Airport health accreditation aims to ease pandemic fears

Floor markings encourage social distancing at Denver Airport in late April.
Floor markings encourage social distancing at Denver Airport in late April. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk

A new airport health accreditation program is one of the latest measures put forward by the air travel industry in an effort to encourage a nervous public to resume flying.

But it remains to be seen whether the program, developed by the global trade group Airports Council International (ACI), can help assuage the fears of many that air travel during the Covid-19 pandemic is unsafe. 

"We think it does and our members think it does, as well," said Antoine Rostworowski, ACI's deputy director general for programs and services. "I think it's a tool, and that's why airports want to use it. It's a tool to reassure the traveling public."

ACI unveiled the Airport Health Accreditation program in mid-August. It uses standards developed in accordance with recommendations put forward in late May by a task force of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the civil aviation arm of the United Nations.

The program deals with protocols relating to cleaning and disinfection, physical distancing, staff protection, passenger communications, passenger facilities and airports' physical layout. 

As of Aug. 25, nine airports had received ACI health accreditation and 76 airports were going through the accreditation process, including 13 in North America. A total of 216 airports had applied to be part of the program.

In a related measure, ACI also unveiled its Check & Fly app in August. It provides travelers with information about health measures in place at airports around the world. As of Aug. 25, 185 airports had provided information for the app. 

Data shows that airports and airlines have much to overcome when it comes to traveler sentiment. A Gallup poll released in early August found that 52% of American adults who flew at least once each year before the pandemic now say they would not be comfortable flying. Such fears persist even though there have been few documented occurrences of in-flight Covid-19 transmission. Filipe Pereira dos Reis, IATA's Americas director of airports, passengers, cargo and security, said in late August that the airline trade group is aware of fewer than 20 such instances involving less than 50 passengers.

To obtain accreditation, airports self-report the health safety measures they've implemented to ACI from a checklist the trade group has developed. ACI follows up with a virtual meeting and may also ask for photos and videos as backup. 

ACI wants information such as what types of cleaning products and protocols airports are using, what measures they are taking to keep people distanced, what their mask policy is and more.

Rostworowski stressed that not everything must be uniform among airports. Some terminals have more space for social distancing than others. At some airports, mask mandates are more politically feasible than in others.

"If an airport doesn't enforce masks, they can enforce more distancing," he said. "Consistency can mean alignment. It's about the outcome. Not everything has to be the same."

He said he believes travelers will care when they see airports that have seals noting that they are health accredited.

Analyst John Strickland, director of London-based JLS Consulting, agreed that such industry measures can make a difference. 

"I think we're in such a state that any effort by any party helps," he said. "And the positive thing I see is the industry trying to work together."

Notably, in May, ACI and IATA jointly issued recommendations on health safety protocols for the air travel journey, including in airports and on planes. 

Both entities are also now working with the ICAO to update the safe air travel guidance document it produced in May.

Analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. is more skeptical than Strickland about the efficacy of the accreditation program. 

"The problem -- no matter whether it is an airline, airport, car, hotel, restaurant, convention hall -- is that whatever the publicized standard of performance is, the actual performance varies widely," Mann said. 

Most airports, he explained, use third-party contractors for facilities maintenance, with the contracts typically awarded to the lowest bidder. 

"The pre-pandemic example I would offer is airport lavatory cleanliness. Whatever the standards were, results, shall we say, varied," Mann said. 

IATA's Pereira dos Reis, while supporting ACI's efforts, said that restoring passenger confidence in the safety of air travel is only half the battle. 

"Governments also need to be confident that air travel will not be a significant vector for the transmission of Covid-19 going forward," he said. "Otherwise, borders will not reopen. If borders do not reopen, then the business is not sustainable."

Strickland agreed that for air travel to rebound, it is key that governments begin coordinating with the air travel industry as well as among themselves.


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