Airports Are Facing a New Reality

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus has caused a momentous shift in the air travel industry on par with 9/11. As passenger traffic has reduced to a trickle in the wake of the public’s fears of infection, major carriers like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have grounded hundreds of planes and many international airlines have suspended service entirely. Now airports are grappling with how to respond to this health crisis – and future threats of infectious disease – in order to save the industry and gain back passenger trust.

The COVID-19 situation is unique in many ways, but it’s similar to what we saw after the terror attacks in 2001. As we emerge from this pandemic, business travelers will likely start traveling quickly and with minimal hesitation. Leisure travelers, on the other hand, may be more reluctant to fly. All passengers will require assurances that the experience from curb to aircraft seat is safe. The question is, what do those assurances look like? After 9/11 security measures were visible to passengers and served as validation that the industry took their safety seriously. In a post-COVID-19 world, we have to recognize that the threat is less visible, and that it requires a different response.

In the context of the coronavirus outbreak and the rapid decline in ridership, Congress recently passed a package of emergency funding that will help usher the aviation industry through this crisis. Gensler’s Aviation practice leaders are actively examining how the stimulus package opens the door for a seismic shift in how airlines and airports can partner to enhance passenger safety and wellness.

With that in mind, we’ve begun to consider how design can help airports simultaneously secure their facilities and provide new measures to help protect the traveling public from the spread of viruses and other diseases.

Short-term responses

Our opportunity as architects and designers is to think about the possibilities for helping airports and airlines begin to return to a new normal. There are immediate needs for social distancing and changing the way that passengers use airport facilities.

1. Limit queuing and congregation spaces through better processing

In the short run, the solution will be to limit the amount of queuing and congregation spaces. In some ways, this shift would be an acceleration of processes that some airlines have already been moving toward. One example is giving passengers sole responsibility for tagging and dropping their own bags at check-in. This is a strategy we implemented at JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK Airport in New York, converting the traditional ticketing environment to a self-tag/self-drop operation.

2. Use technology to pre-map the passenger experience

Another response would be to leverage existing digital technology to pre-map the passenger experience in the style of Disney’s Fast Pass. In this scenario, passengers would check in using a self-tag/self-drop process as the default. Using smart phone technology, the airport would assign passengers a dedicated time slot to pass through the security checkpoint. This would enable airports to predict passenger loads and disperse them more gradually over time. From the passenger’s perspective, this would have the further benefit of speeding their journey through the terminal, minimizing their close contact with other passengers and with surfaces that could possibly be tainted with viruses or bacteria.

3. Accelerate biometric screening

In fact, we should be exploring how to minimize other touchpoints in the airport experience. Airports can work quickly to accelerate the biometric screening process that some have already begun testing through retinal and facial recognition technologies. Already Delta Air Lines’ terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport has implemented a passenger processing system that is 100% biometric – from check-in to boarding – and other airlines, such as JetBlue Airways, anticipate similar initiatives in their facilities at JFK Terminal 5 and Boston Logan Airport’s Terminal C. The COVID-19 crisis provides the impetus to get every airport upgraded sooner than we envisioned.

4. Decentralize passenger processing

In any scenario, most airports are challenged for space. Existing terminals are traditionally hemmed in from the airside by aircraft parking limitations, and on the landside by an existing roadway network. The option in the departure process is better utilization at the curb. Decentralizing passenger processing will be one of the key health and wellness strategies that might be a near-term element of an airport’s flexibility plan, despite the costly and operational challenges associated with this shift.

Solutions That Will Take More Time

Some solutions can be realized over a longer time frame. These ideas could be a combination of reusing existing airport amenities and creating new facilities for new types of passenger screening.

1. Convert parking garages into check-in and screening centers

For example, as the world adapts to the rise of autonomous vehicles, airport campuses will look for ways to repurpose their parking garages. In particular, the garages that are directly connected to terminals present the ideal place to house processes such as check-in, security screening, and crowd control, providing new distance controls and passenger flow metering, while also freeing the existing terminal to house more passenger amenities in a less densified arrangement.

2. Rethink seating layouts in boarding areas

The incentive to de-densify terminals could also allow us to rethink traditional seating layouts in boarding areas. Not only can we look at new seating types and configurations that will allow for greater social distancing, but we can consider options like standing rails with charging stations and other flexible seating.

3. Create screening vestibules at airport entrances

Ultimately, integrated security and bio-pathogenic screening would be the holy grail of airport safety and security. This could be a game-changer, opening the entire terminal to airside amenities and a better traveler experience. A revolutionary long-term process change could be the dispersion of screening systems to elongated vestibules at the entrances to buildings. While this scenario is loaded with operational issues to solve, it would accomplish security and medical screening prior to passengers stepping foot inside the building.

Although we’re still in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, we’re anticipating it will bring about the same kind of paradigm shift in air travel that we experienced after 9/11. We may never look at flying or airports the same way again. In 2018, the most recent year with official figures, 4.4 billion passengers flew on scheduled services. What will it take to give them the confidence to fly again? As designers, we believe we have the technology and the know-how to restore that confidence and work with our industry partners to make air travel a safe and secure experience.

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Ty Osbaugh
Ty is a principal and a Global Cities Sector Leader at Gensler, who is focused on the firm’s Aviation practice. Ty has deep expertise in merging great design with careful technical leadership across a variety of global project types, including airport terminals, cargo facilities, and parking structures. He is based in Washington, D.C. Contact him at .