By Adriana Boza (Canada) & Fernando Lopez-Calleja (United Kingdom)
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant and long-lasting impact onto the aviation industry, and airport operations in particular. As the industry starts preparing for a long and progressive recovery, airport operators (and the aviation industry as a whole) are faced with a new regulatory set of requirements and guidelines: Aviation Health. It is now apparent that the risk of COVID-19 infection will continue for some considerable time in as the development of a successful vaccine cannot be achieved in a matter of weeks – if it can be achieved at all. As such, the recovery of passenger traffic at airports worldwide will need to be achieved in the context of providing adequate health protection – as well as confidence in the health measures adopted – to both the passenger and staff communities. While the scope of such measures remains in flux as clear Aviation Health requirements are set, the ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) provides a useful overview in its “Take-Off Guidance”.
The introduction of Aviation Health requirements onto the existing airport operation should not be taken lightly. While initial measures may have focused on relatively small elements associated with social distancing or facility cleaning, implementing a comprehensive and resilient approach to Aviation Health could be in time comparable to complying with Aerodrome Safety or Airport Security requirements – and is likely to require the development of a new Operating Model and Concept of Operations that integrates Aviation Health within the airport operation. As such, airports should consider the Aviation Health requirements in terms of People, Process, Systems, Tools & Equipment and Infrastructure – as well the overarching Authorities & Governance considerations to manage the delivery of these new requirements. Mapping out how the airport intends to map these requirements against these core areas would allow their integration with existing operational approaches to Safety, Security or Passenger Experience.
The regulatory landscape in terms of Aviation Health requirements remains complex. Firstly, the World Health Organization (WHO) establishes in the International Health Regulations (IHR) the framework to manage and control the international spread of disease, including the general requirements for airports, ports and land crossings. National Public Health Authorities establish their own regulations based on the international directives issued by WHO and the local policies.
Aviation Health requirements are driven by National Public Health Authorities, and as such requirements are likely to be based on local, rather than global policy: an overarching international set of consistent requirements, such as those set by ICAO on Safety or Security are highly unlikely to be achieved within the next year or two. Secondly, while guidance material has been provided by ICAO (CART Take-Off Guidance) or EASA (of note is its COVID-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol), and industry bodies such as IATA or ACI (including process streamlining initiatives such as the One-Stop Security Concept), in the main a clear and definitive set of requirements remains in development and subject to change and update for the next few months. Airports, at present, are having to adapt to an ongoing changing environment.
Facing the Challenges
A team effort is required to face this critical point in aviation history. A close coordination between the Airport Operator, the National Public Health Authority and other airport stakeholders is needed. A collaborative effort should be made to develop protocols and procedures to maintain optimum safety levels to passengers and staff and to mitigate the risk of contagion of a disease declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. These protocols, procedures and communication strategies should be included in the Airport Public Health Preparedness Plan. The responsibilities of each agency involved in the response of a public health emergency should be clearly defined. This plan should be scalable, so that it could be extended or reduced according to the disease threat level.
Similar to the Airport Emergency Response Plan, the Airport Public Health Preparedness Contingency Plan should be practiced and tested, to make sure that protocols are up-to-date and effective. Also, those practices are fundamental to improve coordination and relationships between the various agencies and stakeholders at the airport and identify key aspects that require improvement. Of special interest is the validation of the communication strategy and plan, with emphasis in the lines of communication, which are key in the attention of an emergency.
Impacts to Airport Operations
Airport Operations are enduring significant impacts. New protocols and processes must be implemented in order to ensure that the Aviation Health requirements are met, while at the same time, maintaining the levels of safety and security and delivering a good passenger experience to the traveller.
As part of the new operating model for airports, Aviation Health requirements should be considered across all aspects of the airport operations model, and can be described in terms of Authorities, People, Process, Technology (Systems, Tools & Equipment) and Infrastructure.
Clear accountabilities, responsibilities and governance (covering both airport internal decision making as well as input, collaboration and consultation with key business partners) should be established to ensure the initial and ongoing development of suitable Aviation Health measures.
A key first step on the People’s front is to maintain solid communication channels with passengers and airport staff. The more the passengers and staff know about the current conditions and procedures established, the better the facilitation process will be. Once the specific guidelines, protocols and procedures are established for the airport, it is necessary to disseminate the information in an effective way.
Airport staff should receive training on those protocols, also, in the use of personal protection equipment, cleaning and disinfection procedures, use of temperature monitoring equipment, lines of communication in case of identifying a passenger that could pose a risk to public health, etc.
Passengers, on the other hand, should receive the information before traveling (airports & airlines web pages, text messages, e-mails, press, etc) and during their journey through the airport, using effective signage and audio messages, with concise information about protocols in place (use of face masks, temperature checks, physical distancing, hand wash, etc).
Both inbound and outbound passenger processing processes have to be adapted to the new Aviation Health requirements. These processes have to be continuously monitored and modified according to the current risk to Public Health, so passengers can have less restrictive practices to follow as soon as possible.
More than ever this is the time to improve processes by the implementation of new technology. The additional steps and time added to each of the inbound and outbound passenger processors could affect negatively the overall processing time, but with the introduction of technology, the overall processing time could be reduced. Biometrics, remote thermal cameras screening at the airport entrance, boarding e-gates with face recognition and temperature screen, remote security screening and centralised image processing, automated sanitization of trays with UV light at security checkpoint, among others, will reduce considerably the passenger processing time and impact positively the passenger experience making it smooth and seamless.
Many airports are facing the challenge of identifying different areas required to fulfil the Airport Health Requirements, such as quarantine areas for passengers suspect of having a disease that could be a threat to public health, waiting areas for passengers in order to facilitate social distancing, among others.
Some airports have repurposed less used areas into quarantine rooms, which has reduced the impact on the budget, achieving the required results with minimum investment. Other element of maximum importance is to review terminal maintenance processes, especially those related with air quality. Make sure your air control system is up to date and complies with all requirements on air quality (maintenance frequency, filters, air circulation, etc).
So How Do Airports Get There?
The first step is to establish a clear objective of what the airport is aiming to achieve. In the current climate, this could be difficult as a definitive and final set of requirements is yet to be set on airports – and a general approach is likely to be required in the first place. Once these objectives are set, the airport should develop a new Concept of Operations, describing both the “as-is” and the future “to-be” operation across all key areas: People, Process, Systems & Equipment, Infrastructure, Authorities.
The next step is to conduct a Gap Analysis between the “as-is” and “to-be” scenarios that enables the development of an implementation plan per key operational area. Implementation follows, ensuring alignment of the solutions and methods across areas. Finally, the last step will see the new solutions being bought into the operation – this may require an “operational readiness” approach which could include small operational trials, or staff and 3rd party familiarisation. Once implemented, the delivery of Aviation Health should be overseen by a robust assurance and continuous improvement process, including independent audit and assessment, and the on-going implementation of additional requirements as those become clearer to the industry.
Adriana Boza and Fernando Lopez-Calleja are part of airportQM by Modalis, which provides audit, assessment, regulatory oversight and advice, ORAT and operational improvements to airports worldwide.