Airports across the world have been dealt a sledgehammer blow by COVID-19. Tara Craig examines some of the latest attempts to address the seemingly ever-changing restrictions and requirements

Anti-COVID-19 measures at Lithuanian Airports’ terminals focus on maintaining social distancing and managing passenger flow

Published on October 8, ACI’s latest World Airport Traffic Report doesn’t make comfortable reading. For the first half of 2020, it says, worldwide airport passenger numbers fell by 58.4% compared with the same period in 2019, with international passenger traffic hit the hardest, recording a 64.5% drop. 

With governments restricting individuals’ movements and corporate gatherings at a standstill, airports have their work cut out for them. Not only must they ensure that their facilities comply with regulations, but they must make sure that travellers have the confidence required to return to air travel and to make full use of airport retail facilities, giving non-aeronautical revenue the boost it desperately needs. 

Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, has remained in operation throughout the pandemic, thanks to a solid business continuity plan. This helped the airport adapt to the pandemic by prioritising passenger and staff safety while minimising the risk of infection. 

The first enterprise in the world to achieve independent verification from the British Standards Institution (BSI) for its implementation of COVID-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocols, Hamad is also one of the first airports to be awarded the BSI’s ISO 22301:2012 Business Continuity Management System Certification.

Hygiene first 

Hamad has invested in disinfectant robots, autonomous mobile devices emitting concentrated ultraviolet (UV) light, which are deployed in vulnerable high passenger-flow areas. The Qatari airport is also trialling contactless elevator controls and exploring UV disinfection tunnels for baggage. 

In addition to complying with protocols introduced by national and international agencies and bodies, Brazil’s Salvador Bahia Airport has, according to CEO Julio Ribas, “invested in technology to ensure even more safety throughout the passenger journey.” Other investments were made during renovation and expansion work, the first stage of which was completed in 2019, have contributed to biosafety at Salvador Bahia. For example, the airport’s air conditioning system uses UV rays to purify the air. 

Sarah Demory, assistant aviation director at Phoenix Sky Harbor, agreed that the focus at present is on health and safety. In addition to its “robust sanitation schedule”, which operates around the clock, the Arizona airport, like many of its peers, is working to ensure that travellers have access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Passengers using the airport can now buy PPE not only from its shops, but at a dozen vending machines, including one at its rental car centre. Among the items on sale are personal all-in-one hygiene kits, multi-use thermometers and portable and rechargeable UV-C sanitisers. 

UV light is also helping to keep Phoenix Sky Harbor clean. The airport recently installed seven UV-C LED light sterilisers to pre-security escalators in Terminals 3 and 4. Operating 24 hours a day, the light is mounted underneath the escalator handrails, out of passenger view. In June, the airport added a new set of handrail cleaners to complement the existing cleaning schedule. These wipe both sides of the escalator handrails simultaneously, reducing the time required for cleaning.

Munich International Airport has placed additional emphasis on hygiene, setting up a cleaning task force that operates daily between 6.00am and 10.00pm, and is responsible for disinfecting areas touched by passengers and employees, among them door handles, seats and handrails. Staff were issued with protective clothing and the level of cleanliness monitored so that additional cleaning could be arranged where necessary. The German airport is testing cleaning robots and the use of UV light for disinfection, as well as using fans to aid with air purification. 

At Lithuanian Airports’ facilities in Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga, hand disinfection stations have been placed in commonly used areas, where all surfaces are regularly cleaned. Baggage trolleys and other equipment used by passengers are also regularly sanitised and disinfected. Trays used during hand-baggage screening are disinfected after each use, while ground handling providers are required to disinfect their buses after every flight. 

Dainius Čiuplys, director of Vilnius Airport, was keen to stress that the bulk of the anti-COVID-19 measures in Lithuanian Airports’ terminals revolves around managing passenger flow and maintaining social distancing. He believes individuals involved. 

In addition to enforcing social distancing measures and the wearing of facemasks, many airports are now moving more quickly than anticipated towards introducing an entirely contactless passenger journey. As well as encouraging travellers to use digital boarding passes, Hamad has introduced a ‘single travel token’ at the self-check-in kiosk, enabling passengers to combine their flight, passport and facial biometric information in one digital identity record. “This ultimately makes the passenger’s face their ‘pass’ at key airport touchpoints, such as self-service bag drop, pre-immigration and, eventually, at the self-boarding gate,” explained Badr Mohammed Al-Meer, chief operating officer at Hamad. Currently at the trial stage, the single travel token will soon be accessible through Hamad’s app. 

“Airports are moving towards an entirely contactless passenger journey”

Autonomous disinfectant robots emit concentrated ultraviolet light in high passenger-flow areas at Hamad International Airport
With fewer flights, restricting passengers to certain parts of the airport has made cleaning easier at Salvador Bahia, Brazil 
Will Recarey 
Vending machines at Phoenix Sky Harbor enable passengers to buy PPE without the risk of standing in line with other travellers

The airport has also recently launched trials for advanced smart solutions for contactless self-check-in and bag-drop processes. The Happyhover system, which uses infrared technology to detect fingers close to the fields on the screen, eliminates the need to touch screen surfaces. The SITA Contactless Kiosk Solution, meanwhile, gives Hamad passengers the option of using their mobile phones to control the self-checkin kiosk screen. At security screening, traditionally a high-touch area, Hamad has recently installed C2 technology, which enables transferring passengers to move through security checkpoints without having to remove electronic devices from their bags, thus limiting human contact and making the process safer and faster. 

At Salvador Bahia, efforts have also been made to facilitate a contactless journey through the airport, with e-gates equipped with a BCBP (Bar Coded Boarding Pass) system, enabling passengers to board their aricraft with minimal contact with staff. 

Screening and testing 

Temperature screening has become increasingly common as a means of checking whether passengers or staff have the fever associated with COVID-19. At Salvador Bahia, for instance, a thermal camera is installed in the Departures area. If a passenger has a high temperature, he is referred to the medical facility, which is available 24 hours a day. 

Hamad International Airport installed multiple thermal screening units in January 2020, and conducts screening for all passengers and staff on a 24/7 basis. The Qatari airport has turned to the latest technology for its equipment. The Smart Screening Helmet is a wearable intelligent device, which, according to Hamad, is portable, safe and effective, and enables contactless temperature measurement. The helmet uses multiple advanced technologies such as infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and an AR (augmented reality) display. It has also been designed to enable the implementation of mobile deployment-based control scenarios. 

New UV-C LED light sanitisers at Phoenix operate 24/7 on pre-security escalators in Terminals 3 and 4, killing up to 99.9% of disease-causing microorganisms

Several airports offer on-site testing facilities. Passengers arriving at Munich Airport from a high-risk area must either have themselves tested less than 48 hours before entry or directly at the airport after entry. Munich has two test centres, offering tests free of charge. Until a negative COVID-19 result is obtained, passengers must place themselves in domestic quarantine for up to 14 days. If the test result is positive, the laboratory will inform the responsible health authority, which will then contact the passenger to discuss further procedures. The quarantine obligation ends as soon as you receive a negative test result. 

At Hamad, a medical clinic operated by the Ministry of Public Health is available 24 hours a day for medical examinations and all COVID-19-related cases. Any arriving passenger or crew member giving a high temperature reading is referred to the clinic for further assessment. All arriving and departing passengers and staff must have the State of Qatar’s COVID-19 contact tracing app EHTERAZ downloaded and installed on a smartphone. Volunteers are available to help arriving passengers set up the app. 

Airlines are also offering PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. Until December 31, 2020, Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will include PCR tests in all tickets booked in the UAE for flights departing from Abu Dhabi International Airport, other than services to China. Travellers flying First or Business Class will have the option of undertaking the tests at their homes.

At Munich, a cleaning task force disinfects seats, trolleys, door handles and handrails, with checks carried out throughout the day
Signs at Salvador Bahia in Brazil prevent crowding in bathrooms by showing occupancy numbers so travellers know to look for alternative facilities 
Will Recarey
Lithuania’s airports use information systems not only to update passengers on safety measures but publicise what travel is still possible 

Information and implementation 

PPE is mandatory throughout airports and passengers are being asked to present their tickets before being admitted to terminals. Hamad, for example, is using a face mask detection system that utilises artificial intelligence and computer vision technologies to automatically alert if someone is not wearing a mask in high-traffic areas of the terminal. 

Reminding passengers of the evolving regulations is one of the most important elements of the ‘new normal’. Airports have been swift to update their signage, and displays reminding passengers to wash their hands – indeed, how to wash their hands – are now commonplace in terminals, as are cordoned-off seats and space markers on the floor to help travellers stay the required distance from one another. 

Digital health documentation 

CommonPass has been designed to provide clear, easily understandable proof of a passenger’s COVID-19 status

October saw Swiss-based non-profit The Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum launch international trials of CommonPass, a digital health pass enabling travellers to securely document their certified COVID-19 test status while keeping other health data private. Previously, COVID-19 test results have been shared on printed paper – or photos of the paper – from unknown labs, often written in languages foreign to those inspecting them. There was no standard format or certification system. CommonPass was designed to counter this and facilitate safer airline and cross border travel by giving governments confidence in an individual’s verified COVID-19 status. To use CommonPass, travellers take a COVID-19 test at a certified lab and upload the results to their mobile phone. They then complete any additional health screening questionnaires required by the destination country. With test results and questionnaire complete, CommonPass confirms a traveller’s compliance with the destination country’s entry requirements and generates a QR code. That code can be scanned by airline staff and border officials, or else the code can be printed out for the benefit of users without mobile devices. Cathay Pacific Airways and United Airlines trialled the system on flights between London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, with government authorities observing. “For some time now, Heathrow has been calling for the creation of a Common International Standard,” said Heathrow’s process improvement director Mark Burgess. “Cross-border pilots such as these could help governments across the world and the industry to unlock the benefits of testing in aviation.

Measures have also been brought in to restrict passenger numbers in enclosed spaces. Salvador Bahia, for example, has introduced proprietary technology to prevent crowding in its bathrooms – a screen on the outside shows the occupancy index, indicating whether the waiting passenger should look for an alternative facility. 

Salvador Bahia has devised an educational campaign to advise passengers, with audio and video messages shared in the terminal and on the airport’s social media pages. Special attention is given to hand hygiene, with posters in the bathrooms and close to sanitiser-dispensers containing instructions. “Terminal agents also circulate through the airport to check the airport community’s adherence to the recommended procedures,” added Ribas. 

Phoenix Sky Harbor has taken a similar approach. “We have staff walking around in vests that say ‘PHX – Here for You Crew’, handing out masks and reminding travellers that they need to wear a facial covering,” explained Sarah Demory. “If passengers report seeing others not wearing a facial covering, we gather additional information and send our Terminal Operations team out to remind and educate those customers about the requirement.” 

Airports, meanwhile, are making great efforts to ensure that the latest advice is understood and adhered to. Announcements have been adapted to incorporate anti-COVID-19 guidance. Artificial voice system specialist AviaVox is offering airports a free package of public safety announcements focusing on safe distancing and good hygiene. Available in almost 20 languages, the messages can be downloaded from AviaVox’s website. 

According to Sjoerd Keizerwaard, programme manager at AviaVox, at least 20 of the company’s customers have requested that their standard announcement package be amended to include COVID-19 messaging. 

Smart Screening Helmets at Hamad in Qatar provide contactless temperature measurement and can enable mobile deployment-based control scenarios

For Lithuanian Airports, educating passengers is key. “There is a need for up-to-date and trustworthy information,” said Vilnius Airport director Dainius Čiuplys. “From the beginning of this ‘new normal’, we have strived to be a centre of travel information locally. This allows us to inform travellers not only of all the safety procedures present at the airports, but also of which flights we are operating, what the prevailing restrictions are and the general potential for travel. 

“For us, providing the travelling public with the most relevant information and the latest travel updates is an essential tool in reinstating travel confidence.”

The Gatwick UV tunnel 

In a UK airport first, Gatwick has begun treating security trays with enough UV light energy to guarantee a 99.9% microbe disinfection rate, thus reducing the spread of coronaviruses and other contagious infections. The new system – provided by Smiths Detection – sees each tray pass through a covered ‘UV tunnel’ fixed underneath the hand luggage screening system, where trays exit the scanners, so that every tray is treated immediately before re-use. Following a month-long trial on a single security lane in July 2020, backed up by laboratory testing, the new system was rolled out across eight lanes in Gatwick’s North Terminal in October 2020. The system uses short-wavelength UV-C light. Laboratory tests have shown this to be effective against coronaviruses, including COVID-19 and SARS, as the radiation warps the structure of their genetic material and prevents the viral particles from replicating. The UV-C light is contained within a covered unit designed according to safety standard BS EN ISO 15858:2016, ensuring no risk of exposure to either passengers or staff. Unlike the more customary anti-viral systems, such as coatings sprayed onto trays, this solution does not dissipate over time. “This new system has proven itself to be extremely reliable and provides a really high degree of reassurance, as every single passenger and staff member using it will have a tray that has only just been disinfected,” said Gatwick chief operating officer Adrian Witherow. “As an airport, we will continue to explore innovative health solutions like this, which reduce the spread of coronaviruses and other infections.”

The UV tunnel at Gatwick disinfects trays as they leave the scanner, treating each one immediately before its next use
Vilnius has worked to reduce human contact throughout the airport, increasing space for queueing and reducing the number of check-in desks

Looking forward 

At the time of writing, much of the world was in the grip of a second wave of COVID-19. The aviation industry continues to call for widespread testing of passengers before travel as an alternative to the quarantine restrictions that are deterring people from travelling overseas. It is impossible, however, to tell whether this will be facilitated – or when. 

Nonetheless, according to Airports Council International, airports “will be a key driver of the global economic recovery from COVID-19 and governments need to provide assistance and co-ordination to help safeguard jobs, protect essential operations, and provide sensible policies to facilitate the return of air connectivity.” 

Vilnius Airport’s Čiuplys surely speaks for the whole aviation industry when he said:“This ongoing situation is so dynamic that forecasting something even a few months into the future is very difficult. In such situations, we simply need to learn how to live with it.”