Preparing Aviation for a Better Future

Guidance from WSP’s global advisors and technical experts 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how interconnected the world is while highlighting that aviation is a complex socio-technical system susceptible to disruption on a global scale. Collaborative resolve to rebound, adapt and strengthen will help society and business sectors emerge from this difficult period and prosper within the 'new normal'. The following article offers insight and guidance from WSP’s global aviation advisors and technical experts to help airports manage through the current pandemic environment and prepare for our new future.
David McAlister Global Director of Transport & Infrastructure

 Joshua Horst – Manager, Aviation Planning and Advisory Services, Canada
Over the past several weeks we have witnessed the toll the global pandemic has had on people and business around the world. Airports have been forced to implement temporary layoffs, reduce staff hours and delay major expansion projects to cope with the very dramatic reductions in operating revenues generated by extremely low aircraft movements and passenger numbers. While these decisions have no doubt been extremely difficult to make, the actions have been by and large appropriate in response to the situation that has unfolded.

Potentially just as difficult will be the decisions regarding when to bring staff back. These decisions will need to be made well ahead of demand in order to ensure seamless delivery of services and the safety of customers. A coordinated effort between airports, regulators and all stakeholders will be essential during this time to avoid sudden or kneejerk responses to servicing pent-up demand; and airports may need to implement policies and control programs to help manage increasing demand. This effort will be necessary to enable services to be brought back online in a manner that does not jeopardize safety or unnecessarily expose stakeholders to financial risk.

Passenger health screening requirements will likely become prevalent for international travel and may be required for some domestic travel, depending on alert levels. In the future, will technology and resources enable a more focused targeting of a contagion? When such technology is in place, airports may be required to implement more stringent containment measures that could be more akin to what we see in hospitals today.

Gaël Le Bris - Senior Aviation Planner, Senior Technical Principal, Aviation, United States
Many aviation facilities are partially closing or seeing a significant drop in their activity. To make the best of a bad situation, 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). While most commercial service airports around the world now have some arrangements for the interim parking of overflow aircraft, storage should be organized to preserve airfield assets and facilitate the recovery. This forced temporary slowdown can also be utilized for reflecting on current and longer-term airport plans and policies—including sustainable airport initiatives and innovation roadmaps.


David Williams – Vice President, Senior Project Manager, United States

One of the most promising opportunities for the aviation sector to reduce their carbon footprint is the continued advancement and use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).  While airline activity has been significantly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, we fully expect a recovery of the airline industry as the economy recovers and business and leisure travel resumes.  At this time, there is a relatively limited current production of SAF and few financial incentives to produce SAF.  During this temporary downturn, the advocacy and educational efforts necessary to promote the production and use of SAF in the future should continue.  These efforts include advancing programs like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard credit in California and including SAF within the national Renewable Identification Numbers credit system, to place SAF in a similar position currently established for sustainable diesel production.  

The overall goal of such programs is to reduce the SAF price premium versus conventional jet fuel and allow for future development and greater use of SAF in the aviation industry. Contributing now to broaden and deepen an understanding of the benefits of SAF locally, regionally, nationally and internationally can quicken the pace of SAF development for a cleaner and stronger future for aviation.

 

Mattias Frithiof, Vice President, Advisory, Sweden
Amid the crisis, the world’s societies continue to experience impacts on productivity, jobs and mobility. Airlines and airports are hit directly, but indirectly entire industry sectors, companies and perhaps most importantly people from all walks of life are affected. Of utmost importance is putting collective knowledge to broad use for the continued development of our communities as we emerge from this pandemic.

National conditions and policies during this time vary somewhat, and differences through recovery will similarly exist. In Sweden, for example, earlier studies show a direct correlation between accessibility to air service and earned income in the population.  Stopped domestic air service in Sweden is projected to decrease earned incomes by 55 billion Swedish kronor per year—income that would have been taxed locally, and money that to a significant degree would have been spent on consumables. Large chunks of more peripheral regional communities will have to compensate for a long-term relative loss of accessibility by air services. Depending on the length and severity of this crisis, we may not be able to restore physical mobility and accessibility to pre-pandemic levels. But a new normal will emerge, requiring fresh ideas, additional analysis and the formation of revised policies.       


Steven Ziegler – Senior Project Manager, Special Airport Systems Principal Engineer, Aviation, United States

This period of extreme slowdown in operations can serve as an opportunity to reflect on and improve current practices, projects and organizational objectives—and prepare for recovery. Take the time to reorganize, refine processes, run trials, update documentation and examine workflows. Now is the time to re-examine roles and responsibilities to re-align them with new priorities.

Tim Aldeburgh - Technical Director, Infrastructure, China Region
Essential to the financial recovery for many airports will be business resilience planning.

This long-term strategic initiative should include concession management, an effort that involves early visibility of the situation facing both landside and airside tenants. Their readiness to respond to  re-opening plans will be crucial during resumption of service.  Of strategic importance is identifying a chain of command within airport management to ensure someone is responsible for developing a clear picture of the financial shape tenants are in and whether they have had to let staff go and will be able to re-staff accordingly.

Some tenants may not re-open individual airport-based outlets. How will this outcome impact the passenger experience upon resumption? The need for ongoing rent relief plans as financial support to tenants may impact airport income longer than anticipated, but the support will prove beneficial in the mid to long term if it prevents the loss of  a concession or tenant.

Supply chain management, not just for airport operations but also for these same retail tenants, should be planned. The disruption in the marketplace is evident. Airport operations teams may need central assistance with the identification of new suppliers for essential items for key operational requirements. 

Reassurance campaigns for the travelling public will form an essential part of a robust resumption plan. Advertising preventive and proactive actions taken during closure, such as a regime of enhanced cleaning or installation of new or improved air circulation and filtration systems, can help rebuild trust quickly.

Gareth Ashley, Vice President, Building Technology Systems, United States
Once the world comes out of quarantine and air traffic picks up, airport restrooms will be the focus of even more scrutiny by weary and wary travelers. Developing a touchless restroom experience will alleviate much of this “public restroom anxiety,” and more importantly minimize surface-contact contagion. One solution integrates smart sensors and a smartphone app that allows users to locate public conveniences, visualize their busyness and enter a virtual queue.  Once at the restroom, users are notified that it is their turn and they can use the app to open and lock the door, touching nothing but their phone.  Other touchless fixtures—such as automatic faucets, soap dispensers and flushing—ensure that user contact with surfaces within the facility is kept at an absolute minimum. Expect to see adoption of more touchless technologies in the future and a general emphasis on lowering the number of person-to-person contact points.

Greg Ballentine, Senior Project Manager, Aviation Planning and Advisory Services, Canada 
Through recovery and post-pandemic, facial recognition and other forms of automated processing will likely become the norm. Industry has been steadily moving in this direction for a number of years, but we will now see these technologies fast-tracked globally. To further reduce human contact, more regional airports will put in place technology typically now found at international airports—eGates at boarding, automated bag drops, ePassport controls and expansion of kiosk check-ins. 

Like grocery stores, there could be a move to provide, at least in the short term, Plexiglas barriers between check-in gate agents and passengers. Health screening could also become the norm, especially for international arrivals.  

Joe MacKay – Senior Project Director, Aviation Planning and Advisory Services, Canada
The process for queuing, or lining up, within terminal facilities will likely change in the long term due to social distancing practices.  Airports are adopting short-term measures to space people out by the recommended two metres (six feet), but once more passengers return these measures could require new standard operating procedures.  For example, it is quite difficult to separate people, front to back and side to side, using traditional long S-curve lines. These lines may have to be replaced with a series of straight lines or used in combination with physical barriers. However, key places where people queue, such as going through security, customs or before boarding an aircraft, may not be easily adaptable to separated lines or barriers.  Thus, new layouts, combined with redesigned spaces and new procedures, may be required to force social distancing, and give passengers and staff peace of mind. 

Richard Lyall - Global Aviation Network Coordinator, United Kingdom
Current circumstances have lowered air traffic and passenger volumes substantially for most airports, with a corresponding loss in revenue. These negative impacts are certainly significant. But without usual operational constraints there is opportunity to accelerate delivery of current construction and maintenance works already on site.  It is even possible that alternative design solutions can now be considered that would not have been realistic under normal circumstances. Specifically, where work impacts pavements, it may be possible to introduce concrete solutions in place of asphalt, which may have been used in the course of regular operations due to shorter possession periods. If pavement areas are not being used for prolonged periods, there may now be time in the construction schedule for curing of concrete—leveraging concrete’s durability, potential to speed construction and tendency to limit rutting under large aircraft wheel loads. 

Mark Boone - Aviation Lead, Australia
For projects that are already funded and underway, the reduction in flight operations provides an opportunity for projects to be delivered ahead of schedule with minimal to no airport operational impacts.  Are there any areas on your airfield that have been deemed “too difficult to maintain”?  Expediting the investigation, design and execution of tightly focused programs can help inject some additional service life into these trouble spots.

For those with terminal construction programs underway and equipment on site, the ability to completely take large portions of the baggage handling system out of service to make a seamless upgrade is huge. What do you do if the program and equipment are months or even a year away from being delivered?  It might be possible to rough in the system in advance with a corresponding savings in time and operational disruption when the long-lead parts arrive.

Tom Coleman, Manager of Technology Integration, United States
Airports can leverage this time to develop a digital twin solution toward breaking down silos and integrating internal processes and systems. Such a solution makes diverse actionable data accessible in one place to better track schedules, workflows and on-site developments. A digital twin model, or a virtual representation of the physical assets of an airport, allows the analysis of data and monitoring of systems to head off problems before they occur, prevent downtime, develop new opportunities, support asset management and even plan new infrastructure by using simulations.  This technology can also help generate a historic view to understand how the airport previously handled disruption, caused by bad weather for example, and present a current overall picture of airport operations to help improve aspects such as security wait times and curbside traffic.  


Adrienne Lindgren, Practice Lead, Aerial Innovation and Urban Aviation, United States

Over the past 5-10 years, we have experienced significant changes in the way we travel and transact.  A boom in investments into advanced transportation technology has challenged traditional paradigms for operating infrastructure assets; at the same time, airports are increasingly important in influencing the economic vitality of regions. 

While no one would welcome the current crisis, it does shed light on how we can adjust to a “new normal”.  
Can we find the right resources to formulate a coordinated response to the myriad challenges that confront us from a technological perspective? Existing conditions have reinforced the idea that we must prepare for novel and unanticipated circumstances—reinforcing the value of joint exercises for preparedness and recovery. As we continue to confront a crisis that unites airport stakeholders, is there an opportunity to focus on strategic planning? How can we take the lessons learned from this unprecedented collaboration and coordination across stakeholders to impact our system moving forward?

 

Moving Forward

The pandemic will inevitably impact aspects of passenger terminal building design requirements, contingency measures, and day-to-day operations.  Disruption and volatility in demand will continue, and changes to requirements affecting aviation operations and infrastructure should be anticipated.  Preparing for the future requires flexibility in operations and infrastructure to properly manage unexpected challenges and events. Through implementation of flexible design infrastructure, technology and improved operational readiness, airports can be positioned to successfully manage through sudden change.

Widespread and deep collaborative efforts to integrate new lessons learned and forge a path forward will rekindle aviation’s unique capability to connect people and economies—safely, efficiently and in a more progressive and health-conscious way.

During these difficult times, it is important that all stakeholders work together to support each other. Governments and business sectors must discuss and plan for disruptive eventualities and look for ways to safeguard future global travel. This is not the first time that aviation has been challenged by turbulent conditions. With the sector’s exceptional capacity to recover and adapt, learning from this crisis will help mitigate the impact of future pandemics and help aviation emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than ever.

We look forward to the future of aviation.