Cross-border: Airports and COVID19: innovating to adapt to a new normal

In the latest in our series of 'fireside chats' (always from a safe distance) with leading individuals in the sector, Stuart Cairns, Partner in our London Commercial Team and Head of our Airports group, has been speaking with Francis Walker, Director of Corgan's London Studio, a leading airport architecture and design firm, to discuss the impact of the pandemic on airports and explore what measures, particularly from a design perspective, can be, and are being, taken to get airports back up and running safely. 

Q. This is by far the biggest crisis that the airports sector has ever faced. What do you see as being the biggest COVID-19 related issues facing the sector, particularly from an airport design and configuration perspective?

Airports are gateways to the world, and thrive on the free movement of people to travel, engage and explore. Currently, as a high proportion of flights globally are grounded, airports are experiencing massively reduced footfall which in turn has significant consequences on how the asset is operated and maintained. As we are seeing, the commercial impact is huge, with significant impacts on design and construction projects. Some of this is temporary, some of it is here to stay, and others are opportunities to reflect and improve.

The primary issue facing the sector is to decide how we are going to address health related risks both now and in the future. One school of thought is to hold out for a vaccine and then assume that things will go back to ‘normal’ for the next 100 years. Our view is that the industry must take on the challenge of creating an aligned response strategy to health risks just as we have done for physical risks. Until we understand what the objectives are, any solutions developed are at best educated guesses.

From a design perspective, airports are planned for peak demand and it's not realistic for existing airports to simply provide socially distanced public spaces based on the passenger numbers of recent years. The industry faces short term challenges in adapting current airport configurations to accommodate social distancing measures, for example through the installation of personal booths for socially distanced seating. Longer term challenges are contingent on requirements to permanently reduce the levels of human interaction and close-contact, making for a more contactless and hygienic environment. All of our airport clients are looking at these factors and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Q. As you know, Bird & Bird focusses very much on how businesses are being changed by technology and the digital world, and we've seen lots of interesting examples of innovations which have been deployed in response to the pandemic. In our last piece, we heard about the health screening booths created by Etihad and the latest disinfection technologies at Honk Kong Airport. Have you seen any plans for innovative solutions to be introduced at airports around the world, particularly with regards to airport design or operation?   

It's interesting to see how technology implementation has changed very quickly from ‘what if?’ conversations to serious engagement on how to incorporate various platforms in response to COVID-19. Faster processing is key to reducing the build-up of large groups of people and the proximity issues arising from this.

There are a number of innovative technology-based solutions that may be deployed in airports in order to help tackle the pandemic, the most prevalent of which is biometric technology which is already in use in some aspects of the airport process, such as passport control. Biometric identification such as retina scanning or facial recognition will enable passengers to be identified at every relevant step of the airport process, from entering the airport through to boarding, without the need for a human to perform the identification process. This will result in faster passenger processing and less human contact.

In addition to biometric technology, a wider use of contactless tech can be deployed throughout airports with the aim of reducing human contact and therefore helping to maintain social distancing measures. Examples of this include contactless shopping at airport retail sites and the use of robots such as those in Hong Kong Airport using Far UV-C to disinfect public areas.

The positive aspect of this is that the innovative solutions discussed above will not only contribute to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, but will also improve the long term efficiency and overall customer service of airports in a post-COVID-19 world.

Q. There is now a lot of, sometimes quite heated, debate about when airports will be able to open back up for regular travel, and in particular whether the summer holiday season, which is fast approaching, will go ahead. Many airports have undoubtedly been readying themselves for such a return, but what do you think the key steps in getting back to some kind of normality in the sector?  

Well, let's zoom out a bit. Airports are part of a transport system, and passengers obviously have to get to the airport, spend time on an aircraft and continue travel at their destination. Arguably, more can be done at an airport than at any other point on that journey, since it is a contained space. Airports setting themselves up for a return to more normal operations require clear direction and a road map from governments in the first instance to drive the timeline. Then the effort will largely revolve around adapting airport fixtures and processes in order to make them more amenable to social distancing.

Measures could be taken to ensure that passengers 'dwell anywhere and dwell everywhere' in airports: that is to say that they should utilise as much space as possible to ensure that social distancing is maintained as effectively as possible. Existing fixtures and fittings, such as terminal seating, could be adapted where possible in order to encourage greater social distancing. This can be done by placing boundaries or dividers between seats to encourage 'personal zones' which are easier to maintain and disinfect. Ideally these are flexible measures which can be added or removed to suit changing circumstances.

We are developing, in collaboration with our clients, a palette of physical and digital options, for example:  decentralising processes such as passport control into multiple locations, implementing software solutions such as virtual queues which allocate specific time slots to minimise queue times, or through the use of 'fast passes' that enable individuals to access expedited queuing lanes. Some of these solutions are already in use in environments such as theme parks and doctor's surgeries, and I believe there is great potential for their increased use in airports. It will also be interesting to see how track and trace technologies impact upon operations and processing, and how immunity factors in.

Airports should also be focusing on implementing measures that promote passenger wellness and reassure passengers that their health is being safeguarded in the airport environment. Dedicated lanes for vulnerable travellers would be an example of operational changes creating a positive experience. We see how supermarkets have created shopping times for the vulnerable and its strikes us that should have been in place anyway. So, it's important we find ways to help certain groups. On a practical level, frequent surface cleaning and disinfection, provision of sanitising stands for passengers, and raising passenger awareness of cleaning and hygiene measures in order to provide reassurance.

Q. Much has been made of the fact that a post-COVID-19 world will never be the same as it was before, and this surely must be true for airports given the impact that the pandemic has had on the sector. How do you see this manifesting itself at airports? Beside the technologies, processes and structures we've mentioned, will there be any potentially new opportunities for the sector to take advantage of?

Aviation is a robust sector, and generally adapts and bounces back. Due to the requirement for people to stay at home, which everyone I know took very seriously, we saw an unprecedented drop in numbers. As always, opportunities arise from these situations, and there is a belief that a gradual recovery will happen. An example of opportunities is how many of our airport clients are actually looking at enhancement projects for their assets which had not been possible due to the fact that the airport was always full of people, and so are taking advantage to implement these upgrades with minimal disruption.

In terms of things changing forever, there are cultural shifts arising from the way we have had to live. We are all experiencing the remote working lifestyle and that may influence the scale of business travel in future. Conversely, the impact of lockdown on people's desire to travel, see the world and experience different cultures may be sharpened, as we have had to experience being physically withdrawn from the world. I also believe there will be a bigger drive on sustainable travel; we are all enjoying London without traffic, and the sector will need to push hard on sustainable technology driven innovations for aircraft. The type and size of aircraft is probably also on a different trajectory now – smaller, more efficient, and easier to clean aircraft with quicker turnaround times at airports.  Operationally, we can look at how to spread the peak demand at airports – this means that people arrive at the airport for flights spread more evenly through the day. This reduces the peak number of people being processed, though it is a complex issue since flight times are influenced by intercontinental time zones and business travel optimisation.

The sector can also use this opportunity to modernise the design of future airport terminals to align with passenger expectations and requirements in a post-COVID-19 world. Post-COVID-19, airports will need to be more adaptable and flexible environments with the ability to accommodate requirements such as social distancing, if need be. The use of space within airports and aspects of their design such as furniture placement and choice of materials will develop in line with these requirements, and this presents a raft of very exciting opportunities.

Ultimately, we believe Airports are great places to meet and interact so we don’t want them to become cold and impersonal. Equally we don’t want to create unsafe places for people. So it’s about finding a balance which can ultimately lead to a better passenger experience.

 francis walker v 4    

Thanks to Francis Walker, Director, Corgan's London Studio for his contribution to this article.

Francis can be contacted via email here.

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