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Learning from COVID-19


What lessons in responsiveness and resilience can airports, airlines and architects draw from the current crisis? Robert Chicas, HOK’s senior principal and director of aviation + transportation, investigates.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact COVID-19 has had on the aviation industry. At the time of writing, the virus has resulted in the cancellation of 7.5 million flights and revenue losses of more than $400 billion.

Yet 2020 has also been an amazing story of resilience and recovery as new industry protocols – enhanced cleaning and sanitation, wellness monitoring, better safety messaging and robust infection control measures – have provided for modest, but steady, increases in passenger traffic from the steep drop-offs of February and March.

Like everyone in aviation, we as airport planners and designers eagerly anticipate the arrival of a vaccine. Then – and only then – will confidence begin to be restored and passenger levels gradually return to their pre-COVID levels.

Yet, in many ways, we’re also thinking beyond this pandemic with our eyes on the next health crisis. What lessons in resilience can we apply from COVID-19 that might begin to help protect the aviation industry against an experience like 2020 again?

That’s the question HOK’s Aviation + Transportation team recently presented to airport operators, airlines and our own architects to both learn from the present and prepare for the future.

Safety first

The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) offers an example of what we have heard across the industry. “CDA has always made passenger safety a top priority, and we remain steadfast in that goal during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jamie Rhee, CDA Commissioner.

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to examine and enhance the way we monitor our operational protocols, provide security and support to the travelling public.

“In addition to installing supplemental hand sanitising stations and social distancing signage (including informational decals on the floors and walls), CDA has been in constant communication with the Centers for Disease Control and Chicago Department of Public Health to stay up to date on all recommended safety guidelines.”

The CDA has also added no-touch fixtures and smart technology in their terminals for both the safety of travellers and to improve facility maintenance.

In Canada, leadership at Toronto Pearson International Airport established a 5-point Healthy Airport initiative. “It encompasses everything from making passenger and employee health our top priority to working diligently with government and industry partners and communicating transparently,” noted Deborah Flint, CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA).

“The goal is to ensure our approach is innovative, aligned with industry standards and utilising the latest processes and technologies.”

The GTAA has a strong relationship with Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), which represents unionised workers at Toronto Pearson who work for the 400 employers across the airport.

Airport leadership collaborated in a joint initiative to consider best workplace practices for airports around the globe. As part of this work, the GTAA issued the first demographic survey of airport workers in North America.

“This special relationship has enabled us to mobilise to address worker needs and keep the people of Pearson at the centre of our work,” said Flint.

Airports were of course not alone in their need to respond immediately to an unprecedented crisis. Steve Sisneros, managing director of airport affairs for Southwest Airlines, discussed the way his airline and their airport partners supported one another in the early days of the crisis.

And to communicate the most current information in a rapidly changing environment, Southwest opted for human connection over email.

“We set up nearly 60 conference calls over three weeks with the leaders of our top airports,” said Sisneros. “It was exhausting, but necessary.”

They addressed crucial issues of health and safety, the booking environment, the airport’s budget challenges and, critically, the airline’s need to preserve liquidity. This led to an unprecedented discussion about rent deferrals or other lease amendments.

“The airports stepped up,” observed Sisneros. “We are in this together. We have not necessarily agreed on everything, but we found ourselves in a situation no one could have contemplated or planned for and they have been great in communicating and working with us.”

The relationships Southwest has cultivated with airport directors over the years was integral to the success of those challenging conversations.

“If you’ve never spoken to an airport director or you didn’t have that relationship, and all of a sudden you’re cold calling and asking for help, that’s a harder conversation to have,” admitted Sisneros. “This took those pre-existing relationships to the next step. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Future Impact

While COVID-19 could soon be neutralised, if not eradicated with the development of a vaccine, it’s impact on aviation will last well into the future.

At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, plans are already underway to incorporate lessons from the pandemic into the airport infrastructure, said the CDA’s Rhee.

Those strategies include: facility redesign strategies that can provide sufficient space for passengers to practice social distancing, leveraging best practices and emerging technology from healthcare industries, and undertaking HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) improvements that will help create a safer indoor environment.

Other airports see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to adjust part of their core business.

“I have no doubt about the long-term return of passenger travel, but the years in-between require a radical adaptation of our approach to operations, commercial relationships and digitalisation,” said the GTAA’s Flint.

“For example, we have placed more importance on cargo and reworked our facilities and operations to ensure we meet and stimulate demand. Whether it is highly perishable goods, time-critical medical supplies or repair components that keep industrial production in high gear, Toronto Pearson has proven to be a critical link for air cargo in these changing times.”

All our experts agree that COVID-19 pushed the industry to adopt technology more quickly than it would have otherwise. Southwest’s Sisneros, for example, believes that all the new touchless technology within aviation is here to stay – from the mobile boarding pass and self-service kiosks to apps for ordering food and cash-free payment systems.

Wellness screening technology has advanced dramatically over the past decade in response to SARS and other respiratory illnesses. Touchless technology, which has been around for years but has been slow to get implemented, has now received a big push from this pandemic.

Just last year, many of our aviation clients were unsure of incorporating biometric monitoring into a project. Now that technology is pretty much a given.

Wellness screening will likely become a permanent form of safety and security checks going forward. Though unlike TSA infrastructure, which is typically comprised of fixed elements located midway through the passenger’s journey to the gate, this new security perimeter must be at the first point of contact with passengers, and be designed with flexibility and reconfiguration in mind.

This presents a unique set of challenges for airports and architects as the wellness screening cannot create new choke points. At the same time, the screening needs to be highly visible and efficient, but impossible to ignore or bypass.

Increasingly, passengers want visual proof airports and airlines are taking all measures possible to keep them safe. This trend will undoubtedly come into greater focus on the heels of COVID-19.

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