Americans have slowly begun returning to the skies.
But while the sight of more passengers is undoubtedly a
welcome development at airports in the U.S. and around the world, airports have
also begun girding themselves for the challenge that awaits when rising
passenger counts run head-on into new capacity limitations that will result
from social distancing.
“If we can’t make a safe, healthy and comfortable passenger
experience coming out of this, we are going to end up with a protracted
downturn,” said Chris Oswald, senior vice president of technical and regulatory
affairs for the trade group Airports Council International -- North America. Oswald
said airports are “very concerned” about the difficulties that await when they
must balance social distancing with traffic.
For the seven days that ended with Memorial Day, throughput
at TSA checkpoints was just 11.5% of figures from a year earlier. Still, that
was nearly triple the flow of mid-April. Assuming growth continues apace,
capacity problems could arise sooner than many might expect.
Driving the challenge is social distancing. Copenhagen
Optimization, a provider of technological solutions for airports, estimates
that in pre-pandemic times people normally stood one-and-a-half feet apart in
security lines and 3 feet apart in check-in lines. Apply the social distancing
rules of 6 feet, and airports would top out at approximately 40% to 50% of their usual maximum passenger
volume, the company estimates.
Others in the industry say airports are likely to be
overloaded at 30% of pre-pandemic volume, said Florian Eggenschwiler, managing
director of the airport program for Xovis, a Switzerland-based company that
develops occupancy monitoring technology.
Social-distancing stickers on the floor at Miami Airport. Source: Miami International Airport
John Grant, senior analyst for the flight data analytics
company OAG, estimates worldwide demand will reach that 30% figure by the end
of August and 50% of last year’s demand by the end of this year.
Peak-time passenger loads, though, will likely spike faster
than total loads, Copenhagen Optimization predicted in a recent white paper.
That could mean peak-time traffic approaching 100% of prepandemic volume as
soon as the end of this year.
Such scenarios are raising alarms. In early May, London
Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye warned in an op-ed in London’s Daily Telegraph
that social distancing could lead to boarding lines of up to a kilometer -- that’s
more than half a mile -- for jumbo jets.
Commercial aviation industry stakeholders are looking toward
a combination of physical and technological solutions, combined with an unusual
level of scheduling cooperation between airports and airlines, to avoid
jam-packed airports that are likely to scare off customers and raise the
hackles of politicians and regulatory authorities. Authorities also hope to
avoid scenarios in which flyers must arrive several hours early to the airport.
One key, said Oswald, will be collaborative development of
seat capacity between airlines and airports, as long as that is done without
running afoul of DOT rules relating to scheduling collusion.
Already, airports have taken physical steps designed to
facilitate social distancing. For example, check-in desks have been spaced more
widely apart. Security and customs lines have been reconfigured. And like at
supermarkets, floors are marked to tell customers where to stand.
In a recent jointly developed roadmap for ramping up air
travel, Airports Council International and IATA called for closing airports off
to people not traveling, even in landside areas. The trade groups also called
for greater availability of self-service and remote check-in as well as
increased use of automation by customs and border patrol authorities.
Meanwhile, airports are working to employ technology that
will help them better understand and anticipate where and when unacceptably
dense crowds could materialize.
One such airport is Miami, which a few weeks ago began a
trial of a heat-mapping solution owned by U.K.-based analytics developer
CrowdVision at two security checkpoints.
The solution uses laser-based technology to show airport
operators where physical distancing is not being maintained, said Maurice
Jenkins, the airport’s director of information systems. The airport can then
seek to remedy the situation by dispatching staff. The system also provides
end-of-day, checkpoint-by-checkpoint, reports. The airport can share that
information with the TSA, said Jenkins, or employ other approaches, such as
alerting travelers of the issues via video monitors.
Xovis has implemented a software upgrade that shows
time-lapse heat maps, said Eggenschwiler. The software, for example, could show
that people will maintain spacing in a checkpoint line but tend to bunch up
just outside the line.
Meanwhile, Copenhagen Optimization is enhancing the inputs
for the predictive analytics solution it uses to estimate airport crowds, no
easy feat during a time when flight schedules are undergoing quick and volatile
changes. Heathrow is using Copenhagen solutions to allocate check-in counter
space and to spread passengers at baggage claims, said Sarah Procter,
Copenhagen’s marketing director.
Another company, U.K.-based Veovo, unveiled a solution in
May that enables passengers to book specific arrival times for airport
checkpoints. The company says the solution adjusts available time slots for
checkpoint reservations in real time based upon wait times, allowing for even
San Francisco Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said checkpoint
reservations is among the crowd management items that facility is considering.
Miami’s Jenkins said airports will need to employ a mix of
measures as air travel picks up.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “There’s no magic
pill for it.”