As airlines and airports struggle to return to business as normal, they are each trying in their own way to interpret how the new world will operate. The impact on supply and demand will hopefully be short-lived, but will COVID-19 have a lasting impact on airport infrastructure?
Previous outbreaks of infectious diseases were, in hindsight, a temporary state of affairs. Will the current pandemic lead to a systematic change in the same way that the global reaction to airport security resulting from the terrorist attacks in the early 2000s changed airports for good?
It is too soon to tell, but we look at three potential reactions.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first discovered in 2003, had a short-term impact on demand, and left without leaving an impact on airport infrastructure. It did not fundamentally change how we operate, plan, and expand airports. Conversely, 9/11 and subsequent carry-on liquid restrictions led to fundamental changes to airport infrastructure that continue to shape airport layout design and future planning.
Following the introduction of new security guidelines, airports had to invest in heavier and more space-consuming equipment, along with changed queuing arrangements. These changes required security to be reconfigured, sometimes displacing adjacent infrastructure to squeeze in larger passenger security checkpoints and longer queues within the terminal. In addition, airports needed to accommodate additional large x-ray machines in the baggage sortation facility below the terminal.
Those security impacts now appear relatively benign compared to the potential impact of a long-lasting requirement to maintain six feet of space between passengers. The International Air Transport Association’s “optimum” level of service guidelines—the industry standard that most airports around the world operate on—set a minimum area per passenger of 1.0 square meter (just over 10 square feet) for many parts of the terminal. This includes queues for security, emigration and immigration, and gate lounges, which means that people are pretty close together. Even maintaining three feet of distance between passengers would more than triple the area required per passenger. Put another way, today’s passenger terminals would need at least double the area to handle the same number of passengers—or today’s airports could only handle half the number of passengers they were designed for.
Worse, airport infrastructure is inelastic. Airports were able to squeeze in new security equipment and invested significantly to revolutionize their security offering, but that impact affected a relatively small element of the whole passenger terminal. Also, the change was accomplished within the existing airport walls. A doubling of space is simply not possible and cutting capacity by half is financially intolerable.
As physical adaptation cannot be the answer should COVID-19 result in a systematic impact, the solution must therefore be either technological or biological.
Technological solutions may soon become common place in airports. These solutions would go beyond the current status quo of frequent cleanings and requiring all passengers to wear face masks. Enhanced cleaning would be a relatively modest change to operational expenditure and can be delivered within existing infrastructure or without a long-term impact on capacity or future expansion.
More comprehensively, some airports (e.g., Heathrow) are using body temperature scanners on a trial basis. However, this seems less certain to be a permanent technological solution. The link between body temperature and infection is less clear cut than the link between x-ray and body scans and the carrying of prohibited items that made the equipment changes to security so successful.
The desired goal is to allow as many passengers as before to move as freely around a terminal, unencumbered by the risk of COVID-19 or any serious infectious disease. The solution, therefore, is likely to be neither physical nor technological.
A biological solution may look like a biological passport giving the passenger permission to enter the terminal without restriction, i.e., a medical safe-traveller program. Permission to travel cannot be simply based on a negative test as the period between test, result, and the passenger’s arrival at the airport exposes other passengers and staff to risk of infection. This solution depends on eradication of the disease from the population, presumably from a viable vaccination. As entry to certain countries today is dependent on a satisfactory vaccination certificate, so may entry to tomorrow’s airports.
A vaccine is many months away. Until then, airports and airlines will struggle to cope with the new normal and rely on practical physical and simple technological solutions to reduce the level of risk, as well as reduce the level of capacity.
We remain optimistic that COVID-19 will not have a long-term impact on airport expansion. It will likely impact operational expenditure through deeper cleaning requirements, but a significant capacity impact is untenable for inelastic legacy terminal buildings. Put simply, a viable safe-traveller program solution must be found as no other solution is as fit for purpose and financeable.