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Time to innovate


Design changes at airports can support and speed up the safe return of air travel, writes Populous Americas’ aviation market leader and principal, Geoffrey Ax.

Whether it’s to see family, clients or simply treat cabin fever with a change of scenery, one thing is clear, people want to travel again.

Scratching this itch requires some delicate risk management on their part. Do they set out on a road trip and orchestrate overnight pit stops along the way? Or do they fly and deal with the discomforts of navigating airports during a global pandemic?

Airports and airlines across the world are doing their best to entice passengers back with flight discounts and enhanced safety protocols, albeit with limited success.

The number of passenger miles flown by US air carriers in June 2020 was nearly one-sixth of that from the same time last year. Chief among flyers’ concerns is safety. Not just the actual risk posed by flying, but the perceived risk of being exposed to others with COVID-19.

Thanks in part to most aircraft’s excellent air circulation and onboard HEPA filters, the risk of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus while in the sky has been minimised. So that leaves us with the airport itself. How safe do passengers feel pre and post-flight?

At airports, it’s important to focus on the passenger experience and how every step of the journey makes them feel. That approach has never been more significant. In recent months, Populous commissioned a proprietary Qualtrics survey that collected data on American passengers’ perceptions and worries.

Populous translated the data into three design solutions airports can implement. Altogether, they have the potential to ease travellers’ anxieties and guide the aviation industry along the road to recovery.

Re-think traditional F&B and retail

Nearly 40% of passengers surveyed said they would plan to buy less food and beverage (F&B) at the airport because of COVID-19 concerns. However, 70% of passengers said they would prefer to use an app to order F&B for ordering and pick up or delivery. And 61% are reluctant to use a touch screen.

How can we re-think traditional airport concession spaces to be more convenient and safer? Existing concession countertops can be converted into prefabricated, contactless locker pick-up locations where passengers can order by an app in advance and then pick up their pre-paid item(s) from the locker at their convenience.

Existing foodcourts can also be converted to app-based order and delivery services just as you’d receive your restaurant delivery at home.

Let go of hold rooms as we know them

Among the many concerns of passengers is keeping a safe distance from others, a trend that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The overwhelming majority of passengers surveyed (78%) plan to continue social distancing long after a vaccine is available.

The further you go into an airport, the smaller it gets, and the harder social distancing becomes. Right now, with traffic levels at all-time lows, it’s not much of an issue. But what happens when traffic starts to pick back up?

This is the ultimate Catch 22 facing the industry. As more people return to air travel, the less enticing it will be for others to join them. Airports were already crunched for space and lacking positive experiences before the pandemic. So how do we free up enough room for more passengers to spread out, now that it’s about more than comfort?

The first move is operational: holding areas need to be expanded and altered to allow for more orderly boarding. By removing and replacing seating with new options designed for the times, you can expand a holding room’s functional space dramatically.

The second move is more ambitious: you entice or instruct passengers to not head to their gate so fast or so early before
their flight. This follows in the path of global airports, where ‘call to gate’ set-ups are more the norm. It is hardly commonplace in the US, but if a pandemic doesn’t give you the opportunity to change, what will?

There are steps US airports can take in the right direction. One is thinking of ‘call to gate’ at a smaller scale, compartmentalising concourses or piers together and directing passengers there but without assigning a gate number yet.

This in effect allows passengers to spread out along the length of the concourse or pier until they need to board. The other step is rethinking the location of airport boundaries.

Expand the boundaries of the airport

Often, large-scale events such as the Super Bowl and Olympics have temporary, exterior security perimeters. So why not
apply the same sort of approach to airports and expand their programmable space?

By bringing these functions forward and maybe even outside – everything from passenger drop-off and ticketing to baggage
and security – lobbies can be repurposed into spaces for socially-distanced leisure like they are in places like New York City’s Grand Central Station and Union Stations across the US.

The benefits are numerous: Passengers are primed to spend more time relaxing, eating or shopping, which also brings in revenue, while airports get more flexibility in gate assignments and increased capacity as a result.

So how do you expand the boundaries of an airport without costly new construction? Temporary overlays of car parking garages make all sorts of options possible. Repurposing an open-air garage for something like ticketing also has the potential to put at ease passengers concerned with sharing indoor space for extended periods.

Another solution is off-site screening solutions. Off-site screening solutions can take the check-in and security process entirely off-site for a more streamlined and convenient passenger experience.

When travelling, passengers spend hours stalled in traffic and waiting in lines at the airport, all before reaching their departure gate. Off-site screening solutions reduce the time passengers spend waiting by letting them clear through security before even reaching the airport.

The use of off-site access points, particularly when designed around large-scale events, offers a smoother overall experience that bypasses potentally stress-inducing security lines and creates a positive final impression for visitors.

These controlled spaces also provide an opportunity for events and cities to create one cohesive journey from hotel to plane. New opportunities for branding and sponsorships are created as a result.

It’s exactly this sort of VIP experience airports should have in mind when 59% of our surveyed passengers say they would
feel safer with off-site security. And, of those, 77% said that they’d be prepared to pay more for it.

While these design solutions are helpful, at the end of the day, the most important change airports and airlines can do to make passengers feel more comfortable is clear and consistent communication.

More than 80% of passengers would feel safer if they had clear instructions before arriving at the airport, and saw
clear signage specifying how the airport is reducing the spread. It is vital for airports and airlines to invest in venue signage, wayfinding and other communication tools to set expectations for safety protocols, rules and regulations.

However big an airport’s appetite for change is, the time is ripe for innovation. Most US airports haven’t changed since 9/11, and with careful thought and innovation, we can do better.

A once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, and the ensuing economic crisis maybe just what the industry needs to evolve. Through crisis is opportunity and now is the time to re-evaluate the traditional airport and the passenger experience to restore customer confidence.

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