Up in the air: Resilience amidst uncertainty in the aviation sector

As the COVID-19 pandemic grounds flights on an unprecedented global scale, the aviation industry is facing more questions than answers. Can we build resilience in an uncertain landscape, and plan for a strong, safe recovery?

We’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic halt so many sectors of the global economy, but perhaps one of the hardest hit thus far has been air transportation. Airlines are the lifeblood of aviation, and the financial engine for the whole industry. In 2019, commercial airlines earned an estimated revenue of $838 billion USD globally. About 4.3 billion passengers flew on commercial flights in 2018, and we’ve seen industry growth continuing to outpace expectations, year after year.

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Source: ICAO


That all changed in the first quarter of 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic saw borders closed, planes parked and thousands of airline staff laid off from their jobs. In just a few months, airlines have slashed flights by up to 90 per cent, and laid off tens of thousands of aviation professionals in Canada alone.

The aviation sector relies so heavily on travel, and travel will be something that’s completely up in the air for some time. So, how do we build resilience in the sector amidst unprecedented challenges?

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Temporary problems, lasting solutions

While the impacts of COVID-19 have been rapid, far-reaching and severe, epidemiologists are confident that they will not be permanent. As with all previous global pandemics, this one will eventually end, and industries that necessitate social contact will have the opportunity to start their recovery.

It is challenging to see amidst so much uncertainty around how the pandemic will end, and when. There are certainly more questions than answers. But we have seen the aviation sector face massive challenges before, a significant example being the 9-11 aftermath in 2001.

“People thought the industry wouldn’t survive that. They thought that was the end of travel as we knew it,” said Paul Reyes, Architectural Lead, Aviation at WSP in Canada. “But at the end of the day, people adapted and moved forward, regardless of the challenges.”  

After September 11, airline passenger travel and capacity fell drastically and remained low in the subsequent months. It took the airlines some years to fully recover. But the reality was that people still needed to travel — and that will still be the case in a post-COVID world as well. However, we can still expect to see a sequence of events and trends around COVID-19 that will include a drop in airline capacity, grounding planes to lower costs, and reduced flights to match the falling demands for some time to come.

What’s important is to start planning long-term solutions today around how air travel can adapt to be safer, health-focused and resilient in the context of a microscopic obstacle with massive reach.


Process changes

Some of the first adjustments that we’re already seeing in airports are process changes. COVID-19 will bring a number of new processes to standardize how people are screened, how they self-report relevant travel and health information, and how mechanisms work for controlling quarantine for international travellers.

Just like after 9-11, screening will be the fundamental first line of defense, and we will likely see these processes go through multiple iterations, study and changes. The most stringent measures may not be long-lasting when virus transmission begins to ebb and testing and tracing measures improve. However, we will need a uniform method of performing that screening, not just in Canada but throughout the world.

One thing we learned from the 9-11 aviation response is that broad standardization of processes is very challenging — and it may be even more challenging this time. A major difference in the impacts of 9-11 on airlines and COVID-19 has been the assessment and consensus on the level of risk. During 9-11, there was relatively quick consensus on the need for heightened screening protocols; with COVID, there has been a broad range of disparate, sometimes contradictory, approaches. Until industry decision-makers can come to a consensus on the risks, standardized protocols will be very difficult.

We are already seeing a range of different responses based on region. Some countries were able to make proactive changes to their protocols and mitigation measures, whereas others have not moved as quickly, and it will be more difficult to travel in and out. This can further impact their travel and tourism industries. There will be different responses and marketing strategies between airline network carriers to recover from the downturn. Perhaps there will be a bigger shift in local carriers to the international market while aiming to keep the cost of flights relatively low, and implementing new cleaning and hygiene protocols on board. One might expect to see more cost-saving approaches introduced by the airlines in eliminating and limiting serving food and drinks on domestic flights, and/or scaling down serving open food during long haul international flights.

Among larger countries, the most heightened response will occur in the first six months, before process standardization even begins to proliferate — and as public concern reaches a peak.

“Everyone will be nervous, and right down to the check-in staff, every personal interface is going to be affected,” said Reyes. To mitigate risk in interactions where social distancing is difficult to achieve, many airlines have mandated that masks be worn, in accordance with WHO and CDC recommendations. Gloves, however, have not been widely recommended for public use — though guidelines have varied and changed over time, leading to some degree of public confusion.

There may need to be measures that ensure that passengers, once screened, can enter the “clean zone,” where mask-wearing, handwashing and surface cleaning requirements are stringent.

“It’s a very common thought that airports are one of the less clean places you can go, due to the number of travellers in confined spaces with large and mobile populations, said Isabella Taba, Strategic Operations Lead, WSP in Canada. “For instance, the security bins that everyone touches are not cleaned in between passengers, so they are a frequent touchpoint that could carry a high risk of infection, there are not many hand hygiene mitigation strategies implemented currently, and rarely you will find hand sanitizer stations installed in the airports.” 

We may see significant changes to cleaning protocols, but those changes will come at a cost. Airports typically have unions that do all the cleaning and maintenance, which represents a significant expense — but it’s one we may see health or regulatory agencies insist on.  Some airports are looking into a cost-effective strategy to adopt and implement good hygiene practices as well as introducing technologies to monitor travelers’ possible medical conditions such as fever, blood pressure and coughing as preventative measures.

“More manpower or more stringent cleaning protocols are operational costs. And at the end of the day those costs will be passed on to the passengers,” said Reyes.


Structural changes

Beyond process changes that are relatively quick to implement, we may also see some structural changes to the airports and airplanes themselves.

Various potential changes to airplane structure are already under discussion, such as less crowded rows or aisles, plexiglass shields, different seating configurations — or even ditching the dreaded middle seat altogether. All of these suggestions are structured around the fundamental strategy that has emerged in the early months of the pandemic: social distancing. However, we have already seen various degrees of implementation from airport to airport and airline to airline. Airport buildings have already implemented design and signage changes to influence social distancing behaviours.

“Many airports, including Pearson, have put decals on the floors indicating “stand here” distancing guides for baggage areas, gates, and concessions,” said Brandon Westwater, Lead, Specialized Systems, WSP in Canada. “There are signs around, and announcements every few minutes talking about social distancing, despite the fact that Pearson is operating at five to 10 per cent of its normal passenger capacity.”

We may also see quarantine rooms in airports, or quarantine zones in the aircraft.

Some major airports are currently implementing new technologies such as thermal cameras to monitor the temperature of travellers, using image processing methodology to detect coughing and sanitation booths to reduce the risk and spread of COVID transmission within the airports. It is expected that using high-tech cameras, passenger tracking and other technologies within the airport will likely become a new normal for passenger screening.

Some airports have gone one step further by deploying autonomous cleaning robots to disinfect and sanitize frequently touched surfaces and using air sterilizers to disinfect washrooms and other crowded passenger areas.

It will be interesting to watch whether these temporary measures become permanent or not in the longer term, and certainly all of these changes will be reviewed and standardized by regulatory groups — and particularly by Public Health Agencies, which will see a dramatically enhanced role in airports. However, while social distancing strategies are feasible with the dramatically reduce flight schedules we are seeing right now, these measures may be challenging to maintain over the long term. When flights get fuller and airlines see gradually more passenger traffic, they will need to continually re-assess which solutions work best. This will require long-term thinking and planning from advisory firms which can analyze and recommend the most effective measures.

As many aviation facilities partially close or see a significant drop in activity, there is a potential occasion to work on maintenance or enhancements for the future, as well as take advantage of the small number of travellers to implement and test new ideas like autonomous cleaning robots, thermal cameras and passenger tracking systems. However, while smaller or pre-planned maintenance activities might be a natural fit, we likely won’t see large capital expenditures amidst the significant financial uncertainty facing the industry.    

“Airports could view this period as an opportunity to perform maintenance and construction activities that would otherwise impact the traffic, as long as these activities can be funded and are compatible with local orders and movement restrictions, national recommendations (e.g. US CDC guidance for businesses) and industry practices (e.g. Canadian Construction Association’s COVID-19 standardized protocols),” said Gaël Le Bris, Senior Aviation Planner and Senior Technical Principal, Aviation, WSP in the United States.


Passenger experience

A central element to all of these changes is the passenger experience. There will be significant short term and long-term changes to the end to end passenger journey.

“Flying is already anxiety-provoking in and of itself,” said Reyes. “No one flies stress-free, with zero worries about the security screen, flight cancellations or changes, and being bumped from a flight. But this is going to add a layer of uncertainty, especially since we’ve seen some passengers being stranded and having no way home.”

Passenger anxiety is widespread and significant, and the public fear about discrimination and privacy concerns will likely only intensify in a post-COVID world.

Extra precautions such as mandatory masks, passenger tracking, temperature detection and the like may be necessary measures for public health, but there will certainly be some pushback from passengers — especially when this screening intersects with automation and new technologies.

The use of “contactless” technology, such as self check-in and self bag drop, will continue to accelerate in a post-COVID world. But the question will be, what other invasive technologies and processes will become necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of the travelling public?

Truly resilient solutions will strike a responsible balance between protecting public health and creating thorough contact tracing processes, and mitigating passenger concerns around privacy and other unintended risks. Getting that balance right will be the keystone for a safe and gradual recovery for aviation, and restored passenger confidence.

Ultimately, more stringent screening and public health measures support a resilient future for airlines, because they will help allay lingering public fears that could stall the industry’s recovery. As the economy begins to recover and the industry’s response to the pandemic continues to evolve with new guidelines being published by IATA, ICAO and the EU, there will be a need to adapt and modulate to eliminate cumbersome or unnecessary processes towards practical, safe and effective solutions.

“When 9-11 happened, there were a lot of people who were afraid to fly. Over time, that fear diminished and it became normalized, and the only remnant was heightened screening protocols. The aviation sector implemented the necessary protocols to make it as minimally invasive as possible, and people gradually began to travel normally,” said Reyes. “People will want to travel eventually — once all of this subsides, people will want to have vacations.”

In a global economy, people will want to return to the normal joys of living, including travel. The airlines’ success centers on how quickly they can be agile - and how resilient the solutions they design today are when the world slowly begins to re-open.


Our experts

Isabella Taba
Brandon Westwater
Paul Reyes

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