COVID19: Impacts on terminal operations
The spread of the novel coronavirus and the COVID19 disease has caused significant disturbances to airport terminal operations, as well as airline undertakings and citizen's routines. Passenger demand has plummeted, and industry and government officials are scrambling to understand the forecasted effects on revenue and tax bases. Additionally, airports are initial ports of entry for international travellers and are closely watched by health officials to curb the spread of COVID19. Passenger concerns are of paramount importance to decision-makers. Recent research has revealed that perceptions of safety and active involvement by aviation stakeholders appear to be primary drivers of reducing passenger anxiety and worry concerning the virus. Measures such as mask usage, proper social distancing, and personal hygiene are primary control measures that have been effective in reducing the spread of the pandemic, and on-site testing is emerging as a further measure to stall the diffusion of the virus.
Some of the new health and safety measures have increased processing time and fostered growing concern among travellers about travel to and from the facility's airport and movement. Recommendations included a focus on check-in systems, departure lounge management, immigration considerations, and the reclaim areas to maintain high standards and ease-of-flow for travellers while at the airport.
Bristol Airport (United Kingdom) was selected to analyse in detail how the proposed sanitary measures impact airport infrastructure and passenger journey. COVID19 impacts are severe and reduced both the processing capabilities and operational efficiencies, limiting the extent of usual demand that could be accommodated. Capacity degradation observed ranged from 50% to 85%, depending on the processes along the passenger journey. Employing new mitigation measures designed to tackle the requirement to maintain physical distancing allows improving the situation.
· Most common key constraint is space, with some exceptions, one of which would be time
· Main cause for capacity degradation is the closure of every second processing point
· New passenger forms requirements at check-in and immigration impacts capacity by increasing service time and limiting the usage of automatic solutions
· Increased passenger separation significantly reduces queue space capacity by up to 75% - another major reduction in capacity as passengers would overflow dedicated areas quicker
COVID19 has represented a disruption to people's routines and lives and a significant part of any industry operations. The aviation industry has been no exception; both airlines and airports need to adapt their routine standard operating procedures into a continuous irregular operation. Airports started adapting their operations considering the new health regulations, recommendations, and policies as mandated by their country governments since the first quarter of 2020 when the first reported cases of COVID19 emerged. With an average decrease of approximately 83% in passenger demand worldwide, March 2020 saw the most significant decline in passenger figures since the pandemic started. The aviation industry contributes significantly towards the country’s GDP and, therefore, is subject to the impact of governments' measures to ease the pandemic's effects. A forecasted total impact towards the EU27’s economy of USD 669.6 billion and a return to pre-pandemic traffic not happening until 2024 is projected.
Airports represent the first entry point of international passengers to a country and therefore are subject to significant scrutiny by health authorities to minimise the risk of importation of COVID19 and the risk of spreading it into other countries. New sanitary provisions required airports to go through major changes to their operating procedures, terminal layouts and facility arrangements, following various guidelines promoting passenger safety. Some of the observed changes to the airport operations that served as an analysis starting point include:
earlier passenger presentation profile
Passengers arrive earlier to allow extra time for new and less familiar processes, as well as procedures that may increase the processing times (health checks and questionnaires, additional screening or testing, etc.).
2m-separation between passengers
The degree of passenger separation varies between countries and based on observations, the 2-metre distance has been assumed as the most constraining scenario.
50% of the processing points available
Coming from the observations where every other processing point is available to allow extra space for physical distancing.
increased service times at Check-in and Immigration
Driven by passenger health questionnaires or Passenger Locator Forms that might need to be provided prior to departure and after arrival.
Passenger concerns are crucial for aviation stakeholders. Their perception of safety could be instrumental in their decision-making process to decide whether to travel. According to IATA's April Survey, nearly 40% of respondents stated they would wait no less than six months before travelling again. Some clusters of passengers, such as business travellers, harbour fears that go beyond infection, with worries of quarantines becoming primary considerations. Studies found that when aviation stakeholders took an active role in informing travellers about the actions taken to provide a safe environment, such as mask-wearing or disinfection procedures, passengers were more eager to travel. Involving the passengers as major airport stakeholders to make them feel more secure in their passenger journey should become a priority. The focus should not be on how to address them directly (as in some instances, passenger expectations of the airport and airline may not be realistic), but on the communication among the stakeholders, so transparency exists, and passengers are aware of the risks and where they lie within the journey.
When it comes to passenger experience in airport operations and planning, discussions normally revolve around fulfilling the passengers’ expectations through the concept of Level of Service (LoS). According to the IATA Airport Development Reference Manual (ADRM), LoS is a way to ensure that demand, processing rates and service quality are taken into consideration when defining airport service levels.
LoS deals with two variables:
• space (in square metres per person), and
• waiting time (in minutes)
Both have been of critical importance to this study, with capacity breaking points resulting from breaches of either of the two. To make accurate assessments of such a complex operations system, simulation tools are recommended to capture all the interrelated subsystems and sub-processes across the airport system. With the number of changes and the unknowns driven by the COVID19 pandemic, extensive sensitivity analysis have been conducted through the evaluation of multiple scenarios to establish what shape airport operations could take during the recovery of the aviation industry.
This research has been conducted in cooperation with Transoft Solutions, using ArcPORT Terminal which is a comprehensive airport management and planning simulation tool. It offers a platform to easily make sensitivity analyses so that changes to airport design and operations can be tested before they are implemented.
For instance, physical distancing changed operational requirements with a severe impact on terminal areas designed against different assumptions and governing principles. Assessing the scale of impacts as well as the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures using fast-time simulation, allowed to identify capacity breaking points efficiently and without any further disruption to live operations.
Irrespective of specific timelines for any given airport, 4 distinctive recovery stages can be expected on the way through the pandemic. From the operations restart, comprising of making airport facilities “COVID-secure” and handling low passenger traffic, through recovery and adaptation when demand levels start increasing, to the “New Norm” that will define the shape of the industry for the years to come.
The two middle stages pose some complex operational challenges driven by a combination of restrictive sanitary measures in place during the times of traffic recovery. Both require careful planning and consideration to enable sustainable recovery that promotes passenger safety in the most economically viable way. This study has identified capacity breaking points in each of the terminal processes, followed by a review of different mitigation measures that could help airport operators in recovering from the capacity degradation. Outputs of this analysis provide valuable insights into mid-term planning for airport operations through the critical stages of “Recovery” and “Adaptation” when capacity constraints are likely to affect the operations and hinder further traffic growth.
For this analysis, the following methodology has been adopted:
· Simulation model based on the infrastructure of Bristol Airport (United Kingdom)
· Model calibration against reference demand, based on a 2019 ‘Busy Day’ schedule and leveraging off the knowledge of the airport’s infrastructure and performance at that time
· Updated operational layouts and SOPs, and reflected changes driven by social distancing
· New passenger behaviour parameters, new presentation profiles, bags/PAX factors, changes to the service times
Key considerations for this analysis have been:
· Capacity reduction and identification of breaking points
· Feasibility of physical distancing measures for operations recovery
· New customer experience
· 2019 summer actual performance has been used as the analysis reference point to assess COVID19 impacts on terminal operations
Airlines with high self-service kiosk utilisation or those that relied only on the self-service infrastructure did not observe significant challenges in coping with servicing just 50%-55% of last year's summer demand.
The following mitigation measures for check-in can improve performance and create opportunities to allocate additional demand:
· Increased use of self-service kiosks
· Perspex screens between processing stations to allow 100% utilisation of equipment available
· Extended queueing areas where practical
· Passenger separations below 2m
· Alternatives to COVID19 questionnaire at check-in desks
Testing the above recommendations for check-in revealed that 100% of 2019 demand can be accommodated with those in place:
Perspex screens between different check-in processing points have proven to create the highest value, bringing the operation close to the pre-COVID19 performance levels. This held true for most cases analysed where the implementation of Perspex significantly improved efficiency and processing capabilities.
In the case of airlines with already high utilisation of self-service infrastructure, an extension of queueing space and/or reduction of distance between passengers have been necessary to accommodate 100% of 2019 demand.
BCR and Security
With every second lane and every second on-lane preparation area available, 25%-30% of original demand has been accommodated with a high level of queues forming. Tested mitigations comprised of:
· All Boarding Card Readers (BCRs) open, rather than every other
· Additional security lanes opened to improve passenger flow
· Perspex screens between processing stations
· Passenger separation below 2m
Perspex screens between BCRs and on-lane divestment stations have increased the processing capabilities of both operational areas; however...
...additional measures were necessary to accommodate the 2019 passenger demand.
Using more security lanes and BCRs than assumed in the airport’s deployment model has made passenger processing quicker and without excessive queueing, while making maintaining social distancing easier.
Decreased passenger separation below 2 metres helped to achieve the 2019 processing capability.
Even though the departure lounge accommodated only 35-40% of demand, high levels of passenger density made ensuring social distancing guidelines challenging. The following changes may help in mitigating this issue:
· Opening available gate lounges to alleviate pressure on space
· Circulation increased by opening Food & Beverage and retail units
· Access control to restrict security flow so that PAX arrive at the departure lounge no sooner than two hours before departure
· Passenger separation decreased from the initial distance of 2m
· Earlier boarding calls for selected flights
Departure lounges are highly dependent on the security checkpoint performance, and therefore, there is a necessity to balance the operations of the two areas.
Reducing the degree of social distancing and passenger separation from 2m to 1.5m allowed to accommodate almost 50% of 2019 demand, while also maintaining the IATA Level of Service C.
Opening Food & Beverage units and making gate areas available for passengers dwelling in the departure lounge enabled accommodation of an additional 25% of 2019 demand.
Immigration considerations have presented some unique challenges, however, two items remained consistent: the use of Perspex screens and the reduction of the 2m separation between passengers play the biggest role in the performance improvement.
Simulations have shown that as little as 10-15% of 2019 demand could be served due to the lack of e-gates and the reduced staffing of podiums, limited to every other position.
· A phased de-boarding process could ensure a smoother flow of PAX into the immigration areas
· SOPs to establish PAX control before immigration, together with any questioning or form or information collection, would decrease the at-desk processing time
Because operations in the immigration area are highly regulated and not always depend entirely on airport management, several different mitigations were necessary to return to the pre-COVID19 performance levels. In this particular case study, the immigration hall utilised only conventional podiums for passport control.
· Using the available e-gates recovered around 30% of the original processing capability
· Passenger Location Forms (PLFs) collected before PAX reach the Immigration hall can allow for an additional 20% of 2019 demand
· Perspex screens between processing points can add 10% of PAX
· Reduction of the required separation between PAX to 1.5m and then to 1m allowed for an additional 15% and 10% of 2019 demand, respectively
Baggage Reclaim is highly dependent on immigration performance, which has not been an issue thus far, due to severely affected performance of that area. Nevertheless, the following improvements could be applied to the reclaim area when mitigation measures for Immigration processing are in place, and PAX flow increase:
· 2m-passenger separation should be decreased
· Every other carousel should be allocated, starting from the rear of the hall to disperse PAX congregation
· Timely bag delivery will allow PAX to vacate the reclaim area quicker
Simulation results have not shown any need for significant mitigations to be adopted in this particular reclaim area setting, which performed well throughout all the scenarios tested.
However, in the case of reclaim halls with belt capacity issues, implementation of a queuing system could be considered as a mitigation measure that allows passengers to pick-up their bags in a safe and efficient manner. With an increase in operational complexity, this may require further analysis to achieve balanced operations aligned with Immigration performance and to assess additional OPEX considerations.
health & safety measures
COVID19 's first wave revealed that airports were unprepared for situations such as a pandemic. Upon resuming flights, most countries regulated the entry to the airport premises allowing only travellers to enter, either trusting the honesty and goodwill of the passenger or moving them through security agents checking online boarding passes (e.g., as was done in Greece, Spain, the United Kingdom). It seems reasonable that only passengers who travel should be allowed in passenger terminals to minimise the number of facility users at any given time. Questions remain regarding how to efficiently allow passengers' movement in and out, especially when using private transportation, whether public transit should continue to run on regular schedules, and if capacity limitations are needed.
Use of Masks
Facemask usage has become one of the main disease-expansion preventive measures widely adopted since the pandemic's early stage, with its main objective to prevent droplets from reaching other people. The use of masks seems to have a relatively limited impact on the operations of the airport; hence it does seem an effective measure to increase passenger safety while not affecting the service levels.
Arrivals represent a challenge for airports due to the coinciding arrivals of multiple flights on similar schedules, where a large number of passengers can converge in certain areas of the facilities. Airlines such as Lufthansa, for instance, disembark passengers by rows in a similar manner to the group boarding procedure, easing the pressure on the airport facilities through time-spacing passengers entering the terminal buildings. Airport managers have organized blocked spaces and floor marks in the terminal buildings so that passengers do not concentrate excessively at the same time in the same place. Alternate seating in the benches (with blocked spaces) and floor marks (1, 1.5, and 2 metres away depending on the airport/country) are some of the more widespread measures across European airports. Distancing is a common denominator all over the world when analysing disease spreading prevention measures, yet, it is the one that causes the most disruption to airport operations within the terminal premises. Spaces can get congested, passengers end up jamming certain areas and have prolonged close contact.
Hand sanitiser has become widely used in airport environments and many non-open-air spaces such as train stations and shopping malls. Airports worldwide have placed hand sanitiser dispensers in strategic locations, mostly related to the places within the terminals where passengers have physical interactions with certain items, such as self-service kiosks. An alternative to that has been the implementation of contactless journeys. Airports like Helsinki, Frankfurt, and some other European hubs have already highly developed self-service technologies, and therefore the technological investment was minimum. In situations where there is interaction with several different surfaces within the airport, it seems recommendable to have increased hygiene measures such as the use of sanitiser gel. Questions remain about the most convenient locations so that it balances the risk of infection (to minimise it at specific points of the journey) and the challenges that it can pose to normal airport operations and smooth passenger flows.
Other Prevention Measures
COVID19 tests for passengers either on departure or upon arrival constitute alternative yet complementary preventive measures installed for passengers and even for airport employees. Besides that implementation at concrete airports, several governments have started discussions on implementing PCR testing upon arrival or producing the results of a test conducted within a short time before the flight, such as Greece, Austria, and a high number of non-EU countries. Besides that, remote working has been advised to all non-essential airport employees, thus reducing the chances of spreading the disease further due to their workspace increased risks.
This study has shown a number of challenges that airport operators are likely to face during the recovery of post-COVID19 aviation. It has become apparent that the currently adopted sanitary measures severely impact airport capacity and processing capabilities. A range of mitigation measures and physical distancing alternatives will be necessary to bring airports back to their pre-COVID19 operating levels.
For example, the check-in area has seen a reduction of around 50% of its processing capabilities, following the need for physical distancing and extended PAX processing times. To tackle this constraint, two mitigation strategies introduced by airport operators worldwide prove exceptionally effective to unlock check-in processing capabilities:
· Perspex screens between processing points allow usage of every check-in desk or self-service kiosk, rather than closing 50% of equipment
· Increased utilisation of self-service solutions, which offer better throughput than conventional desks, while also decreasing the amount of human interaction required
For the security area, where various initiatives could be considered, those that have brought the highest value to the case study have been:
· Perspex screens between BCRs and divestment stations (where passengers load their belongings)
· Increased number of processing points, relative to what the pre-COVID19 deployment models assumed
· Reduced separation between PAX from 2 metres to 1.5 metres
With the departure lounge seeing a significant drop of its processing capabilities, to around 30%, the following mitigations allowed to return to pre-COVID19 status:
· Opening unused gate lounges and F&B units to provide PAX with additional circulation and dwell space
· Reduction of PAX separation to 1.5 metres
In terms of arriving PAX journey, physical distancing requirements affected the immigration the most severely – its processing capabilities reduced to around 15% of 2019 demand. Due to the area being highly regulated and not entirely dependent on airport management, several different mitigations were necessary to return to the pre-COVID19 performance levels. In this particular case study, only conventional podiums were utilised for passport control and passenger processing.
· Using e-gates has allowed recovering around 30% of the area’s usual processing capability
· A change in PLF processing and moving it to a different stage along the arrival journey meant that another 20% of 2019 demand could be processed
· Reduction of space that PAX need to maintain between each other has also proven beneficial, with 15% and 10% efficiency gains, following a decrease from 2 metres to 1.5 metres, and 1 metre, respectively
In this particular setting, the reclaim area has not been affected by the physical distancing requirements; airports could assume that only every second reclaim belt should be used to spread PAX waiting for baggage across the area to make PAX feel more comfortable. This can be improved further by a timely baggage delivery that will allow PAX to vacate the area sooner, reducing their dwell time and congestion build-up.
· COVID19 presented airports with unprecedented challenges that reshaped their operations
· Proposed measures prioritise passenger and staff safety, however, some pose operational challenges:
· Balancing health implications and effective operations to support sustainable recovery is essential
· Installation of Perspex allows for the usage of all processing points and presents the biggest benefit (40-45% increase in served demand) for a relatively small investment
· Opening adjacent security lanes offers a 40-45% capacity increase
· Reduction of physical distancing increases the departure lounge safe capacity by 45-50%
· Next steps:
· Parties involved in airport operations should cooperate to facilitate a safe passenger journey
· Industry-wide framework to aid airport operators during operations restart, recovery stage, and beyond
· New customer expectations - speedy and safe journeys
Given the scale of impacts on all of the terminal operations, careful and adaptive planning will become more and more critical during the recovery journey in the years to come. Effective use of the available tools can facilitate this process to enable greater focus on the analysis “so-whats” and the best-informed decisions that need to follow. During this unprecedented time, organizational flexibility will be of crucial importance and EBEA consulting team is fully equipped to provide that more pro-active support that airports need.
· COVID19 presented airports with unprecedented challenges that reshaped their operations