COVID-19: How airports prepare for the worst and plan to get back to their best

David Whitely by David Whitely | Apr 6, 2020

Author Douglas Adams wrote in one of his irreverent novels, “Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself”.

This is a lively illustration of the challenge in anticipating and preparing for the unexpected and, in the interconnected and interdependent context of airport operations, this is a particularly complicated but essential task.

As ACI World Director General Angela Gittens often says, if you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.

They are unique. While some are small, others are large communities with industrial and commercial facilities, serving major cities.

What is common to all airports, however, is that they are subject to emergencies and incidents.

A major emergency can occur anywhere and at any time, under any weather conditions and with varying degrees of magnitude.

They can occur instantaneously or develop gradually, and they can last only a few minutes or continue for days and weeks, or, as the industry is discovering now, months.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global emergency that developed gradually, its effects creeping across the world with growing speed and momentum until eventually affecting all airports.

ACI World’s Emergency Preparedness and Contingency Planning Handbook

To assist airports in doing planning for the unexpected, ACI World produced the Emergency Preparedness and Contingency Planning Handbook.

It provides airport management and staff with a set of guidelines including current best practices.

The handbook contains references to relevant ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and guidance material and is designed to be used to complement an airport’s emergency plan.

This will assist members in dealing with the impact of the crisis and then preparing for their recovery.

The objectives of airport emergency planning

The pandemic is an extreme example of how difficult it is for airports to plan for the unthinkable, to expect the unexpected, and to develop contingencies for diverse scenarios that may develop.

While emergencies cannot always be predicted exactly as they unfold, they can be anticipated and prepared for.

The objective of emergency planning is to minimize the effects of an emergency, particularly in respect of protecting passengers and staff lives and maintaining essential operations.

Airports must have an aerodrome emergency plan which establishes the guidelines for how major emergencies will be managed and defines the roles and responsibilities of the principal responding agencies or teams.

An aerodrome emergency plan should help airports to provide a timely and coordinated response to – and, importantly, recovery from – an emergency.

Airports are communities – often mini-cities – with many different agencies, business, and organizations making a contribution to operations every day and all will have some role to play during an emergency, whether that role be direct or indirect.

Local, regional and national organizations and agencies – such as health providers, government agencies, or emergency services providers – will also be involved in the response to any incident and must be factored into the development of the plan.

While the airport operator will normally have the primary responsibility for emergencies, they should call upon and use the collective expertise and resources of all airport community partners for the mutual benefit of all.

Broadly, an emergency plan should:

  • define responsibilities and relationships and describe how activities will be coordinated during an emergency
  • outline its objectives including its legal basis and describe and acknowledge assumptions
  • assign responsibilities to organizations and people for performing specific tasks at projected times and places
  • identify all available/needed resources – staff, facilities, supplies, for example – for use during an event, and
  • drive the response and facilitate short-term recovery in order to resume normal operations as soon as possible without compromising safety.
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The cycle of an airport emergency

Douglas Adams also wrote, “Solutions nearly always come from the direction you least expect, which means there’s no point trying to look in that direction because it won’t be coming from there”, which encapsulates, rather drily, the challenges of planning for emergencies.

Along with planning for the unexpected, airports must plan to deal with an emergency in its entirety.

The full cycle of emergency management can be described in four phases:

  1. mitigation and prevention
  2. preparedness
  3. response, and
  4. recovery.

An airport’s emergency plan will mostly focus on response and initial recovery issues.

In general terms, the plan will describe how people and property will be protected in emergencies taking place on or in the area immediately surrounding an aerodrome.

The way airports prepare for emergencies must continue to evolve and it is crucial that the lessons learned during any emergency are used to refine planning and preparedness for future incidents.

This will ensure that recovery is swifter and more stable.

That is why airports around the world, even as they are currently in the midst of dealing with the enormous impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, are already laying the groundwork for recovery, whenever or in whatever form that recovery will come.

David Whitely

David Whitely

Director, Communications, ACI World
David Whitely has more than 20 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, media, and public relations in the UK, Canada and Australia. He has held in roles with HSBC, the UK’s financial regulator (at the height of the Global Financial Crisis), and with the Western Australian Government where he played a central role in the 2013 election campaign. Before joining ACI World, David was part of London Gatwick Airport’s Senior Leadership Team.
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