Health and safety
Airports and the aviation industry continue to go to extraordinary lengths to combat the health risks caused by COVID-19, writes Joe Bates.
From deploying mobile medics, the opening of COVID-19 test centres and new cleaning regimes to embracing new industry health standards and the use of some of the most sophisticated technology on the planet, arguably, the world’s airports could not have done more to make themselves as safe as they can for passengers and staff.
The sight of thermal temperature detection technology at airports has become almost commonplace, as have hygiene technicians, Perspex glass at check-in and immigration desks, hand sanitiser stations and signage and floor markings warning about the importance of social distancing.
We have seen airport cleaning taken to a new level through the introduction of automated robots equipped with ultraviolet disinfection technology capable of eliminating the virus that causes COVID-19.
While pressing elevator buttons and the need to physically touch any self-service machines or equipment could soon be a thing of the past thanks to a raft of new touchless technologies already being phased in around the globe.
The battle against the pandemic has also led to some airports introducing compulsory COVID-19 testing for all staff and upgrading their heating and ventilation systems to improve the air quality in terminals.
Although the motivation behind such actions for airports is simple – the need to show that they are safe environments to use to help restore confidence in air travel – the actions taken by individual airports and the industry as a whole, through organisations such as ACI, ICAO and IATA, has been far from it.
In terms of the airport industry’s response to the pandemic, ACI has led from the front, introducing two key new initiatives – the Airport Health Accreditation (AHA) programme and the Airport Health Measures Audit.
The former was launched in July 2020 to assist airports by assessing new health measures and procedures introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic against global standards. While the latter, developed in partnership with Bureau Veritas, supports airports by addressing their specific risks and by reassuring passengers through an on-site audit.
Topics covered by the AHA include cleaning and disinfection, physical distancing (where feasible and practical), staff protection, physical layout, passenger communications and passenger facilities.
Istanbul Airport become the first in the world to gain Airport Health Accreditation in August 2020 and has since been joined by another 300 plus gateways, Munich and Brisbane being among most recent recipients.
ACI director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, said: “The Airport Health Accreditation programme promotes best practices and helps align efforts across the industry to harmonise measures, processes and procedures.
“This will be crucial as our industry begins to restart and then prepare to sustain continuing operations, providing to passengers and employees high globally-recognised standards on health and hygiene, which will help to restore public confidence in air travel.”
Rome’s Aeroporti di Roma (ADR) run Fiumicino and Ciampino airports became the first to successfully complete the Airport Health Measures Audit programme in January 2020 and earn the right to display the SafeGuard label, demonstrating their compliance with a harmonised set of measures, aligned with the recommendations of national and international authorities.
ADR’s CEO, Marco Troncone, said: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we have implemented a series of measures to provide passengers and employees with the highest health and hygiene standards, seeking cutting-edge solutions that combine safety and comfort.
“It is with this spirit that we will relentlessly strive to further improve our performance on safety and quality, which are the ideal grounds to pose innovative safe travel protocols and to support traffic recovery.”
ACI World has also led the call for airport employees to be recognised as essential workers and as such among the first to be vaccinated after healthcare workers and the vulnerable.
Doing things differently
Some of the more unusual sights and sounds of the battle against COVID-19 have been seen in Hong Kong, San Antonio and Singapore Changi which are among the growing list of airports to have deployed automated cleaning robots.
While Helsinki Airport probably wins the prize for the most novel way of preventing the spread of the pandemic, deploying COVID-19 sniffer dogs to detect passengers who might have coronavirus.
Indeed, Finavia’s canines – Kössi, Miina, ET and Valo – have proved so successful that their trial has been continued into 2021 and they have received Special Hero Dog awards from the Finnish Kennel Club for valiantly testing samples taken from over 2,000 passengers a month.
Trained by Wise Nose and able to carry out each test in around two minutes, Finavia enlisted the canine help when the University of Helsinki indicated that dogs are able to smell the virus with almost 100% certainty and can even identify the virus days before people start to show any symptoms.
Elsewhere, Doha’s Hamad International Airport uses high-tech smart screening helmets to help identify passengers with elevated body temperatures (see more on page 43) while the Hygiene Team at Istanbul Airport are highly visible, bedecked in stylish anti-microbial and anti-viral uniforms as they whizz around the giant new terminal on electric scooters.
While San Diego International Airport (SAN) in the US is turning to its Airport Innovation Lab to try and find new touchless journey solutions for passengers as part of an upcoming focus on health and safety at airports.
Six companies with solutions that enhance the touchless journey or advance queue management have been welcomed into the programme to test and refine ideas in a real-life airport environment.
“COVID-19 has taught us a lot about mitigating the spread of the virus in a large public venue,” said San Diego County Regional Airport Authority president and CEO, Kimberly Becker.
“As we focus on recovery and plan for the redevelopment of our Terminal 1, we are very interested in concepts that add to creating a safe and healthy environment for all who travel through our airport.
“Those innovations that succeed at SAN, now in the midst of the pandemic, will add to our ability to be ready for when passenger volumes return to normal.”
The world’s airlines have also not been slow in introducing a number of pioneering initiatives to ease their customers’ health concerns and make themselves more appealing to passengers.
One of the most pro-active carriers has been Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which has introduced wellness ambassadors and in February 2021 became the first airline in the world to have all its pilots and cabin crew vaccinated
Others going that extra mile have included Emirates, which introduced the industry’s first COVID-19 hygiene kit for
passengers and in January 2021 launched a vaccination programme for its UAE based staff, and Delta Air Lines, which was one of the earliest adopters of pre-flight COVID-19 testing for pilots.
The big three airline alliances – oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance – were also quick to join ACI World in backing ICAO’s Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) and subsequent ‘Take-Off’ guidance for the industry.
Over the worst?
The latest ASQ Global Traveller Survey, conducted at the end of 2020, discovered that 48% of travellers would consider flying in the first quarter of 2021.
And a recent Honeywell survey of almost 900 people across Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East appears to show that the industry’s measures are having an effect in easing health concerns about flying, with 34% of respondents admitting that they have flown at least once during the pandemic and 81% revealing that they would be ready to fly again in the next 12 months.
Much depends on the global vaccine roll out, of course, and then the willingness of countries to reopen their borders and remove the current restrictions and quarantine rules that exist today and are crippling the aviation industry.
Nobody expects a quick fix, but with the global vaccine roll out beginning to gather pace, hopefully the darkest days of the pandemic are now behind us. The world’s airports would certainly appreciate more traffic and are more than ready to safely welcome back a significant increase in passenger numbers when that time arises.