Testing times: Setting up COVID-19 testing centres across the world’s airports

Hubert Kisala by Hubert Kisala | Jan 15, 2021

The aviation industry was rapidly impacted by the impact of COVID-19 in March 2020.

Passenger numbers fell by 95% year-on-year in April 2020 and, according to ACI World’s forecasts, are not expected to hit 2019 levels until 2023-2024.

From the start of this pandemic, EBEA Consulting started working towards a better understanding of how the new measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19 can affect airport operations and what can be done to mitigate against potential capacity degradation.

Having engaged in various initiatives, EBEA helped airports in better understanding of the operational impacts affecting their performance (both airside and landside). We collaborated with other aviation organizations, i.e. Transoft Solutions and ACI World to create and share webinars with the mission to continue guiding airports and other industry players towards delivering a seamless passenger experience throughout the pandemic. We also looked into the airport-based COVID-19 testing facilities.

ACI Webinar - COVID-19 Testing – Airport Approaches and Experiences
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COVID-19 a worldwide challenge

Various countries closed their borders to stop the spread of the virus, with some still closed today. The overall lack of a globally unified approach and rapidly changing rules and restrictions to air travel prompted various countries to impose quarantine on inbound passengers to reduce risk. Self-quarantine is a strategy that was set up to minimize risk when there was little knowledge about how the virus spread or no capability to conduct mass testing. While quarantine is an effective way of reducing risk, it is also a primary factor causing passengers not to travel, and therefore, some other measures could be considered for countries and regions where infection rates are low. Other mitigation strategies to avoid quarantine and open up global travel include:

  • COVID-19 test prior to departure (a PCR test 72 hours before departure)
  • COVID-19 testing on arrival (usually two tests, or test and release after a set period)
  • Ensuring various health and safety measures are in place at airports including physical distancing where feasible, mandatory mask wearing, and enhanced cleaning protocols
  • Contact tracing, including suppression and control

As the aviation industry continues to restart and increase traffic levels, many of the world’s airports are evaluating options to test passengers for COVID-19 on departure or arrival. This is designed to provide a safe, healthy journey for passengers while building consumer confidence again. Some countries are even mandating these requirements to reduce the risk of travel. ICAO supports testing and states that this could reduce the reliance on quarantine and restriction of air services. Measures should also be based on risk, be flexible and regularly reviewed as part of their manual on testing and cross border issues.

Our solution for aviation

A number of airports have recently opened up testing facilities to help bring passengers back through their terminal doors. This presents challenges as the logistics and operation of these facilities are relatively unknown and airports need to carefully consider the space allocated for testing. Airports have vital retail and commercial space to generate non-aero revenue and so opening up a facility should not jeopardize valuable real estate, however, providing this essential service to passengers is key.

In this context, we are proud to have joined ACI World in the active support of the industry recovery and became a World Business Partner and to launch the Airport COVID-19 testing planning assessment initiative. Through the analysis that we offer, airports will be provided with comprehensive requirements on the space necessary to handle the forecasted passenger numbers for testing, the number of registration booths and the number of testing pods required.

Leveraging our airport operator experience and thanks to close cooperation with airports since the beginning of the pandemic, we were able to understand first-hand the most common challenges of setting up such a facility and designed the tool that tackles these challenges in a flexible and modular way. This new testing process along the passenger airport journey presents some operational unknowns and we observed different strategies on how airports approach it. Some strategies might be a better fit than others and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, it is critical to be able to test them in a time-efficient and agile manner. Flexibility is a key feature of our solution to address volatility of demand, provide what-if analysis and highlight opportunities to achieve maximum value generation. Our assessments are also suitable for both arriving and departing facilities planning.

Top: extract of the COVID-19 Testing Planning Tool, providing space and equipment requirements. Bottom: images of a fast-time simulation ArcPORT model of a COVID-19 testing facility.  
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This planning tool has been validated using fast-time simulation as well as a real-life airport providing highly accurate results using real data. Successfully used by London City Airport and Seattle Tacoma Airport, it delivered valuable insights into the airport planning processes.

The COVID-19 Testing Planning Tool has allowed us to understand how different testing cycle times, operating models, regulatory, and operational requirements, will shape our future airport experience. More immediately, it has helped us deliver our new testing facility which will be going live later in December, in line with the UK government’s “Test and Release” scheme. Clearly testing, in some form, will be with the industry for some time and it is our hope that UK and European airports will move towards a pre-departure testing model.  The planning tool will be a vital resource for all airports, not only in the here and now, but in the months ahead as regulation evolves and demand returns.” – David Ruiz-Celada, Director of Operational Strategy and Planning at London City Airport

This is sponsored content. Sponsored content is provided by third parties including airports, members of ACI, World Business Partners, and others. The views expressed and/or presented by these third parties through sponsored content 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.

Hubert Kisala

Hubert Kisala

Co-founder and Director, EBEA
Back in 2019, Hubert Kisala co-founded EBEA Consulting to help airports achieve a sustainable and balanced operation. He gained his experience across airport processes thanks to his career within the Continuous Improvement team at London City Airport. Together with the EBEA team that specializes in data-driven operations performance review and optimization, and including their expertise in using fast-time simulation tools, he is well-positioned to deliver short-to-long-term airport modelling and planning guidance.
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