Oakland Int’l Creates Task Force to Prepare for Current & Future Passengers

Oakland Int’l Creates Task Force to Prepare for Current & Future Passengers
Jennifer Daack Woolson
Published in: 

In mid-March, just as most of us started using the phrase “social distancing” and began wondering how the impending shelter-in-place orders would affect our states, Oakland International Airport (OAK) in California was dealing with one of its first “unprecedented” events related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its mission: prepare to receive 3,500 beleaguered passengers and crew members from a Grand Princess cruise ship with numerous people who tested positive for coronavirus. After the ship diverted to the Port of Oakland, the massive group traveled by bus to OAK, where U.S. citizens boarded flights to military bases in Texas and Georgia for quarantine, and others boarded chartered international flights. (The Port of Oakland owns and operates both the seaport and OAK.) 

Craig Simon, acting assistant director at OAK, was a key part of the operation. While working in the airport’s Emergency Operations Center, he was just coming to grips with how the pandemic would affect life as we know it. In retrospect, he says that having to manage the unknown so early gave his team a head start figuring out how to prepare the airport to deal with its new normal.


Project: Modifying operations during COVID-19 pandemic

Location: Oakland (CA) Int’l Airport

Owner: The Port of Oakland

Strategies: Implement processes, protocols & equipment to help minimize spread of COVID-19; encourage & plan for safe air travel; enhance comfort among current & future travelers 

Timeline: Resiliency Task Force launched in early April 2020

Task Force Members: 15-20 OAK representatives from a variety of airport departments (communications, marketing, property, terminal services, ground transportation, facilities, airside security departments) & Port of Oakland employees

New Disinfecting Equipment: Clorox Total 360 Electrostatic Sprayer System 

Cost: $4,300

New Testing Equipment: 3M thermal reader, which shows how recently surfaces were disinfected

Cost: $1,800

Enhanced Cleaning: Waxie, Starline, Veritiv & Home Depot products for disinfecting high-touch surfaces; intense attention to areas such as bottoms of chairs that are difficult to clean during high-traffic times

Tactical Strategies: Signage & floor decals to encourage social distancing; plastic glass shields to protect staff; suspension of high-exposure operations such as taxi stands, employee shuttles & volunteer ambassador program

“It really gave us an opportunity, which we hadn’t had in the past, to make some solid contacts within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and to build on our current contacts with CDC and Alameda County Health,” says Simon. “It gave us an opportunity to sit down with them and have those discussions, comb through our pandemic plan, and make adjustments to it.”

Staying on Task

Accommodating passengers from the rerouted cruise ship was one of several key events that inspired OAK to create its Resiliency Task Force, which launched in April. The internal team is comprised of 15 to 20 OAK employees from communications, marketing, properties, terminal services, ground transportation, facilities, airside, security and other departments. The group meets every Friday via Zoom to discuss and delegate ideas to help minimize the spread of COVID-19, encourage and plan for safe air travel, and find ways to make sure current and future travelers feel safe. 

The other main factor that triggered the task force was declining passenger traffic. Keonnis R. Taylor, OAK’s aviation communications and airport spokeswoman, reports that April 2020 traffic was 96% lower than April 2019. The airport is seeing an uptick, however, and forecasts for May and June are both trending positively, with 37% indicating that passengers do plan to travel this summer. Taylor says that the airport is taking advantage of low passenger volume to perform intensive cleaning activities that will become more difficult as the terminal gets busier.

Simon notes that the task force’s efforts are helping OAK position itself for the return of a significant volume of passengers. “We were looking to create a large, diverse group from different departments to put their heads together to come up with some really thoughtful ideas about how we could position ourselves better,” he says. The group created a spreadsheet to brainstorm, implement and track both front- and back-of-house operations, from curbside drop off protocols to safe social distancing inside the terminal to baggage screening.

In addition to enforcing the Alameda County Health Order requiring the use of face coverings for all staff and passengers, that team has:

  • Installed social distancing markings on the floors
  • Reconfigured queue lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints with stanchion toppers providing social distancing instructions
  • Installed plastic glass cough and sneeze guards for ticket counters, boarding gate counters and Customs and Border Protection counters
  • Evaluated heating/venting/air conditioning systems to ensure compliance with CDC recommendations for turning over and filtering air
  • Adjusted gate, seating and staffing plans to allow social distancing in the terminals
  • Temporarily suspended high-exposure operations such as taxi stands, employee shuttle bus services and the Volunteer Ambassadors Program
  • Procured new cleaning and disinfecting equipment and supplies 
  • Adopted enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices 

The heightened cleaning protocol that began in early March has kept OAK Terminal Services Manager Stacy Mattson extra busy. Just before the new practices were needed, the custodial team’s superintendent told Mattson the airport needed to start ordering extra supplies immediately. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am that he did that,” she muses. 

Mattson says if OAK had waited just two more days, they wouldn’t have had access to the amount of EPA-approved disinfectant cloths and other supplies her staff needs to handle frequent cleaning of all of the airport’s touchpoints. OAK also recently invested $4,300 in the Clorox Total 360 System, which uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect the front, back and sides of surfaces. The airport purchased two machines, which use a special Clorox chemical, for large spaces like holdrooms. The system also includes several backpack systems custodians wear to spray medium-sized spaces like restrooms, as well as handheld devices for smaller spaces. 

As an additional quality control measure, the airport uses a 3M brand thermal reader that workers place on ticket counters, armrests, restroom counters and other frequently touched areas to indicate how recently a surface was disinfected. The scanner cost about $1,800.

Mattson is pleased with how the frontline custodial staff is rising to the occasion. “They really care about our airport being the cleanest airport in the Bay Area,” she says. “I think they just cannot wait to see customers come back.”

OAK has had to look beyond off-the-shelf solutions, too. For example, the type of interaction that occurs at Customs and Border Protection counters—using cameras and fingerprint readers as well as checking documents—required a unique configuration of plastic and glass shields. The task force used internal resources to build clear barriers to provide extra protection for agents as they perform their tasks, and billed the Facilities Department for the production time. Custom shields are also in the works for gateside podiums throughout the terminal. 

Partners in Prevention

As might be expected, the Resiliency Task Force has evolved and expanded since it formed in March. As far as Simon and Mattson are concerned, the more the merrier. 

“It just brings additional horsepower and gives us a little more traction when we need to move on something,” says Simon. Since most of what the task force is doing costs money, having more people to guide decisions is important, he adds.

The task force is also collaborating with OAK’s airline partners and tenants about their concerns and ideas. For example, if concessionaires want to add branding to their social distancing floor stickers, Simon encourages them to do so. “It’s about working on those relationships to make sure they and their employees are comfortable,” he says.

The airport also helped out one of its biggest partners, Southwest Airlines, providing support in keeping their employees at safe social distances in crowded break rooms. The task force found new spaces inside and outside the terminal for crews to relax between flights. 

Pivoting Toward the Future

Mattson notes that operational managers like she and Simon excel at reacting to whatever needs immediate attention. “In an airport environment, that’s just kind of the way it works,” she says. In the very midst of their COVID-19 response, they realized they also needed to start thinking about what the airport would need in two weeks, four weeks and beyond. “It’s not going to look like this,” acknowledges Mattson. 

Although they both know passengers will return slowly, they also know that even a slow return while managing social distancing, enhanced cleaning and everything else they’ve put in place for passenger safety could be problematic if they don’t plan carefully. That planning includes determining which new systems, equipment and processes are short-term measures and what changes should be kept in place indefinitely. 

“Having a touch-free experience is going to be something people will always appreciate—even in a post COVID-19 environment,” Mattson offers as an example. 

Ensuring that employees feel comfortable returning to work is an important objective for the task force, adds Simon. He says this is particularly important because the “new normal” isn’t just something they’re dealing with at the airport. “This is something that we are all also dealing with at home,” he says. “There are a lot of emotions and a lot of anxiety. But the group that we are working with has really done all they could to set aside everything that is happening out there and concentrate on the things we can do that will really help instill confidence in our passengers as they come back into the terminal.”

Taylor’s communications plan is forward-focused as well. OAK’s message has been one of hopefulness vs. gloom and doom—something she says even reporters and news anchors are appreciating. And she’s optimistic that passenger traffic will continue to rise throughout the summer. “We’re adjusting our approach so that we’re communicating with our customers and our internal stakeholders in the most effective and efficient way,” she notes. “We’re also communicating with our headquarters downtown at the Port of Oakland, and working with them to amplify our messaging and to make sure we are coordinated on our approaches.” 

The bottom line: OAK is cleaner than it has ever been. “We want passengers to know, when they come into the airport, they can be confident that the places they’re touching, eating and sitting have been cleaned two or three times over,” she relates. “Quality control is very strong.” 


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