The rise of a socially distanced airport

With changing regulations and guidelines, travel uncertainty and the ever-present economic pressures, how will the industry handle the first leg of the recovery phase? Find out how airports of all sizes need to plan their approach for both the short and the long-term.

As the health crisis took the world by storm, no sector of the aviation industry escaped without some meaningful impact on their operations. Now, as travel restrictions tentatively begin to ease, we find ourselves taxiing slowly to the runway of recovery.

Hand in hand with a rise in passenger numbers comes an inevitable need for social distancing. We highlight some of the challenges facing a socially distanced airport – for passengers, operators, ground handlers and the workforce – as they embark on the recovery phase.

The Rise of a Socially Distanced Airport

The prerequisite wheels were already in motion

The need for operational efficiency in the airport environment is not new news. Before Covid-19, the industry was experiencing significant growth. While this offered new opportunities, it also drove the industry to recognise and respond to the operational challenges faced by airports of all sizes.

Growing passenger numbers, changing regulations and security measures had already driven many aviation players to begin to re-evaluate their processes and systems. With growing queues, airport bottlenecks and ground delays, airports knew that a new approach was needed. A general consensus suggested that the answer lay in the use of smart technologies, integrated to increase efficiency and speed processing, while maintaining vital security measures and meeting compliance.

Automation in core processes, such as baggage handling and security, offer ways to streamline operations and tick compliance boxes faster. These core efficiencies also heighten resource management and reduce cost and could be key to relieving some of the historical pressures in addition to new ones as passenger numbers begin to rise again in the coming months.

A new set of challenges

Right now, aviation operators are staring down the lens at a new set of challenges. As Covid remains an uncertain cloud over the horizon, there is an inevitable short-term necessity to support social distancing. Although this has added a layer of complexity, short-term, basic measures are already in place for essential travellers in airports across the world.

These include:

  • Physical markers to aid social distancing in queues
  • Additional handwashing facilities
  • Increased hygiene measures and cleaning routines
  • Wearing of masks in all areas
  • Designated no-fly aircraft seating (empty middle seat)

While these vital measures are important, passenger numbers have been far from previous levels. As we see numbers begin to rise, passengers, ground handlers, airlines and airports will be facing some challenging realities. Because of this, and the uncertainty about future potential disruptions to travel, the long-term solution will need to be flexible and scalable enough to adapt quickly.

Rewriting the rule book – a socially distanced airport

Covid-19 has rewritten the rulebook in the airport environment. As a place where people inevitably converge in a series of queues and bottlenecks during passenger processing, social distancing in this time-sensitive situation isn’t going to be easy as numbers increase.

Does that bring us back to square one in terms of the pre-Covid operational challenges? Just a couple of short years ago, airports were dealing with the pressures of burgeoning passenger numbers and regulations. While the driving forces of today are different, the challenges aren’t dissimilar.

Smart passenger flow management, forecasting and biometrics could form the backbone of the socially distanced airport. With the potential for frequent change, airport flow management may deliver a short-term solution, but will also bring long-term flexibility.

Physical distancing to protect staff and teams on the ground could prove challenging as numbers begin to rise. Many aviation players have experienced the severe impact of this over the past year and have been moving dedicated infrastructure to the cloud to enhance accessibility during the crisis. This also helped to meet the necessity to reduce costs across all areas for economic survival and creating much-needed flexibility in the workforce.

The future is a flexible operational model

Efficient operations that meet necessary mandates and guidelines rely on several interconnected systems. These range from passenger processing, security and baggage handling to aircraft turnaround and back office essentials and everything in between.

Valuable lessons have been learned in every sector since the start of the pandemic. To fully succeed on the runway to recovery, many industry players now know that a new, flexible operational model is needed. New solutions must be found to harness the opportunities and create a cohesive, accessible yet fully secure and compliant airport management environment.

Flexible operational changes will need to include the ability to scale up or scale down operations as required, and to have ability to do so on a local level. The traditional models of long contracts with one supplier for all the airport’s systems may not be appropriate in the months and years to come. The ability for airports to manage different systems in different ways, on a pay per passenger basis will surely be essential for not only survival, but to allow airports to prosper once again.

With both historic and new pressures on the industry, now is the time to plan and prepare for a smooth takeoff and look forward to a new, and maybe even better, normal.

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