We’re used to airports as dense, populous, fast-moving transport systems. As we start to consider the end of the COVID-19 national lockdowns, how can airports understand the future health risks and overcome the need for social distancing?
Across the world, our airports are vast, near empty spaces. While passenger numbers are so low, there is plenty of empty space within terminals, so it’s hardly a challenge to accommodate mandatory 2-metre spacing. And as demand for flights gradually ramps up, social distancing will remain easy to be maintain… for a while. The harder question is how to cope when passenger numbers are much higher, because extra space will not be easily, or cheaply, available.
While the current focus on social distancing is understandable, I want to explore “what would have to be true” for an airport to deal with passenger numbers at pre-COVID-19 levels, in a still pre-vaccine world.
Gauging the response
How airports approach restarted operations depends on what they know about passengers’ health. If all arriving passengers are certified as being infection-free, then social distancing on arrival in a terminal has no material benefit. In contrast, if an aircraft arrives with passengers with an elevated risk of carrying infection, then a risk-based response would be to keep this group of passengers together – after all they have been in relatively close proximity for some hours – and the key measure would be to reduce their contact with passengers who pose a lesser risk.
The same applies for outbound passengers. If they are going to be in an aircraft together for many hours, contact within this group prior to boarding may not change their risk – meaning that social distancing between those passengers at the departure gate might have little value.
Mapping (and assessing) the risks
Airports will need to undertake new, COVID-conscious, risk assessments. A starting point is the typical terminal horseshoe diagram which illustrates each location or process where people dwell. Once new passenger volume estimates are established, airports will need to analyse and understand the nature of the queues and movements of people in those spaces, what equipment do they interact with and how?
We will need to understand how the virus transmission risk grows or diminishes, based on the different queueing behaviour that are typical in airport terminals. The type and shape of the queue arrangement can have a big impact on the number of possible interactions. High density parallel queues will lead to more interactions, but at least tend to keep the same people in contact. The very worst arrangement is a high-density, serpentine queue where entire adjacent lines of people will interact with any given individual.
A new picture of risk
We can score these possibilities to produce a risk assessment that provides our baseline assumptions. Adjustments to the risk score will come by looking at additional risk factors, including the degree of shared physical interaction with equipment – self-service kiosks, passport readers, cabin baggage screening trays, etc. The concept of “no touch” is now popular, for good reason. In the short term, a vigorous cleaning regime may mitigate some current concerns, but there are also passenger and staff benefits from a ‘no touch’ approach which are worth pursuing, subject to a valid business case.
Checking passenger health: bio-security zone
One way to avoid social distancing is to establish and maintain a bio-security ‘healthy’ zone within which low risk passengers are free to circulate. This requires though that you can check passengers’ health status before they enter the zone, just as you would their passport and immigration status.
There are questions to answer first. How should the zone’s boundaries be drawn? Does check-in become a controlled zone into which only passengers are admitted having passed a check? Does it make sense to link a bio-security boundary with that required by other control authorities? Does bio-security require further sectorisation within an airport? What data and systems are required to make such a boundary workable? How can existing passenger automation initiatives be extended to incorporate bio-security? Thinking these issues through in an integrated way will be vital, if zones are to be effective and help get passengers moving safely.
Protecting staff, protecting passengers
Staff must be protected too. A member of staff who works at a security point will interact with perhaps a thousand people in a day, whereas a passenger may interact with only tens of other people. There will be an ongoing need to protect staff in environments in which there is an appreciably elevated risk of infection and to ensure, where at all possible, that staff are themselves not infectious – through testing and certifications, perhaps. Robust measures to ensure this will be required to avoid the reputational damage to an airport, to say nothing of the personal costs, of an infectious member of staff inadvertently, spreading a disease.
The future of airports
Social distancing is not a long-term solution for the aviation sector. A risk-based approach will identify where specific measures make sense. And looking more widely than the airport, to national/international trusted health certification, for instance, will allow low risk passengers and staff to continue as normal, while reserving special measures only for those at an elevated risk. Some initiatives like no touch will contribute to a lower risk profile and may well confer other passenger benefits. And re-thinking some processes (e.g. passenger and cabin baggage screening) will open up new possibilities that not only help in the current situation but may also offer a better experience for passengers and staff.
Our thinking is informed by a central goal: how our airports can be made ready for a return to normal levels of demand. Painful though this situation is for everyone, it is a catalyst to re-think some key aspects of airport operations not only to deal with the current situation, but also to establish a new baseline for future operations – one that is more robust, efficient and offers benefits for passengers and staff alike.
Adapting to a COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major shock to the world. The human cost is hard to bear and our thoughts are with all those affected. As engineers, designers and consultants we have a role to play - this is a moment to be brave, try new ideas and collaborate to develop services and facilities our communities need.