Industries in Depth

How is COVID-19 changing airports?

Passengers wearing face masks line up to check in at El Dorado airport, after the Colombian government gave the authorization to reactivate international flights, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bogota, Colombia September 21, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez - RC253J9KGO28

Safety first: The pandemic is likely to have a long-lasting impact on airports Image: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez - RC253J9KGO28

Laith Abou-Ragheb
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • Air passenger traffic declined 98% in April as the pandemic hit.
  • The crisis has prompted a faster uptake of technologies such as biometric testing.
  • COVID-19 is likely to prompt long-term changes to airport design.

COVID-19 has wreaked huge damage on the world's once-booming aviation sector. Passenger numbers have plummeted and many airlines have warned they may not survive if the pandemic drags on much longer.

Airports have not been spared, either. Corporación América Airports, which operates 52 airports globally including Ezeiza International in Argentina, said a combination of flight restrictions and bans resulted in a 98% decline in passenger traffic in April. "This is the worst disruption in the life of this industry since it became mainstream 50 years ago," said Corporación América Airports CEO Martin Eurnekian, during a session on how to rebuild travel and tourism held this week at the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit.

covid coronavirus air travel
COVID-19 has been the Image: IATA

But despite the gloom, Eurnekian believes the pandemic is likely to have a lasting positive impact on his industry by forcing airports to rapidly adopt better design and technology features which may have taken years to implement without the onset of COVID-19. "In the same way these trends accelerated during the pandemic in other aspects of life, I think we will see the same thing happen at airports," he said.

Biometric sytems, which typically use facial recognition to identify passengers, have always held the promise of speeding up check-in times, from curb to gate. This technology also drastically reduces the need for passenger interaction and the chance of touching surfaces such as the screens on check-in kiosks which could be holding COVID-19. Airports are now increasingly "using biometric technology to do the full passenger flow, from when you get into the airport until you get on the plane, and thus requiring you to touch less things, to interact less with other people, and is able to give you the social distancing required," Eurnekian said.


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Automated screening systems which remove the need to pat-down passengers and inspect their hand luggage can also shorten check-in times. The makers of one these systems employed at Oakland International in the US, for example, say it can screen up to 800 people per hour.

Airports are also likely to be far cleaner places as operators respond to passengers' new hygiene habits. This will include the deployment of more sanitation stations. "They are not happy with us telling them that we are sanitising everything and changing protocols for them to be safe. They want to be able to do that themselves," Eurnekian said. "They want to have cleaning materials and wipes at hand at the airport to be able to wipe their surfaces around them to give them the confidence that they need."

You can watch the session in full below.


Designers have also begun envisaging how airports can adapt to the realities of COVID-19 travel in ways which don't necessarily involve the adoption of sophisticated and expensive new technology. “[Airport design] will be more about the efficient use of the space available on both the airside and landside of terminal facilities, so that we can improve the usage of high-density areas such as holdrooms and concessions seating," Scott Gorenc, studio design director for Corgan’s aviation studio, said in an interview published by AirportTechnology this month.

Gorenc told the industry site that passengers need to be encouraged to venture away from gates and holdrooms through the creation of unique amenities. He cited the aquarium at Vancouver Airport as a good example of this. But simpler additions, such as lounge seating or pop-up retail, could also help disperse passengers more.

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