Physical distancing measures in airports – taking steps in the right direction

Meghan Hussey by Meghan Hussey | Sep 1, 2020

By now, the term ‘social distancing’ is ingrained in our everyday vocabulary. Before COVID-19, it was nearly unknown outside the field of epidemiology. Our society has grown accustomed to being close to other people, whether it be shaking hands at the beginning of a business meeting or hugging an old friend, generally people have not lived with the concept of being physically distant from one another until recently.

As the pandemic unfolded, one of the first prevention methods that airport operations planned for was physical distancing. While the immediate future of travel is uncertain and difficult to predict, there are some short-term recovery goals for physical distancing measures that airports can consider.

First steps: Short-term solutions in airports

Sticker placements have been a quick and easy solution to convey to travellers that modifications have been made to ensure everyone’s safety. However, there are some pitfalls to this method, especially if it’s the only method being relied on. Sticker placements are sometimes not readily noticeable, especially if they are not at eye level. Today’s traveller is often distracted by information from various sources, such as a smart phone or digital signage but, by utilizing visual reminders of physical distancing on checkpoint floors combined with other methods such as spacing out lanes in the checkpoint, the chances of physical distancing being followed can be increased significantly.

Getting into your stride: Data helps drive timely adaptations

By using different technologies such as people flow management and video analytics to be able to identify high risk areas in the airport and better understanding the dynamics of areas where people are too close, operational improvements can be made. For example, having accessible real-time data provides airports with the information to help them decide when to widen the stanchions in the queues – so that passengers are not gathering too close – or when a document checker should hold the line a bit until the congestion decreases at the baggage belt.

Airports can also use these insights to trigger changes in their queuing procedures and put up additional signage. Restricting access to certain queues to avoid people congregating that make it difficult to adhere to social distancing regulations may be another option.

In airports, there are specific hotspots where people inevitably congregate, such as in front of elevators. To prevent overcrowding, sensors can monitor the number of people in such areas in conjunction with markings on the floor. If the number of people in a zone is exceeded, a notification on a screen or an alarm can be triggered.

Overflow areas: Limiting passenger crowding

Airports that have defined overflow areas for check-in, security, or passport control, are ahead of the curve. Many airports have been catching up on planning where passengers will queue if they reach higher traffic numbers. One North American airport stated that if they tried to fit the average number of passengers they receive at one checkpoint on a busy summer day into a single line, it would result in more than 600 feet of passengers out of the main entrance door into the parking garage. Virtual queuing opportunities and security checkpoint reservation systems have become hot topics in combating the problem of overcrowding.

Virtual queues have been used in retail and are starting to make their way into airports – the idea being that an individual can scan a QR code upon entrance to the airport and would be notified when it is their turn to join the queue, thus controlling and limiting the number of passengers in the specified queuing area.

Baggage: Pick-up and social distancing

Baggage areas appear to be locations in airports where passengers tend to let down their guard when it comes to distancing, and that likely stems from the desire to reach a destination as quickly as possible. This is where technology fits into the equation concerning overcrowding. Areas where passengers are not following social distancing guidelines can utilize staff on the floor or announcements over the PA system to offer friendly but firm reminders. One way to minimize this issue would be to utilize multiple baggage carousels for each flight so that passengers have no choice but to spread out.

Bathrooms: Sanitization and hygiene

Bathrooms have also received an upgrade since the pandemic. The use of automatic dryers, faucets, and soap dispensers have become a standard to limit touching surfaces. Being able to monitor bathroom usage and having a rigorous cleaning regimen is key in keeping public spaces sanitized and safe. Being able to keep passengers distanced in bathrooms is extremely important and one way to do this is through the use of technology to identify how many people are visiting each restroom by load balancing the queues using digital signage. For example, if there is a restroom airside that always has a line, enticing passengers to walk a few steps away to another one landside, with little to no wait, can become the kind of improvement that will enhance the overall passenger experience.

What the future holds for social distancing and airports

Physical distancing is most likely here to stay and that means long-term solutions will need to be implemented. The airport environment has always been complex but now with the addition of the mandatory two metres distancing, there are many things to reconsider – like the changing of future airport designs and the use of thermal imaging and temperature sensors.

The last time that airports saw such significant, immediate, and global changes in travel procedures was post 9/11. Nearly two decades later, the world finds itself looking at a similar scenario where travel is forever changed.

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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