The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through the industry, creating uncertainty for all sectors as passenger numbers plummet in all parts of the globe. However, the onslaught of bad news and catastrophic forecasts are being replaced with a new mindset â€“ hope.
Find out what impact Covid-19 has had on airport operations and the questions it has forced operators to ask. From managing passenger density in airports or in aircraft, to integrating systems and creating sustainable pricing models for airports based on actual passenger numbers.
Can the industry use this challenging year to rebuild itself with more resilience and adaptability to face the challenges of the future?
Covid has been a game changer
Pre-Covid, the aviation industry was experiencing promising growth across all sectors, and had been doing so for many years. However, the sudden and unprecedented drop in passenger traffic has critically impacted airports, airlines and ground handlers alike.
Never before have we seen aviation having to handle such profound losses in revenue, combined with constantly changing regulatory demands. In addition to this staff shortages dues to social distancing rules, sickness and lockdowns have had their own impact in day-to-day operational agility.
With these challenges unlikely to disappear over the coming months, and an increasing likelihood that the general population will have to learn to live with Covid, itâ€™s time for the aviation industry to do the same.
Time to find a better way to handle operational challenges
Our peers in the airport industry are quietly optimistic that this year will bring fewer travel restrictions and an uplift in passenger traffic. However, this good news comes laced with new challenges. Global passenger numbers are expected to increase steadily throughout the year as populations are vaccinated and are allowed to engage in non-essential travel, but this is likely to include regional peaks and troughs with the evolving situation.
During the past few years, airports all over the world have been working towards a more streamlined operational environment. Focus that has been laid on managing passenger flow, cost efficiencies and flexible systems integration will now pay dividends to the new normal of airport operations.
Future-proofing requires a flexible and adaptable approach to operations to enable aviation players to scale back or scale up where necessary. Today, handling the operational challenges will require more than streamlining. As the industry starts to taxi down the runway to recovery, it will need operational flexibility like never before – and the means to maintain it.
Building a socially distanced airport
Airports and handlers are going to have to face up to some difficult realities as passenger traffic starts to increase. Managing passenger flow, forecasting and reporting will all create new demands for the industry with the potential for frequent change.
With recent years focussing more and more heavily on passenger flow and passenger journey optimisation the foundations for the current social distancing challenges have been laid. The airport environment naturally encourages social rapprochement, where people inevitably converge in a series of queues and bottlenecks throughout the passenger journey.
Whilst there is currently relatively little regulation on socially distanced passenger journeys, this will undoubtedly become more prevalent with time. Managing local differences in attitudes to Covid passports, allowed passenger density and required documentation will also increase pressure on airports.
Effectively handling social distancing will be critical to airports ability to operate in the current climate. Solutions are likely to integrate the latest biometric technology that whilst built for passenger flow optimisation for economic purposes, must now be adapted for passenger safety and regulatory compliance. The solution must also be flexible enough to accommodate differing and changing guidelines and regulations.
The empty middle seat debate
The commercial influences that affect economics filter through airlines too, with a recent issue brought to light surrounding the â€˜empty middle seatâ€™ theory to support social distancing as a solution, for example.
Ryanairâ€™s concern about the impact on budget airlines is very real. Yet the resulting IATA guidelines are vague and do not address the issue directly, instead raising further questions and concerns about the economic survival of smaller airlines.
Airlines themselves will need to come up with their own strategies that satisfy consumer demand, regulatory obligations and regional variations, whilst managing their bottom line.
For airports and ground handlers, understanding the differing approaches adopted by individual airlines may create further challenges in planning and forecasting passenger numbers within the infrastructure of the airport.Â Â
Integrating disparate infrastructure
On the ground, efficient management relies on the interconnectivity of several systems, ranging from passenger processing and baggage management to aircraft handling and back-office processes.
Some airports have dedicated on-site infrastructure in place and others are third-party managed, both of which involve typically high fixed costs that are paid whether passengers are flying or not. The biggest challenge here is the unpredictability of revenue versus operational cost and scalability is key to survival.
With disparate systems and data there will inevitably be challenges that follow, and airports and ground handlers will likely be pushed into investigating new solutions that match ease of integration with flexibility of application.
Redefining traditional airport billing models
Traditional models for airport systems incur fixed costs per month or year meaning that regardless of passenger numbers, these operational costs remain static under long contracts. This means that airports are under constant economic pressure regardless of passenger flow.
During the pandemic, with decimated passenger numbers, every cent counts. To create flexibility and more importantly, scalability to handle potential future fluctuations in demand, moving to a pay-per-use or per-passenger service could be beneficial for airports of all sizes.
Whilst this model breaks the mould, it could provide an end to the elevated fixed costs that have brought many airports to their knees.
A path to economic survival
While the industry is eager to welcome both staff and passengers back in greater numbers and begin the process of recovery, there is a sense of a collectively-held breath. COVID-19 presented us with dramatic, unpredictable challenges and uncertainty is still reverberating through the industry.
The challenges faced before the health crisis halted growth will still need to be addressed as numbers rise again. There has never been a better time for flexibility in aviation, where airports consider a different approach to the current commercial model and create scalability at every level. This is the only way to truly future proof operations and ensure preparedness for economic survival, whatever happens.