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Markets & Geopolitics

Airport infrastructure in the post-pandemic world

The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on international travel is well explored. Airports will not emerge unchanged from the disruption.

World Built Environment Forum
30 June 2020

During April, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in Europe, Eurocontrol figures showed an 89% year-on-year drop-off in air traffic across the continent. In China, nearly 50% fewer people boarded a flight during the 2020 lunar new year celebrations than had done so in 2019. At 6pm UTC on March 7th, some 8000 planes dotted the skies above North America; exactly one month later, that number had fallen below 3000. It has been a precipitous and sustained decline without historical parallel.

Most projections point to a slow bounce back, with mid-2022 identified as the point at which passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. By then, the world’s airports are likely to look and feel very different.

At 6pm UTC on March 7th, some 8000 planes dotted the skies above North America; exactly one month later, that number had fallen below 3000.

“We’re already starting to see reconfiguration of functional spaces,” says Gavin Steele, Director of Infrastructure in Asia for Turner & Townsend. “What were public circulation areas are now being used to provide additional, spaced out seating. One of the immediate challenges is how we address some of the more personal touches around airport operations. For instance, some of the short-term measures include installing partitions and Perspex screens at check in areas. Longer-term, we will have to look at how we embrace technology to flatten out some of those peaks in the processing journey for passengers. We’ve already seen in recent years a move towards a technology enabled passenger experience. This ranges from self-check in and full body scanning all the way through to self-service at the gates and passenger tracking systems throughout the airport. We may now see changes in how we shop and order food and beverages around the terminal, utilizing apps that are already available.”

The click-and-collect airport is an intriguing concept. Airport retail is a vital part of the passenger experience and an essential revenue stream for the airports themselves. Distress among high street retailers has forced many to rethink their relationship with customers, as well as their delivery models. Changing consumer expectations and behaviours aren’t quite as apparent in the world of airport retail, and as such the sector has been slower to respond. Nonetheless, the scale of the disruption caused by the pandemic has brought the need to modernise into sharper focus. It’s a familiar story.

Airport infrastructure in the post pandemic world

Join experts from a selection of the world’s busiest and most strategically important airports to discuss what the industry has learned from the Covid-19 pandemic so far:

  • How have resilience and crisis preparedness protocols fared thus far?
  • Will social distancing measures accelerate investment into, and adoption of, automated technologies?
  • Could greater diversification of airport real estate help to cushion the financial blow caused by future crises?
  • Are airports being seen as economic drivers and gateways to diverse regional investment opportunities?
     
     
     

"These technologies have existed for a few years,” says Aman Kapoor, CEO of Land Development with India’s GMR Airports Group. “There has been resistance from some operators to adopting them because of the historic perception that customers want a personalised service. But we are now seeing a big move to contactless service.”

Customer demand for contactless service is a feature of a broader social phenomenon born of the pandemic: hyper-awareness of hygiene levels in public spaces. The cleanliness of airport terminals has always been a crucial concern for passengers, but Emma Gilthorpe, COO of Heathrow Airport, believes old standards will no longer be sufficient.

“At Heathrow we have always invested heavily in cleanliness, but now we are having to take it to a whole new level. Whilst a lot of services have been reduced due to the lack of passengers, our investment in cleaning has gone up significantly. We’re now using hospital grade cleaning equipment in certain areas of our terminals. And I think people want to physically see that cleaning happening. They don’t want to know that a terminal was cleaned over night; they will take confidence from actually seeing somebody with a spray and cloth.”  

At Heathrow we have always invested heavily in cleanliness, but now we are having to take it to a whole new level. Whilst a lot of services have been reduced due to the lack of passengers, our investment in cleaning has gone up significantly.

Emma Gilthorpe
COO, Heathrow Airport

The airport of the future looks set to be a contactless world of Perspex partitions and sterile surfaces. It may seem impersonal – a world away from the hive of excited business folk and holiday makers for whom the departures lounge represents the first leg of the trip. But none of our experts expect that to dampen passions for international travel in the long run.  

Says Aman Kapoor, “The world is shrinking in terms of our ability to connect with global counterparts. It’s only matter of time before the people start travelling again. In India, domestic tourism is already finding its feet. People are now driving to destinations two, three hours from their homes. Perhaps that’s the first step.”

Meanwhile, for Emma Gilthorpe, it’s a simple question of human nature. “You cannot see the Taj Mahal on webcam and get the same experience. You can’t hug your grandmother on Microsoft Teams. There are significant human factors that will ensure aviation has a great resurgence.”