The future of aviation: protecting health and resilience

The aviation sector has been one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and remobilisation will require a collective effort. Andrew Buroni, Technical Director for Health, explains how each component is critical, inter-related and ultimately only as strong as its weakest link.

Andrew Buroni, Technical Director of Health

Civil aviation is a modern technological and engineering marvel that has opened the world to the masses, facilitated the sharing of cultural values and broadened the minds and aspirations of current and future generations.

However, increasing the ability, range, speed and affordability for global travel inevitably increases the risk of coming into contact with and conveying infectious agents. This is not a new hazard; one solely associated with civil aviation; or even currently unaddressed either in the aviation industry or by international health legislation. However the transmission rate and severity of COVID-19 has shown the need for coordinated fundamental change. 

COVID-19 represents a public health emergency that the civil aviation sector will have to adapt and respond to - both immediately and in the long-term - considering design, modified operations, retail facilities and most importantly travel behaviour.

Each component is critical, inter-related and ultimately only as strong as its weakest link.

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Airport design and layout

This could consider:

  • Limiting opportunities for social mixing between staff and passengers right from park and ride services through to the boarding gate by: reducing the amount of time passengers spend in the main terminal; speeding up transfers through security; and directing passengers into self-contained boarding areas grouped by international destination zones.
  • Managing transmission risk at pinch points and congregation areas (such as in queues, play areas, prayer rooms, information points, lifts etc.) through increased facilities to enable passengers to keep their distance.
  • Including remote screening and public health interventions to enable informed ‘fit to fly’ travel decisions.

These features are already being integrated at several airports and would only require minor adaptations to improve flexibility for the particular transmission risk of COVID-19, as well as future hazards that may differ.

Operational activities

These fundamentally relate to managing the flow and interaction of people as effectively and with as little social mixing as possible through adaptable, pragmatic measures. Many airports will be able to build on practices already applied to respond to the particular COVID-19 risk.

These should include:

  • Provide airport health guidance to enable passengers to make informed decisions and avoid transmission risk where possible. This may include smartphone technology to offer real time airport and flight information that identifies high passenger density areas in the departure terminal; preventing further congregation and ensuring safe transit of passengers to boarding gates.
  • Accelerate the use of technology to provide a seamless passenger journey.
  • Measures to maintain social distancing and clear walkways near all amenities, including signage and floor markings, and the option to bypass duty free.
  • Limit social mixing between passengers to those they will be seated next to during the flight. For example by ensuring the number and layout of seating at the boarding gate is consistent with the flight seating plan – also speeding up boarding.
  • Maintain ‘social bubbles’ for group bookings through the seating allocation on the plane.
  • Expand the airport’s in-house public health capability to iteratively inform and update operations based on public health risks and determine ‘fit to fly’ status of passengers.
  • An enhanced sanitisation programme for all public and staff areas, including park and ride facilities and people movers (lifts, escalators, conveyors and stairs).
  • Assign staff based on destination zones and/or airport areas to limit social mixing and limit international transmission.

Retail

Airside retail is comparable to a contained shopping centre and in many cases the airport layout is designed to funnel passengers through outlets. In response to the particular transmission risk of COVID-19 all retail and refreshment areas will need to:

  • Review their operations to ensure appropriate social distancing;
  • Reduce and remove the handling of demonstration items; and
  • Follow the enhanced airport sanitation programme.

Some retail outlets may not be able to trade as normal under this guidance, and in the short term, these retail areas may better serve to facilitate social distancing and / or provide travel focussed PPE (both en route, at destination and for return).

Travel behaviour

More health-conscious travel behaviour is potentially the most effective means to managing communicable diseases. The benefits of this extend to well before arriving at the airport and can continue en route as well as at their destination. Unfortunately, it’s also the area the commercial aviation industry has the least direct control over.

Despite this the industry can still play a key role in influencing more health-conscious travel behaviour through cooperation with travel firms, insurance providers and international travel guidance.

What’s next for the aviation industry?

Passenger safety has and always will be a central component to the industry. However, to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world, there is more airports will need to do to: further embed national health surveillance into operations between destinations; manage potential airside and in-flight risk; and raise passenger awareness to facilitate more health conscious travel behaviour. 

We are on hand to offer pragmatic guidance and share emerging health evidence to inform future planning, operations and emergency response. Our Health experts can facilitate more health conscious planning and decision making by investigating and assessing health protection, promotion and health care.

Remobilising the aviation industry will require a collective effort. Guidance is being provided by EASA, ICAO and IATA and RPS is here and ready to support clients to remobilise and adapt to a post-COVID-19 world.

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