The new normal?
A handful of architects and consulting companies consider how COVID-19 will impact on the use and future design of airport terminals.
Risk, resilience and flexibility
Airport operators are looking to the industry for guidance on how future best practices will evolve to promote increased passenger safety, maintain operational efficiency and capacity, and accommodate regional, national, and international health and safety protocols, writes Ricondo vice president, Chad Townsend.
The long-term airport planning and design (P&D) strategy resulting from COVID-19 should focus on risk, resilience and flexibility.
The obvious impact to airport facilities results from social distancing guidelines requiring two to three times the upper range of industry-accepted level of service (LOS) recommendations.
The accepted criteria for passenger LOS that determine a facility programme have evolved alongside the aviation industry’s innovations and security protocols to promote a balance among the passenger experience, operational efficiency, and fiscal realities of an ultra-competitive commercial environment.
Given the existing constraints at most airports and the financial effects of COVID-19 on the global aviation industry, proposing significant increases to the size of typical airport facilities to accommodate temporary guidelines associated with this specific pandemic is not a feasible solution.
Further, dramatically altering current P&D metrics should not be the long-range strategy. Instead, the focus should be on preparing our facilities and operating protocols to be as resilient as is financially feasible.
Early P&D processes should include identifying potential threats, including health, weather, geologic, and security, and gauge the probability of occurrence while developing project criteria that prioritise resilience and flexibility to accommodate common challenges.
The subsequent evaluation of alternative solutions should place equal emphasis on spatial and functional flexibility, operational resiliency, and fiscally responsible accommodation of risk scenarios, as is currently placed on initial construction cost.
The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis has been a tool for evaluating concept solutions for decades.
In the context of the P&D process resulting from COVID-19, the SWOT analysis should consider the following: lessons learned from the pandemic, which will evolve our priorities when evaluating capital improvements and operational enhancements; the benefit-cost of risk preparedness and resiliency versus minimum standards; and the common solutions regarding operational needs and responses for the multitude of events that could affect an airport’s ability to stay operable and efficient under periodic, and not just generational irregular and challenging conditions.
With an evolution of early visioning, reprioritising evaluation criteria and a more robust benefit cost strategy that includes downside scenarios, airport operators can proactively identify risks and develop solutions to ensure airports remain resilient and flexible.
Architect: Landrum & Brown
Working for the return of global travel
Mitigating health threats is the top priority of every nation right now. All nations must improve their abilities to detect and identify health threats and no port of entry should be immune from scrutiny, writes Landrum & Brown’s vice president for terminal planning, Joe Barden.
The aviation industry has the obligation to quickly develop comprehensive health screening solutions that re-enable global passenger traffic and slow the spread pandemics.
These solutions require a series of uniform procedures for passengers and airports to assure their health and safety. Solutions will instil confidence that international travel is safe for everyone.
There are two actions that governments and airports must take to restore international travel: Countries must establish testing protocols and health screening prior to travel; and airports must reconfigure their international facilities to accommodate testing protocols and health screening procedures.
For governments, this means protocols at the arrival airport for passengers arriving from countries that are unable to provide testing services is an option. Testing upon arrival is a second-best solution because it requires quarantines until test results return. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, many airports have introduced temperature checks for all arriving and departing passengers using thermal imaging; areas to scan mobile devices for ‘clearance’ based upon pre-travel testing; and spaces for secondary health screening for passengers, who may require an immediate test or further inquiry of additional information needed for contact tracing.
These changes may have tremendous impacts on the physical spaces. Few airports in the US and EU are prepared to implement changes within their existing infrastructure.
Airports need to prepare for changes by securing funding and by working with airport operators, airlines and government stakeholders to agree upon configurations of space and procedures.
Our national governments, airlines and airports must work together to meet these challenges to re-enable the international travel that drives our local economies. For international traffic to return global benchmarks, acceptance of innovative and robust health screening protocols and procedures is inevitable.
Airports will require additional space in their facilities to conduct mandated health screenings prior to circulation through traditional immigration and customs areas.
Bouncing back better
The aviation industry has typically been very agile to respond to disruptions and I expect the same with the pandemic. Airports will adapt and come out in a better position to cater to the needs of the travelling public, writes Corgan’s studio design director, Scott Gerenc.
Indeed, we are already starting to define solutions beneficial as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and it is beholden upon us to ensure that they are not reaction-based or knee jerk reactions, but ones that align with the aspirations of the modern traveller.
In our search for long-term design solutions that put people first, Corgan has focused on the areas of social distancing, touchless processing and wellness.
The concept of social distancing is less about six foot spacing and plexiglass barriers and more about the understanding the implication of a redefinition of personal space. For example, as passengers return to travel, where will they prefer to dwell and how can we encourage better use of the area available today to minimise passenger density in any one area?
Touchless processing is the aspiration of eliminating physical touchpoints and creating a touchless experience. Biometrics, automation and blockchain are all foundational to achieving a touchless processing experience.
While the promise of these technologies has always been around for quite some time, the pandemic may serve as the catalyst for the integration into our terminal environments.
Finally, wellness is focusing on creating a built environment that not only ensures the health and safety of passengers and employees. Aside from the physical modifications to the built environment, we really need to tap into travellers’ psychological comfort.
For the majority, travel by air is a choice, not a necessity, and we will have to go above and beyond people’s expectations to gain passengers’ trust, so they feel safe to fly again.
The key is to learn everything we can, not only about the lasting impacts of COVID-19, but how we can best prepare for a range of potential health threats, create a response framework to these threats, and then apply those strategies across the planning, design and construction spectrums.
Cutting queues and improving passenger flows across the airport campus
The COVID-19 pandemic is unique in many ways, but it has created a significant shift in the airline industry, with impacts not seen since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a post-pandemic world, airports must recognise that the threat of less visible contagions, such as COVID-19, requires a measured, proactive response, writes Gensler’s aviation leader, Tim Hudson.
While architects have an opportunity to leverage design to help airports secure their facilities and diminish the opportunity for the spread of diseases, these terminal facility changes also have an added benefit of improving the overall passenger experience.
At Gensler, we have considered a variety of design solutions that will address safety concerns and reshape how passengers use airport facilities in the future.
Limit queuing and congregation spaces
Queuing and congregation spaces can be minimised by allowing passengers to check-in, tag and drop their luggage off, creating an organic flow with no queuing. We implemented this solution at the JetBlue Terminal at JFK Airport in New York by converting the traditional ticketing environment to a self-tag and self-drop operation.
Rethink seating in boarding areas
Airports should identify new seating configurations that allow for greater social distancing and new amenities, such as standing rails with chargers. Beam seating can be replaced with easily adjusted or removable seats to create space between passengers.
Pre-map the passenger experience
Using smartphone technology, passengers can pre-map their airport journey before it begins – from parking to check-in to entering through the security checkpoint at an assigned timeslot. This process allows airports to predict and manage passenger loads, while offering travellers a speedy journey through the terminal.
Accelerate biometric screening
Before the pandemic, some airports had already begun implementing biometric passenger processing systems. In the US, they include the Delta Air Lines terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport. COVID-19 has created a sense of urgency to accelerate deployment of biometric technologies, upgrading every airport sooner than anticipated.
Conduct screenings at airport entrances
In the long-term, airports should consider dispersing medical and security screening systems inside extended vestibules at terminal entrances. While there are potential operational challenges, these systems would allow medical and security screenings to take place ahead of entering the facility, reducing the opportunity for the spread of diseases among passengers in the airport.
Decentralise passenger processing
Airports are process driven facilities, and by default, where these processes overlap, passengers gather. Leveraging solutions to de-densify passenger processing, such as moving security screening to the exterior of the building or deploying passive continual screening processes, will serve as a valuable long-term health and wellness strategy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is redefining how we travel and how we will experience airports in the future. As designers, we have the unique opportunity to apply our knowledge and lessons learned, collaborating with our industry partners to create a safe and secure air travel experience.