Towards pandemic-resilient airports

As Chief Operating Officer (COO), Hanne Buis is tasked with ensuring Royal Schiphol Group’s airports act in a socially responsible manner. She oversees Operations and Safety & Security (responsibilities which she recently took over from Birgit Otto), as well as Asset Management and Projects. A key element of her role includes managing the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with support from Lotte Harbers, Programme Manager Aviation Security and Public Safety, and Guillaume Burghouwt, Strategy Lead.

Hanne, Lotte and Guillaume explore the steps that airports can take together to develop resilience against pandemic threats.

It is no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the airport industry. During the high point of the crisis, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol handled traffic numbers comparable to the early 1990s. The travel and border restrictions imposed by the Dutch government were among the most stringent in Europe; however, our situation was far from unique among European airports.

Like Schiphol, most airports were quick to react to the crisis. Faced with often limited information and a quickly changing pandemic and regulatory landscape, these actions were, by and large, of an ad-hoc and creative nature. Health screening emerged organically among airlines. Meanwhile, individual countries developed their own protocols for testing, document checking and quarantine requirements. This lack of standardisation was apparent here in Europe n Ighist 19 where, despite EU-led recommendations for tackling the virus, health remains a national responsibility and Member States remain able to apply specific measures as they see fit. The introduction of the EU Digital COVID-19 Certificate and colour coding system was a major achievement in improving regional harmonisation. However, much more must be done if Europe is to present a truly unified front against the next major outbreak.

As commercial aviation enjoys a period of relative stability in most parts of the world, and traffic is recovering, we cannot afford to lose the momentum of the past months or to forget what we have learned from the recent crisis. Now is the time to prepare for future pandemic situations; a recent scenario analysis by the Dutch Pandemic Preparedness Centre distinguishes between four potential (COVID-19) scenarios for the years to come. These range from the disease being nullified to the level of a simple cold to a worst-case scenario of highly virulent variations triggering full lockdowns, and everything in between. Meanwhile, rising population densities and the effects of climate change mean an ever-present risk that an entirely new pandemic will arise. This is one threat that is here to stay.

As airport operators, we must embrace this new reality, and at Schiphol we are putting in place a dedicated pandemic resilience strategy to ward against future threats. However, as recent events have taught us, resilience is most effective when it is developed and implemented across the wider airport network. Ensuring the skies stay open during the next health crisis will require airports, governments and other aviation stakeholders to work together from the same playbook – ideally at a national, EU and international level.

Defining pandemic resilience

Pandemic resilience provides airports with the ability to minimise the impact of pandemic situations on air traffic and connectivity, as well as day-to-day airport operations. But above all, resilience is about thinking ahead to safeguard the comfort, safety and well-being of passengers and other airport visitors.

At Schiphol, we see developing resilience as a three-step process. Step one – ‘anticipate’ – involves developing predetermined responses to potential scenarios. How should the aviation industry handle flights carrying infected passengers? Or how can transmission risks be reduced without disrupting passenger flows in the terminal or without increasing turnaround times? Rather than simply reacting to events as they unfold, airports need playbooks to deal with the different situations brought about by a potential pandemic. These should be aligned with government playbooks and scenario planning, while also considering the wider international context of aviation.

The second step – ‘adapt’ – takes this approach one step further by giving airports the tools to manage eventualities that cannot be anticipated or planned for. This may include building redundancies into core airport infrastructure; for example, pre-determined areas in the passenger terminal that can quickly switch functionality to help tackle outbreaks when necessary. More on this point below.

Step three – ‘transform’ – borrows from the concept of resilience, to transition the airport from being a pandemic liability to a strategic asset that supports public health. A COVID-19 testing centre, for example, can be repurposed to provide other health services during periods when the pandemic threat is low.

Five key pillars of pandemic resilience

At Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we are building our pandemic resilience strategy around five central pillars, the first of which is well-functioning governance, both internal and external. COVID has taught us the importance of maintaining strong alignment – and clear communication – with government authorities and other aviation partners. We can nurture these relationships during ‘calmer’ periods to better understand one another’s position and introduce common protocols that can be easily scaled up in the event of new health challenges. These industry-led approaches should be supported by an overarching government policy that is based on facts rather than symbolic gestures, such as blanket border closures (Source).

Standardisation is also crucial at an internal level. The second is organisation and employee health. At Schiphol, we are creating organisation-wide policies and procedures that can be swiftly implemented when the need arises. The goal is predictability, and all stakeholders need to be aware of the actions to take when a new wave kicks in. We are translating this into a playbook for all our partners, including those working from our recently installed Airport Operations Centre.

Though they are inherently connected, we look at health from the vantage point of our organisation and its employees, as well as from a passenger perspective. A key learning from the first COVID-19 wave is to maintain sufficient PPE stockpiles for our employees, together with self-testing kits for all those working on site, including external contractors. We are also analysing the efficacy of measures such as sanitisation and protective screens in preventing transmission.

Protecting our people provides a foundation for the third pillar, safe and healthy passenger journeys, while ensuring the airport experience remains as pleasant and comfortable as possible. Although we can never eliminate the risk of transmission entirely, we can reduce it significantly; for example, by, or ramping-up, cleaning and ventilation. These tried-and-tested solutions are relatively easy to implement when applied consistently across the network.

Our fourth key pillar, airport design and operation, relates back to the importance of embedding redundancies in our infrastructure that will provide insurance against serious pandemic events. This may include simply ensuring that infrastructure is designed with redundancy in mind: enabling the airport to be expanded to enable social distancing and protection screens, or sections of the terminal to be quickly converted into testing or document-checking zones. The use of off-airport and self-service infrastructure can also be ramped up to enable touchless passenger journeys. Factoring in future pandemic-related needs in this way can help futureproof the airport environment, providing the flexibility to cope with the unexpected.

Our final pandemic building block is connectivity. Schiphol plays a central, connecting role within the Dutch and wider European economy. Everything flows through us: business, trade, people and, by extension, communicable diseases. As a hub airport, we can serve as an early warning system for future variants and new viruses, working with the scientific community to monitor emerging threats, much the same way that wastewater surveillance systems are used to test for COVID-19 disease. By working more closely with the scientific and healthcare communities, commercial airports can potentially form part of a wider, integrated approach to health across Europe and beyond.

Embracing uncertainty, together

With this framework, we have set ourselves a clear ambition for what we want to achieve in terms of pandemic resilience. We also recognise the challenges of this approach: developing new protocols and adapting airport infrastructure demands time and resources, and there is always an opportunity cost (reserving space for health testing means less room in the terminal for certain commercial activities, for example). However, relatively small sacrifices like these can help keep planes flying and mitigate the devastating financial impact experienced during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis. Even though passenger numbers and airport revenues are only just beginning to recover, it is vital that airport operators begin taking these important steps now, while there is time and space to do so.

As discussed, a further source of concern for the airport industry during the recent period has been our limited direct influence on determining government-led responses to the pandemic. Airport operators have a right, and a responsibility, to be part of the wider societal pandemic responses. We are ready to share our knowledge, experience and our data, and to contribute significant time and resources in the name of public health. However, connectivity goes both ways; rather than working in silo, aviation stakeholders – both public and private – need to listen to each other and work together to develop stronger, better-harmonised responses. This is what well-functioning public-private governance looks like.

By operating as a cohesive network, airport operators across Europe can not only ensure they are part of the conversation; they can become strategic, frontline assets in protecting public health. To realise this ambition, we need a fully harmonised EU policy on pandemics from an aviation perspective; one that ensures a level playing field where operators are not disadvantaged or rewarded based on their location and the severity of local government restrictions. Airports, meanwhile, can play their part by using calmer periods to invest in developing their pandemic resilience in preparation for the next outbreak.

But first, a change of mindset may be required: airports, and indeed countries and regions, are used to being in direct competition for tourism and trade. But there is no competition when the skies are closed.

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