NEW ORLEANS, LA – Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, millions of lives have been taken, economies have been crippled and all aspects of life have been disrupted. Certainly, one of the industries most affected by this crisis has been aviation.
Today, words and phrases like “unprecedented” and “the new normal” are used ad-nauseum, but they serve as constant reminders that we have spent the last some eight months in uncharted territory, and much more lies ahead.
On the positive side, air travel has gone from a virtual standstill to an incremental uptick. Critical to a continuing recovery will be how airports respond. Adapting, innovating, and finding new opportunities will be key for those airports that seek to thrive and anticipate whatever the future holds.
It is Going to be a Long Climb, but We are on Our Way
After an unprecedented decline in air travel, we are beginning to see travelers returning to the skies. This month, TSA screened its highest weekly number of passengers since the start of the pandemic. This is a promising sign for the industry, and since leisure travelers are largely responsible for the increase, it shows that people still have a desire to travel.
While we are going to continue to see a steady climb in traffic, it is going to be a long journey to get back to pre-pandemic numbers. According to Boeing’s annual outlook report, it will “take around three years for commercial air travel to return to 2019 levels” but “business aviation is currently in the midst of a robust recovery.” Though it may seem an eternity ago, air travel was at an all-time high in 2019 – something that made the shut-down seem even more dramatic and precipitous.
Short of a vaccine, a shining light on the horizon is the development of low-cost, rapid tests. As they become more widely available and once a common testing standard is established, it is reasonable to believe we will see a sharp increase in air travel.
Until then, and even when we arrive at that point, the keys for airports to bounce back as quickly as possible are restoring consumer confidence, maximizing efficiencies, and being clever with their finances.
Ways We Can Make the Climb Less Bumpy
First and foremost, airports can improve passenger confidence by raising awareness of the safety of air travel. We’ve often heard that air travel is far safer than, say for example, traveling by car, but the “inside” story needs to be told as well. Most people do not appreciate that an aircraft cabin is a very clean environment compared to most other indoor spaces. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has found only 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 caught on a flight from among the 1.2 billion people that flew between January and July this year, in a study released Thursday. That translates to one case for every 27.3 million flyers. In other words, you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than catching COVID on an airplane, the study found.
As for the terminals that passengers pass through on their way to those cabins, certification standards have been adopted to ensure the safety of these areas as well. Airports should work as rapidly as possible to get accredited and properly publicize it as well as making the traveling public aware of all the steps they have taken to make their facilities as safe as possible.
Looking forward, health screenings will likely become part of the norm in airports, further enhancing safety and easing health concerns. Once all these protocols and testing are in place, it is likely that passengers will get a negative test code along with their boarding pass. Working together, airlines and airports will be able to integrate these screenings seamlessly into the travel process.
We are also going to see a rise in the use of touchless technologies as part of the travel process. With the proliferation of biometrics, passengers will soon be able to get into the parking lot, check in for their flights and board, all with a facial scan. That day will be sooner than you may think. As airports around the world have been pushing for more biometric capabilities, our team has worked to incorporate facial recognition technology at some of our nation’s busiest airports even before COVID-19, making them among the leaders of these new technologies.
All these layers of public health precautions will go a long way toward reducing the spread of the virus while also bolstering public confidence in air travel.
Staying Fiscally Healthy Is More Important Than Ever
Needless to say, airports with diverse portfolios have been better positioned, financially, to ride out this crisis. For example, some are blessed with a lot of land and have business parks in their portfolios that are not dependent on aeronautical revenue. For airports without varied assets, now is the opportunity to reposition and diversify for the future. Non-aviation revenue helps during downturns, and there will always be downturns. Diversification of revenue that is not tied to passenger numbers and aircraft movements on the airfield provide extra runway when its needed most.
Additionally, as we work our way back and look to make improvements and become more resilient and viable for the future, the current availability of low-cost money presents opportunities for airports. For example, low interest rates mean authorities can refinance bond debt and buy valuable time as we weather the storm.
Additionally, airports with capital should look for opportunities to keep and increase air service, which is essential to the health of their regional economies. They can do this by providing subsidies to airlines, investing in joint advertising with airlines, and providing guarantees for flight bookings.
General Aviation is a Bigger Player than Ever – Bet on it
Yet another bright spot is that the smaller general aviation community is actually growing. The pandemic has precipitated an increase in chartered flights for both safety and practical reasons. Airports demonstrating a GA friendly attitude and the facilities to back up that welcoming attitude will do well. Attracting FBOs and the maintenance and hangar facilities essential to general aviation provides lease and rental income as well as increased landing fee revenue and fuel sales. More airports should get on board with this trend wherever possible.
The Best News of All – The Pandemic Made Us All Smarter
Let’s face it, learning is often a painful process. But it’s the really hard lessons that usually make the greatest impression and spur dramatic improvements. Given the last eight months, as difficult as they’ve been, we will all be a lot smarter about the spread of communicable diseases in the future. Thanks to 2020, we now know the myriad different ways our lives and livelihoods are affected. The good news is we now also know ways we can mitigate the effects. All of us have a responsibility to draw from these lessons and apply our newfound knowledge immediately.
Planning for the next pandemic should start yesterday. Take the actions that are required to make your airport stronger and more resilient for whatever might lie ahead. Do the planning and put improved procedures and strategies in place now: accreditation, testing processes, rethinking operations and facilities, diversifying portfolios, and maximizing short- and long-term financial resources. The changes you make now may very well change how the next crisis affects our industry and the national economy.
Finally, let me leave you with this thought: Just days after 9/11, no one could have imagined that air travel would return to prior levels and even far surpass those levels in those dark days. Still, they did relatively quickly. By learning from those terrible events, we as industry became far better at what we do. That same opportunity lies in front of us today.
Tim Walsh is President of Civix Transportation. He is a past Director of Airports for the County of San Diego, managing eight airports and three large industrial parks. He also served as Airport Manager for the City of Santa Monica and as Assistant Airport Manager for the City of Hayward, CA. He is a licensed pilot and volunteers his time flying scientists and environmentalists to observe coastal and offshore environments and to assess damage from natural disasters.