Airports Adapt in Novel Coronavirus Time


“When time marches on, it steps on your nose and tail, and leaves boot prints down your back.”
- Hank the Cowdog (a mystery-solving ranch dog from a popular series of children’s books)  

Demand for U.S. air travel nosedived to 10% of its normal daily volume in the 20 days between March 5 and March 25. In the subsequent 60 days, passenger volume “rebounded” to 15%. Our descent was quick, our recovery will not be. 

David Kipp, P.E., Vice President of Technology Services for Burns Engineering. He leads the firm’s national practice in airport technologies and has led technology projects for airports across the U.S. and around the world. Although Kipp is based in St. Louis, he has family roots in the Texas panhandle, where Hank the Cowdog works.

Mathematics aficionados recognize this phenomenon as time complexity, where the time to execute a task proceeds on a logarithmic scale. Hank the Cowdog, like almost everyone else, recognizes it in more earthly terms. Our time scale has been radically altered and we are sporting boot prints down our backs.

In just a few weeks, the world has been introduced to epidemiologists, immunologists and ablutomaniacs, to say nothing of the ubiquitous soothsayers. Not since 2001 have we seen such a torrent of predictions about the “airport of the future.” It is a grand time to be a fantast.

A 90% drop in customers has a way of separating wheat from chaff, though. In the linear time world, flights, passengers and revenue continue a very gradual climb from a low point. Most signs now point to a recovery measured in months and years. In the logarithmic time world, guidance to reestablish health and confidence emerges, flourishes briefly and evaporates in a matter of days.

Enthusiasm for fever detection, blood testing, sneeze guards, quarantine rooms, touchless travel, surveilled/enforced personal distance, stickers on floors, hand-washing stations, disinfection tunnels, health immunity certificates and many other proposed solutions has waxed and waned as we learn more about viral transmission. Airports are not laboratories; they are critical infrastructure that has the responsibility to balance the interests of health security with other operational requirements (like effective processing, cost containment and a hospitable customer orientation).

Airports were born of the public fascination with powered flight and grew up to accommodate millions of travelers—about 900 million last year—safely, efficiently and with as much comfort and joy as possible. A judicious approach has always been a hallmark of U.S. airport leadership. Jolts like the novel coronavirus test our equilibrium, whether we are operators, providers, practitioners, builders or users.

Living in dual time—the rapid changes wrought by the virus and the far slower return to the air—leaves us with a very special problem of adaptation. In a period of dramatic stimulus, the temptation to produce an equally dramatic response is strong.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- unknown

This aphorism has a murky paternity, ranging from Viktor Frankl to Stephen Covey, but its applicability to our predicament is clear. The airport industry must adapt by being discriminating. And we are. Many airports are choosing wisely and advancing immediately practical and available programs for dealing with SARS-CoV-2. Some examples include:

  • Requiring face coverings for employees, encouraging them for passengers 
  • Enhanced sanitization of high-touch areas, restrooms and shuttles
  • Additional hand sanitizer stations  
  • Social distancing floor markers
  • Restricted capacity on shuttle vehicles
  • Socially-spaced seating
  • Audio and visual messaging for healthy travel tips
  • Adding Plexiglas barriers in customer interaction areas 

And for the always-ready technology advocates, there are plenty of sound technologies available now or very soon:

  • Mobile applications
  • Digital wallet purchasing
  • Touchless kiosks using mobile app
  • Face recognition for international travel

Airports are sidestepping schemes involving expensive surgery to facilities and problematic technologies, favoring gentler approaches that are flexible enough to move with the changing understanding.

And for the future? Most airports adopt what Hank the Cowdog calls “Hide and Watch” mode. This is not a passive posture, as we are all monitoring the scientific and social effects of COVID-19, but rather an alert and balanced perspective that respects the gap between the stimulus and our response to it. 

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