacity to efficiently serve everyone using them. Ultimately, self-service should become the instinctive method for most passengers checking in, with only a handful liaising with airport staff in more complicated cases.

Smarter scheduling: To further encourage passengers to keep their distance and avoid overcrowding at the airport, operators are going to have to encourage passengers to arrive in more targeted timeframes, rather than at their discretion. Naturally, this will have to be done in a way that is seamless and convenient for the passengers themselves, with mobile app reminders and various modes of assistance offered as standard. By staggering the arrival of passengers at the airport, this will further aid smoother traffic flows and help avoid overcrowding.

Focusing on smarter, smoother and safer passenger processing

The airports of the future will be marked in innumerable ways, big and small, by this pandemic, as the need to prevent its reoccurrence will be the utmost priority of the whole industry. Identifying and isolating people showing signs of being contagious will be central to the necessary changes being made to airports globally. Equally important will be the ability of airports to improve the flow of passengers through each part of the onboarding journey, so that they remain as well protected as possible throughout.

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

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