A Post Covid-19 Flight Path for the Aviation Industry

By David Theuma
Principal Project Manager, Aviation
Surbana Jurong

With no clear end in sight of the Covid-19 pandemic, the aviation industry is not ready to take off anytime soon.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has forecasted that the industry will not recover to 2019 levels until 2024, a year later than previously projected.

Regaining passenger confidence will be a challenge for airports and airlines, despite the rollout of vaccination plans in many countries. As the hammer and the dance strategy evolves to contain the spread of the pandemic, airports will have to gear up for the return of travelers over the next 12 to 18 months, when most of the world is expected to have been inoculated against the virus. Based on studies undertaken by Surbana Jurong, one thing is clear – airport operators will have to undertake major changes in infrastructure, operations and design.

Health & Safety in Airport Design and Operations

Safety has always been of the utmost priority in the architecture and design of future airports. With COVID, the safety of passengers takes on a new dimension, with protection from the virus becoming the overriding concern from the time passengers set foot on airport grounds till the time they leave.

People need to be assured of the hygiene of spaces with heavy traffic and will demand focus on health measures. Airports will need to invest in new cleaning technology that allow the efficient and sustained disinfection of surfaces. Authorities will also have to move beyond the use of thermal scanners and handheld thermometers to explore comprehensive passenger wellness screening solutions.

Airport design will have to look at different ways of re-configuring spaces to support infection control measures. For one, planning gate holding areas will need to provide for additional space. Within the retail areas, retailers will need to increase digitisation with contact-less payments, including both tap-and-go credit cards and mobile phone payments. Airport retailers must develop e-Commerce capabilities to address passenger concerns of face-to-face interactions with sales staff and the reluctance to touch or taste products (refer to Illustration 1). Mobile apps that facilitate mobile ordering of food at F&B outlets are already widely implemented.

Aviation design

Illustration 1: Contactless capabilities within the airport. Clockwise from top left: Passport control using facial recognition capability, automated bag drop area, boarding area, and check-in area

Technology is a game-changer in the management of people in a passenger terminal, which can consequentially impact the brand of an airport. With technology, airport operators can manage people flow within the terminals to prevent passengers intermingling and minimise time spent at immigration. Among the most enabling aspect of technology will be an e-health passport that holds records of test results and vaccinations of a traveller.

Airport operators will also have to collect data on passenger density to enable them to better predict movements and implement measures to manage densities at airports. Data will also be crucial to measure the degree of risk in real-time so that airport operators can quickly segregate passengers showing symptoms.

Airports are already adept at re-purposing spaces to handle a sudden increase in passengers but to plan better, they can use technology to calibrate limits on passenger capacity for inbound and outbound flights and tweak schedules in order to flatten passenger peaks – to maintain adequate levels of physical distancing within the passenger terminal.

Using data in this way will be a step up from the automation that is currently in place at most airports. These include submitting vaccination and testing records in advance of arrival to reduce processing time, facial recognition and advance imaging technology body scanners that allow passengers to simply walk through without stopping. Many airports already have paperless ticketing, automated doors, restroom motion sensors, and doorless restroom entries. More automation and touchless technology will need to be applied at various airport processing touchpoints, including touchless self-service check-in kiosks, baggage drops and boarding gates.

Restoring Confidence

Airlines have been a proponent of the minimal risk of transmission during flights whilst airports constantly publicise their efforts on increased sanitisation regimes and reduced face-to-face contact.

At the governmental level, the travel requirements need to be communicated clearly and in a timely manner, allowing passengers to plan adequately when travelling.

Insurance has an important role to play. Some months ago, it was hard to purchase travel insurance covering Covid-19. The recent IATA passenger confidence survey has shown that, on average, half of travelers are willing to travel when insurance is available for Covid-19 related disruptions. IATA has suggested that Covid-19 travel insurance cover for inbound travellers can be used as a destination marketing incentive by some countries, regions and airlines.

Communicating these changes in operations is critical to restoring passenger confidence. When there is a sense of control in travelling, people are more inclined to travel. Passengers also want to know how easy or difficult it will be to travel through various airports – and also their destinations.

Time For Changes to Take Flight

If an airport has been designed to offer a greater level of service, the impact on passenger processing will be less.  On the other hand, if an airport is limited in its service level, as in the case of older and maxed-out terminal structures in some urban centres, passengers will find the travelling experience more challenging and may be less inclined to utilise these airports. These are important considerations airports need to take into account as they plan for the future.

Covid-19 has turned the aviation industry on its head and weakened the business of airports and airlines. The impact is likely to be finite however, taking a long view. It is therefore timely for hubs and carriers to make the most of the current opportunity to re-evaluate their offerings. This is a time for consolidation and those surviving players will be stronger if they make the necessary short- and long-term changes, including painful adjustments, to their model for the future.

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David Theuma
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