COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of our lives – and travel isn’t exempt from that. In fact, it was one of the first industries impacted as the pandemic began. Most of us have heard about the drop in air travel passengers but behind-the-scenes aviation management has also been affected. Despite the blow, many areas of aviation still have a positive outlook for growth over the next decade — and are ripe for innovation.
The stark decrease in passengers is apparent when comparing the traveler throughput according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for the day before Thanksgiving, which was just over 1 million in 2020 compared to 2.6 million in 2019. The same goes for the day before Christmas, which was fewer than 850,000 passengers in 2020 compared to 2.5 million in 2019.
Even though a fraction of flyers has passed through airports globally, airlines have been forced to adjust to the “new normal.” While every airline has set its own standards, all are adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations. Escalated protocols include mandatory facial coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, socially distanced boarding processes and reduced beverage service and flight attendant interaction. There have been a slew of reports of people being booted from flight for non-compliance with new rules and regulations, such as a family being told to exit a United Airlines flight because their 2-year-old refused to wear a mask.
It’s not much different in airport hangers where maintenance takes place. Technicians must wear face coverings and respect social distancing guidelines, and there are increased cleaning protocols in place, including foggers and electrostatic methods. While those in other industries have been accustomed to working from home, it’s not conducive to most of the work taking place in hangers and the wider aviation industry.
Digital transformation is entering the picture in the way of touchless technology at airports. Singapore’s Changi Airport has thermal screeners that take the temperatures of all workers and travelers, Hong Kong International Airport is using “intelligent sterilization” robots to clean public areas and Dubai International Airport has introduced a “smart tunnel” at immigration control that uses facial recognition to speed up the wait. The use of biometrics, smartphones, sensors (e.g., voice, movement, temperature), security slots and health passports will not only save flyers from trading germs but also from fumbling for their driver’s license at the TSA podium.
The TSA enacted a “Stay Healthy. Stay Secure.” campaign to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among staff and passengers. It included installation of acrylic barriers, requiring officers to wear face masks and gloves (using a fresh pair of gloves if a pat-down is needed), disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and encouraging social distancing. The organization has also committed to ongoing change to ensure safety, such as continued rollout of technologies that reduce touchpoints throughout checkpoints. This includes self-serve credential authentication technology (CAT) units at document-checking podiums and computed tomography (CT) for detailed imaging of carry-on bags.
In the same way the events of 9/11 forever changed the way we traveled, so will COVID-19. Future airport design will take into account more space for safety sake (even increasing the number of queues through security), replace physical lines with virtual waiting areas (in the way some airports have cell phone parking lots) and a screening process that you will walk through instead of wait for (as already implemented in Dubai). As airport planning requires evaluating current operations to find areas for improvement and efficiencies, there will be ongoing evolution as new revelations are revealed. One thing is for sure: Aviation management is a career that will stay interesting as the world around us continues to change.