The world, including the aviation industry, was ill-prepared for a pandemic of the magnitude of Covid-19. Both the social and economic impacts have been truly devastating.

With fleets grounded, British Airways lost over £700m in the second quarter, American Airlines announced 19,000 furloughs and layoffs while Qantas in Australia outsourced jobs on top of 6,000 redundancies and 20,000 furloughed staff.

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Lufthansa Group announced 22,000 job cuts worldwide. But airports around the globe have also been severely impacted, laying off staff to adjust to operation with a fraction of their usual passenger numbers. Traffic volumes are not expected to hit 2019 figures before 2023.

Europe now has the opportunity to lead the way in establishing common standards for safe cross-border movements, finally enabling people to move freely once again. Even when we begin to transition to a largely Covid-19-vaccinated international community, rigid testing regimes and consistent contact tracing will still be necessary for some time to come. Rapid testing facilities at airports will be part of this solution.

Using airports properly

Testing at departure and arrival destinations will enable the formation of safe travel corridors. Passengers testing negative on arrival could shorten quarantine requirements. This approach is not without its difficulties; however, a strong collaboration with national infectious disease institutes responsible for testing is imperative.

Bodies such as ACI, IATA, A4E, ICAO and EASA have made tremendous efforts to coordinate the industry’s response to date. Continuing these efforts to harmonise approaches across Europe — and globally — is vital.

Airports have a special responsibility due to their function as regional and global gateways. As entry points for infectious diseases, they can potentially halt or worsen epidemic outbreaks. Large hubs, such as Frankfurt and Munich airports have been operating rapid testing facilities for departing and arriving passengers for months, but Heathrow is still awaiting government approval for the operation of their testing facility. The implementation of health screening facilities at airports is crucial not only for normalising travel under Covid-19, but also for preparing for future epidemics.

Innovation outside of aviation

Lower revenues from fewer passengers force airports to reinvent themselves and be creative to generate non-aviation revenue independent of passenger numbers. A likely winning strategy is a diversification of revenue streams by adopting commercial real estate strategies away from investments, which are dependent on passenger traffic. Airports need to attract new customers by offering commercial real estate to the surrounding region. Munich Airport’s LabCampus is an example of pushing real estate developments with airport branding.

Online shopping has been booming; as such, investments related to airfreight such as cargo developments, logistics hubs and warehousing will continue to do well. Surplus land could be used for energy production or entertainment venues. Those investments will help airports to build resilience by lowering their dependency on aviation-related revenue.

Airports found themselves at the frontline of pandemic response in the face of uncertainty. After swiftly implementing temporary measures focussed on physical distancing and increased hygiene to restart operations, airport operators must now decide which technologies to invest in medium and long term. We observe a clear trend to accelerate the implementation of touchless facilities, adaptive passenger management systems, automation, AI and biometric technologies. It is not all about technology; adequate training for airport staff and contractors, as well as protocols for clear passenger communication, need to be in place. These investments could prevent future losses of the magnitude currently seen by improving the response to public health events and maintaining a high passenger confidence at the same time.

Futureproofing travel

We also need to think past Covid-19. Airports are in a unique position to take on a proactive role in facilitating the dialogue between the different industry partners and help building resilient strategies for handling future epidemics before they evolve into a pandemic. Investing in airports today could prevent another Covid-19 scenario tomorrow.

Investments in ‘greening’ of airports will become a necessity as airports are forced to respond to climate change. Investments into more sustainable buildings and infrastructure, renewable energy, pollution prevention and control, waste management and clean transportation are all required in order to achieve net-zero carbon emissions goals.

The current crisis is a chance for the aviation industry to move closer together and advance in order to overcome the many challenges ahead. As part of this journey, airports will continue to be testbeds for new innovative technologies.

Tine Haas is principal with Dornier Consulting International GmbH, a global engineering and management consultancy in the fields of aviation, real estate, mobility, water and energy. Dornier offers services to airports, airlines and financing institutions.