After COVID-19: Long-term solutions for airport passenger experience

Meghan Hussey by Meghan Hussey | Oct 13, 2020

As the rates of COVID-19 transmission move across the US, Europe, and the rest of the world weekly, physical distancing measures in airports will continue to play a significant role in airport operations. In order for the industry to have a chance at proper restart, passengers need to feel confident that when they travel they will not be at risk of exposure to the virus.

While most airports have been quick to implement short-term solutions to help keep passengers safe, such as increased sanitization, PPE vending machines, and face mask mandates, there is a need for long-term solutions. Airports need to maintain a secure environment and ensure the health and wellness of passengers and staff for years to come.

Access to COVID-19 testing: Luxemburg Airport and Newark Airport

Rapid COVID-19 testing stations have been constructed at airport terminals around the world. Since the beginning of August, Luxembourg Airport has offered free tests to travellers – the prerequisites being that the individual must be a resident of Luxembourg and have returned from a foreign country.

At Newark Airport, all employees and passengers can get a PCR molecular test or a COVID antibody test, with or without an appointment. The cost ranges from $75 USD for a COVID-19 test to $90 USD for COVID-19 plus antibody. Medical insurance is also accepted to cover the costs. These testing facilities were first made available to airport staff and results were delivered within two to five days. For ticketed passengers, the results need to be much faster as many travel directives require a negative test result before entry into certain countries. The goal for many of the facilities is to deliver results in 15 minutes or less.

Testing could become the new first step before travel. This could be done off-airport or, in some cases, at the airport, prior to check-in and baggage drop, as the passenger journey transforms to mitigate COVID-19 and any other future pandemic that we will face in our lifetime.  

There are many challenges to this, such as being able to keep up with the increased level of demand for testing. Some airports are creating space for passengers being tested, addressing scheduling conflicts, looking at staffing requirements, and budget.

It sadly does not come as a surprise that many airports and airlines are being forced to furlough or even lay off employees due to the pandemic – the need for more government assistance and a consistent approach for testing – predominantly before the passenger arrives at the airport – is crucial to the airport business staying afloat.

Augmented self-service options

In the remainder of 2020 and beyond, passengers will see more self-service options at airports, including the use of e-gates and biometrics to reduce human contact. Although these were primarily created to speed up processing, they can be extremely useful in the future to reduce queue length and monitor the number of people standing near each other during the screening process. The use of facial recognition as part of COVID-19 screening systems is only compliant with GDPR regulations if consent is free and valid.

Not everyone is keen on this type of technology; in the USA, there has been serious resistance due to the view that this kind of technology violates basic human rights. San Francisco was the first city where government officials were banned from using biometric technology. Boston then followed suit a few months ago and will not use facial recognition with any city government systems.

There is a chance, however, that the current global situation will change future mentalities and generate wider acceptance despite previous resistance to biometrics.  There are also other technologies that do not use face recognition and biometrics, such as stereo vision sensors, that utilize machine learning and AI which can still help with physical distancing and managing operations in a touch-free environment, all while being GDPR compliant.

Physical distancing: A new evolution of airport design

Airports have come a long way since the days of planes taking off and landing on basic grass fields. When terminals were first designed more than 90 years ago, they were not designed in a way to accommodate millions of passengers per year and we are seeing that issue come to light even with significantly reduced traffic as airports plan for physical distancing which means more space and real estate.   

This is reminiscent of how existing terminals suddenly had to make room for extensive security screening areas right after 9/11.  Architects are now reconsidering the design of larger areas where passengers can move about with ease and feel confident in their safety.

The idea of the security checkpoint as the designated middle zone between landside and airside as it exists today might be reimagined. One idea that is being explored is creating multiple security checkpoints in different parts of the airport which will permit flexibility of movement. This would allow for individuals to spread out more throughout the entire area and also better patronize landside concessions, presuming passengers were to have more assurance about the exact time they need to go through security screening.

Restart and recovery: The long road ahead

The U.S. government confirmed it will end enhanced screening of some international passengers for COVID-19 and drop requirements that travellers coming from the targeted countries arriving at fifteen designated U.S. airports, starting in September. Although this sounds like a positive step in the right direction, it is too soon to tell how it will impact travellers’ perceptions of flying again.

With the surge of various measures and guidelines to combat COVID-19, the passenger journey already looks quite different. According to a recent study by Eurocontrol, the additional time required for the arriving passengers’ journey, due to the implementation of COVID-19 measures, is within a range of five to twenty minutes. They also point out that the provision of space is critical as areas such as immigration would need double the space and baggage reclaim would require 30-50% more space if we were to return to pre-COVID-19 traffic numbers.

Airports will not be out of the woods for a while, but as we have seen over these last six months, with brand new technology being developed almost overnight, when the travel industry is presented with a problem, they are resilient and work hard to come up with reliable solutions.

The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Meghan Hussey

Meghan Hussey

Meghan manages Xovis’ portfolio of US airport customers such as San Francisco International Airport, Dallas Fort Worth International, LaGuardia Airport, and Seattle-Tacoma International where they are using Xovis people flow technology to ensure a smooth journey throughout the facility. Prior to joining Xovis, Meghan led the Account Management team at AwareManager, a Boston based facility management software company for some of the world’s most recognized properties and stadiums. She holds a BA in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Southern Maine and a Master’s degree in Education from Cambridge College.
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