Airports prepare for crowding challenges

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Sensors like the one seen in the ceiling of this busy airport terminal power Xovis’ heat-mapping solution for social distancing.
Sensors like the one seen in the ceiling of this busy airport terminal power Xovis’ heat-mapping solution for social distancing. Source: Xovis

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.
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 distribution.

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.”

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