Planning the “new normal” passenger experience: Defining effective protective measures against COVID-19 at airports

Guest Author by Guest Author | May 20, 2020

Written by Dr. Simone Rozzi, Senior Human Factors and Safety Expert, Egis

As the world moves towards the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, airports must put in place effective virus diffusion control measures if they want to stay competitive and reassure both passengers and staff. COVID-19 has increased the perception of health-related risks associated with travelling.

Equally, airport staff may be hesitant to return to work and unable to perform their roles efficiently without confidence that adequate measures are in place – especially with the risk that colleagues may themselves fall ill or need to self-isolate.

The outbreak has increased awareness of how fast a virus can spread through transport networks, and of the role of airports as important gateways/guardians that can help prevent diffusion into the wider community. It seems inevitable that, just as airports prioritise safety and cybersecurity in their planning and delivery, they will now be prioritising biosafety too. And biosafety needs to move beyond plant/animal pests and disease, to address those carried by humans.

This article discusses a range of preventive measures that are available to airport decision makers to prepare for the “new normal” airport experience, a new normal that will have to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 contagion. The article will conclude by proposing an approach to identify the most cost-effective way forward.  

1. Enhanced passenger flow management

In the absence of a vaccine or “health passports”, airports have to invest in enhanced passenger flow management. Just as tower control ensures safe separations between aircraft, airports may want to promote “safe separations” between passengers to maintain social distancing (at least where feasible).

As a minimum, this demands:

  • Regulating access to various areas, based also on active monitoring of present and expected passenger density, to minimize the potential for congestion;
  • Have stations for people wanting to seek medical assistance related to the presence of the virus—to minimize the risk of having such passenger wandering in the airport in search of help;
  • Implementing queue management measures. Despite best efforts put into flow management and queue reduction technologies (e.g., mandatory digital check-in, biometric id), queues will still occur in areas naturally prone to congestion, such as check-in, security check, boarding and passport control. Hence attention needs to be paid to these areas. Such measures include for instance, modified layouts or specific floor signage indicating passenger position. 

To ensure a smooth passenger experience, staff will have to provide adequate assistance, and be ready to resolve new communications incidents, arising for instance from passengers failing to comply with instructions, perhaps intolerant to the chosen measures, or unfamiliar with local COVID-19 related procedures.  

For example, the destination airport may demand different restrictions compared to the home airport; overseas passengers may struggle with translation of notices; discussions between passengers arising due to some individuals not respecting the social distance (perhaps because they are in a hurry) and/or not taking adequate hygienic precautions (e.g. sneezing into the elbow).

2. Increased presence of automation and robots

Airports can rely on increased automation as a means of reducing contact between staff and passengers. Automated information kiosks are already a reality in many airports, and it is likely that these will be enhanced with more Artificial Intelligence and decision making software.

Today there are promising developments using robots for:

  • Providing information to transit passengers
  • Collecting baggage from passengers
  • Security surveillance
  • Cleaning and disinfecting operations

The crisis could accelerate the trend towards increased airport robotization, a trend that was already expected to peak by 2030 before the COVID-19 outbreak.  Besides the intrinsic potential for cost-saving arising from increased automation, these solutions bring the added benefit of protecting both staff and passengers by reducing the need for close interaction between these social groups. 

An important element influencing the pace of deployment will be the quality of passenger-robot interaction, as this will impact passenger satisfaction. Thus, the selection of these solutions needs to consider not only the quality of human interaction from an operational perspective, but also from a passenger experience point of view.

3. Improved hand-hygiene management

Hand hygiene has been heavily promoted in the media following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relevant organisations such as the World Health Organisation as well as Centres for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) consider it as the most efficient and cost-efficient way to limit the spread of diseases. Also, hand hygiene looks intuitively easy and common sense to implement.

Probably what is less well known about handwashing is its contributory role in preventing more general disease transmission.

Dirty hands are a known travel hazard . A recent study shows that on average only 20% of passengers have clean hands at airports. At the same time, a 10% increase in the level of hand cleanliness at all airports worldwide can produce a 24% reduction in the spread of a disease, while a 40% increase would lead to a 69% reduction.  This further underlines the role of airports as guardians against a pandemic, as well as the importance of promoting hand hygiene, and maintaining those measures after the current concerns over COVID-19 have abated.

How can airports promote proper handwashing / hand sanitising among passengers and staff? Measures could include:

  • Increasing capacity for handwashing, i.e., increased presence of (preferably touchless) handwashing stations, so that passengers will have an opportunity to wash their hands without visiting the toilet facilities.
  • Defining access points where handwashing and/or the use of hand sanitiser is mandatory, for instance before and after disembarking a flight, or before joining the security queue.
  • Providing reinforcing messages, to increase awareness and promote the right behaviour, for instance by periodically relaying public messages reminding passengers of the importance of washing their hands; having airport staff remind passengers; and by providing educational brochures and posters.

4. Implement contactless technologies

Limiting how many things people have to touch in the airport is an important means to reduce the diffusion of the virus. Both staff and passengers have touch interactions with a variety of physical objects, such as doors, door knobs, touch displays, elevator knobs, etc.

A staff member or a passenger can get infected simply by accidentally touching any of these surfaces, anywhere in the airport. Pathogens picked up by hands can enter the body through eyes, nose and mouths. The touch contamination route can be significantly reduced by introducing contactless solutions, such as:

  • making use of contactless hand sanitiser;
  • avoiding contact thermometers for health screening;
  • making online check-in mandatory;
  • replacing fingerprint biometric authentication—in use for instance to access business lounge areas, or for staff attendance tracking—with other means.

In the medium term, the need for touchless solutions may accelerate the introduction of biometric security, i.e., solutions aimed at streamlining the passenger experience through the airport by replacing manual verification (and handling) of ID documents with face recognition. With initial applications being trialed already at the start of 2020, i.e., prior to the pandemic, the crisis has highlighted the extra requirements of the face recognition technology to work reliably with masks partially occluding the passenger’s face and in absence of fingerprint data.

5. Improved hygiene for frequently touched surfaces

Not everything can go touchless. Hand-to-surface interactions are likely to remain for door knobs, handrails, trays, tables, etc. Therefore, it is necessary to identify where these may occur and adopt adequate protection. For instance, a recent study investigating the accumulation of viruses on airport surfaces found that plastic security trays used at security check carry more pathogens than toilet surfaces.

While this may be the case because people are more careful to limit touch in the latter environment, the key concern is that trays are picked up by many passengers during the day and provide a perfect transmission route. It suffices for one person to contaminate one tray, which in turn is picked up by several passengers, eventually taking the virus with them.

Immediate manual measures to breaking this transmission route call for more frequent cleaning of trays, increased hand hygiene at security screening, as well as changes in security instruction procedures — i.e., passengers may be asked to store personal items such as keys, belts, coins inside their luggage rather than throwing them into the tray. Self-cleaning solutions for security trays include the use of nanotechnology, and of UV-light.

Other high-touch areas include for instance stairs, tables and chairs in restaurants and terminals, as well as children’s play areas. Airport cleaning programmes are already catering for an increased frequency of precautionary cleaning and disinfecting operations of these areas. In bars and restaurants fridges, tables and chair surfaces may be disinfected prior to use by another costumer. For specific areas, like toilets, potential solutions include self-sanitising door handles and UV-light delivered by self-driving robots.

6.  Airport Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Although often neglected, Indoor Air Quality is an important component of passenger experience (and employee performance). Air filled with unpleasant odours and unhealthy contaminants can provide immediate discomfort to most passengers, while making passengers with a weakened immune system like the elderly, or tired travellers, more susceptible to illness—and certainly becoming ill after visiting an airport does not translate into a positive passenger experience.

While, this was already the case in the pre-COVID world, it is expected that the demand for enhanced airport IAQ will increase following the pandemic outbreak and the associated concern for the spread of the virus in indoor environments. Based on local bio-risk analysis, airports might want to consider taking measures to decrease potential airborne contamination and diffusion levels, especially in high passenger concentration areas.

Potential measures include increasing air ventilation rate as well as making use of more advanced technologies such as UV filtration integrated into the airport HVAC system.

7. Airport bio safety assessment

Having discussed some of the potential anti-COVID-19 measures that may be part of the “new normal” airport passenger experience, the question becomes what mix of measures should be implemented at a specific airport? With prescriptive guidance being provided and regularly updated by relevant bodies, airports would benefit from conducting a bio risk assessment. While guidance material from relevant bodies suggests a variety of solutions—changes in procedures, equipment, for example — the choice of which specific (package of) solutions is a local airport decision, as there is no a one-fit-all measure or combination of measures.

Hence, before investing in new expensive equipment and new procedures, airports should conduct a bio risk assessment specific to their environment and operation, so as to identify infection risk for airport staff and passengers across the various airport areas (e.g. check in, security, baggage handling, etc.) and derive a preventive strategy accordingly. A bio risk assessment will permit the analysis of the local transmission routes based on the consideration of specific local conditions—e.g., environment distributions, walking paths, layout, equipment, furniture, etc.—and systematic mapping of critical interactions between passengers, between passengers and staff and equipment, and between these user groups and the environment.

The main benefits of this exercise are:

  • providing assurance to airport stakeholders that COVID-19 infection hazards in the airport have been systematically identified, prioritised and effectively mitigated, and
  • providing a rational basis for the cost-effective choice of the mix of control measures.

The effectiveness of the chosen measures should be validated not just from a contamination perspective, but also from a human performance and passenger experience point of view, given the importance of the interaction of the human and their surrounding environment either in favouring or mitigating likely contagion routes. This will avoid for instance focusing overly on the installation of expensive pieces of equipment yet failing to pay attention to develop adequate procedures and training for staff on its use.

Airport Operational Practice – Examples for Managing COVID-19
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Recommendations to properly consider the human in the analysis include the following:

  • Conduct an analysis of contagion routes based on mapping and consideration of local and actual—i.e. not idealised—passenger and staff behaviours and interactions.
  • Verify/validate procedural measures aimed at staff against their impact on human performance, for instance in terms of feasibility, effectiveness, workload, and potential for human error. For instance you do not want your staff to fail to adequately handle a HVAC (potentially contaminated) filter, or ignore good hand hygiene because unfeasible to do so, or due to local cultural barriers. Indeed poor procedure design and human error compromise the best safeguards set into place and contribute to unnecessary bio risk exposure.
  • Consider the quality of the communication and signagemeasures. For instance, in relation to hand hygiene management, behavioural change requires some form of communication, and these communications need to be carefully designed to reach different target groups. Whenever new communications and new signage are introduced these should be verified first.
  • Consider the impact on passenger experience. Passengers may welcome and want to be aware of the protective measures implemented at a given airport but at the same time they expect minimal disruptions in their journey through the airport. So, for instance solutions such as robots must be checked regarding the quality of human-robot interaction (e.g., quality of dialogue, gesture, physical interaction) they can support.

Airports can lead the way

Airports have the opportunity to become a role model for others in the fight against COVID-19 and any future viral threats. They will need support from regulators and other aviation stakeholders to achieve this; and they will need to use many of the tools at their disposal, from new technologies to changes in procedures to achieve the right mix for the health of both the business and the passenger.

This article reviewed some of the measures that are available to airports, and suggested that a risk-based approach should be adopted. This will support a more systematic assessment of the specific bio risk exposure in the local environment and an efficient allocation of limited resources in the choice of the final mix of measures. Measures should be developed using a user-centred approach given the role of human behaviour in promoting or preventing contagion routes.

Dr Simone Rozzi is a Senior Human Factors and Safety Expert at Egis, in Toulouse, France, with more than 15 years of international experience in the ATM and Aviation. He works with ANSPs, aircraft manufacturers and institutions, and has been previously involved in crisis management related projects in the airport domain. Simone holds MSc degrees in Industrial Design and Ergonomics, both from Polytechnic University of Milan, and a PhD in “Human Automation Interaction and Organisational Safety” from Middlesex University. Since 2019 he is a member of the CANSO Human Performance Management Task Force.

The author wishes to acknowledge his colleagues who generously helped with the reviews of earlier versions of this article, in particular Nick Boud, Christine Maddalena, and Olivier Guillet.

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