How Technology Is Supercharging Airport Safety Measures for 2020 and Beyond

Airports are like miniature cities: Their borders are secure, and once you’re inside, you have access to an entire ecosystem of commerce and community. For a few hours, your gate is your home, fellow passengers your neighbors, the travelators your sidewalks, and the food court your town square. You can find bars where you can toast new friends, chapels for worship, play areas for kids to romp, workstations where you can set up a mobile office, and even spas for seeking a few moments of respite.

Before COVID-19, these airport “cities” were bustling metropolises populated by an eager, expansive traveling public. Now, they feel like Gold Rush–era ghost towns, seemingly abandoned by prospectors who no longer view travel as a precious commodity and may not trust that airport safety measures are up to pandemic standards. Case in point: Global airport traffic doubled from 2.25 billion passengers in 2006 to 4.5 billion passengers in 2019—but is expected to be just 1.53 billion passengers in 2020, down 66% from the past year.

Fewer passengers mean lower revenue: The Airports Council International—North America (ACI-NA) forecasts that airports in the United States alone will lose $23.3 billion in revenue.

“While aeronautical revenues are under pressure, the cost base for airport operations remains largely unchanged as airports can neither close nor relocate their terminals during the outbreak,” the ACI-NA stated in a recent press release. “Additionally, 90% of nonaeronautical revenue is passenger-dependent … as passenger activity level decreases, nonaeronautical revenue such as parking and commercial revenues will also decrease proportionally.”

To recover from such devastating losses, airports say they need swift, significant government stimulus and relief. But that’s not all that’s required. The industry also needs to persuade anxious travelers that airports are safe—and to continue investing in the capital improvements that yield long-term gains despite short-term losses. Intelligent design and technology will be key for both.

Protecting Projects

Despite the downturn in travel, airports everywhere have moved forward with construction projects they hope will keep them competitive when crowds return to the skies. In September, for instance, Utah’s Salt Lake City International Airport opened the first phase of its $4.1 billion rebuild. In June and July, New York’s LaGuardia Airport completed a new arrivals and departures hall and a new concourse as part of its ongoing $8 billion Terminal B transformation. Meanwhile, construction continues on expansions at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Hong Kong’s Hong Kong International Airport, and Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, as well as on a brand-new airport—Western Sydney Airport—in Australia.

“If you’ve ever been to an airport under construction, you know that it’s an incredible logistical challenge to get work done without interrupting passenger flow,” says Mark Hughes, senior enterprise information management (EIM) program manager of ZW Group’s global aviation business line. “And that’s the number one rule in airport construction: Don’t interrupt passenger flow.

“The cost of doing work when there are passengers present is almost double because of the logistics and timing requirements, so a lot of airports have looked at low passenger traffic as an opportunity,” he continues. “If they can get projects done now—faster, for less money, and without interrupting passenger flow—then they’ve decided they should go ahead and do that.”

With airport balance sheets so tenuous, one wrong move could erase any gains realized from low passenger flow. Project managers must operate with increased efficiency and safety to avoid expensive setbacks. For this, construction-management software has been critical, according to Hughes, whose teams have used Autodesk BIM 360 to create COVID-19 checklists for airport projects in Denver, Dallas, and Seattle. In accordance with state guidelines, they’ve performed health screenings every day on hundreds of field workers whose health status is electronically logged, tracked, and reported using Apple iPads.

Doing so protects both workers and the bottom line. “We were able to keep projects moving because we avoided downtime,” Hughes says. “Project managers are monitoring workers every single day, so they’re able to immediately isolate an individual instead of having to quarantine entire crews.”

To mitigate the impact of quarantines, project teams meet daily to share staffing data that’s aggregated in BIM 360. When there’s a hole in one trade or project, they plug it with resources from another, all while requiring workers to wear personal protective equipment and maintain social distancing.

“On our team, we have multiple individuals with multiple levels of experience; they’re not isolated to a single trade, so we can move people around pretty easily,” Hughes says. “Our workflow is consistent across everything we do, so we can maneuver resources across projects without having to reteach them things. That has allowed us to accelerate our work without creating a logjam in learning.”

Being Air-Aware

Capital improvements—when executed quickly, safely, and efficiently—are positioning airports for post-pandemic growth. In the short-term, however, airports need to find ways to generate more passenger comfort than construction dust.

“Because of the myriad people that come and go, there is no doubt of the inherent risk of transmitting germs in airports,” says Dr. Philip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Author of First, Wear a Face Mask: A Doctor’s Guide to Reducing Risk of Infection During the Pandemic and Beyond, Tierno says airports that want to assuage anxious passengers should focus attention and resources on indoor air management: “The most important single factor in an airport or any large facility is the air-handling system.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the importance of good ventilation using fresh air. However, fresh air can be hard to come by at airports, due to aircraft emissions. And in northern climates, importing cold air during winter puts added burdens on HVAC systems, making it difficult to heat the large airport spaces. So in addition to ventilation, airports should use modern air-purifying techniques, Tierno says, adding that popular options include high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that can remove more than 99% of viruses from the air and UV-C filters that use ultraviolet light to similarly disinfect.

Unfortunately, both have drawbacks. Many airports have mechanical systems that are incompatible with HEPA filtration. Others can use HEPA filters but face increased electricity costs when they do. And UV-C systems may have carcinogenic effects. Both HEPA and UV-C filters are also passive systems—that is, they can only disinfect air particles once they’re drawn into the filter.

A more active option is bipolar ionization (BPI), which emits virus-neutralizing ions that attach to pathogens in the air and on surfaces, rendering them inactive. “In my eyes, bipolar ionization is likely the best because … particles of ions go out into the ambient space and attack what’s there instead of waiting for contaminants to be ingested by a filter system,” Tierno says.

Tony Abate, vice president and chief technical officer at BPI supplier AtmosAir Solutions, agrees. “It’s what we call continuous disinfection,” he explains. “Whereas other sterilization methods are momentary—when you wipe down a surface, it’s disinfected for some moments until people come back into the space and reinfect it—ionization gives you constant disinfection.”

Airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Vancouver, and Tokyo are among those already using BPI devices, which are energy-efficient and compact enough to be retrofitted to myriad types and sizes of air-handling systems.

“The newfound awareness that there are things in the air that can harm you and make you sick has made airports take air quality a lot more seriously,” Abate says. “As a result, we’re seeing a much more significant and dramatic adoption of BPI technology.”

A Systems Approach

A much harder problem to solve in airports during the era of COVID-19 is people movement: how airports funnel passengers through the processes of arriving, checking in, going through security, and eventually boarding. To make the process safer, engineering firm Buro Happold, part of the team behind a new mixed-use complex at Singapore’s Jewel Changi airport, has proposed that airports reimagine it through the lens of food service.

“If you’ve ever worked in food service, you’re familiar with what’s called the CSSD principle, which stands for central sterile supply department,” says Buro Happold Principal and US West Coast Aviation Lead Patti Harburg-Petrich. “In any commercial kitchen dishwashing area, you have three basins: a soiled basin, a clean basin where you use soap and water to wash the dishes, and a disinfectant basin where you actually sterilize the cookware. We can apply the same principle in airports.”

Harburg-Petrich envisions three zones for passengers in airports: a soiled zone that consists of everything outside the airport, including public transportation, taxis, and parking garages; a clean zone where baggage is sanitized and where travelers undergo health screenings, including rapid COVID-19 testing; and a sterile zone—the terminal—that is healthy, clean, and safe. “This methodology, which is also used in hospitals and pharmacies, is a proven methodology,” she says. The Buro Happold team uses Autodesk AutoCAD to adapt and review terminal layouts, conceptual schemes, and diagrams, as well as InfraWorks to analyze masterplan layout options.

According to Harburg-Petrich, airports currently are brainstorming ways to create clean zones where none exist. One popular idea is repurposing parking structures. Airports might turn one floor of a parking garage into a temporary health-screening facility or build a modular structure on top of the garage. “You need buffer space,” she says. “If you take the floor of a parking garage, on the engineering side, we’ll be looking at whether we need additional walls to close off the space and whether we need different types of HVAC systems to ensure we have enough clean air.”

Harburg-Petrich notes that parking structures are just one type of solution and that these solutions should be considered “flexibly temporary” so that they can be safeguarded and used in the future and at various alert levels. “Outdoors or easily expandable areas, even curbs and drop-off areas, can be used,” she says. “There should also be a longer-term plan to create user-friendly, multiuse zones that add experiential quality even when there is no virus. For example, a public plaza could be used for community gathering space, retail, restaurants, et cetera.”

These spaces can be converted to disaster-response space when needed, “not just for pandemics but also earthquakes, refuge and coordination spaces, and such,” she continues. “It is, of course, not unlikely that other or mutated viruses will emerge, and it is really important that airports take responsibility and develop a long-term strategy that recognizes that.”

Because clean zones aren’t bulletproof, airports also are reorganizing terminals, concourses, and gates to promote increased handwashing and social distancing. “When they enter the terminal, we want travelers to go directly to where they’re trying to get to rather than wandering around like they may have before,” Harburg-Petrich says. “Simulation modeling has been a great tool for this. Using human psychology, we can create different behavior profiles—a young family, a business traveler, an older couple—and determine how those travelers will behave in an airport. We can then change different variables and run different scenarios to create a really nice envelope solution that will work in reality.”

Many of the solutions airports are now mulling will have long-lasting benefits after the pandemic, says Steve Bennett, vice president of aviation services at engineering firm Swanson Rink. For instance, consider the problem of queues, which are at once a temporary public-health concern and an enduring inconvenience.

“Airports have all this empty space now, but they’ve still got queues,” Bennett says. “Not to oversimplify it, but that’s the real issue at airports: You’ve got to get rid of the queue.”

Bennett says two technologies can help. One is touchless biometrics, including facial recognition and—better yet because travelers are now wearing masks—new products such as the Keyo biometric device, which identifies users in less than a second using a contactless scan of their palm. The second technology is just-in-time processing, in which travelers receive mobile alerts telling them exactly when to arrive at the airport and then at their gate, eliminating bottlenecks.

“Imagine walking through the front door of the terminal, and you’re recognized immediately by facial-recognition software; your credentials are validated; and you don’t have to touch anything,” Bennett says. “You drop off your bag at a designated location, and you keep on walking because the airline recognizes you. You don’t have to stop to divest and revest at the TSA checkpoint, because TSA recognizes you. And when your phone tells you it’s your turn to board, you walk right onto the plane because, once again, you’re recognized. … Although that scenario right now is pie-in-the-sky, I think that’s the goal we can work toward if we take a systems approach to aviation.”

Clearly, the demand for such an approach exists—and so does the technology. What’s been missing is the willingness of aviation stakeholders to invest money and share data. COVID-19 might be the impetus that finally persuades them.

“We are a global community,” Harburg-Petrich says. “And while we can work together and play together from home, this pandemic has made us realize that face-to-face interaction is really important and essential to our happiness and success. I think airports feel a responsibility to help make that happen by creating a safe environment.”

Profile Photo of Matt Alderton