What is “Safe Enough” to get us Flying Again?

Forced to Crowd, Forced to Wait, Forced to Touch

What is “Safe Enough” to get us Flying Again?

By our Co-Founder Fiona Strens

How can aviation stakeholders respond to and recover from the COVID-19 crisis? Surely, it’s got to be about making passenger journeys Safe Enough that people are confident to travel again?

‘Safe Enough’ in this pandemic-defined era means that a passenger’s perception of the risk of picking up a nasty – or potentially deadly – disease on the journey is sufficiently low for them to justify traveling, because the benefit outweighs the risk. And ‘Safe Enough’ also means that Operators can prove to Governments, Regulators and Corporate Boards that the risk is managed for the traveling population overall, to a level where authorizing travel makes sense.

So really this is all about understanding and managing passenger safety risk. Normally, when faced with managing risk at the strategic or project level, we go about creating a risk matrix that captures each risk, its probability and impact. And then, for the “High-High” risks, we aim to mitigate them by changing something.

Let’s dissect this.  If I am a passenger traveling from my home in the U.S. to a relative’s home in the U.K., my journey might take this form:

Home –> City Station -> Airport Station –> Aircraft Boarding Gate -> Flight ->

Airport Arrival Gate –> Car Rental Depot -> Destination

As a passenger my risk assessment might look like this, although every person’s assessment will be slightly different:

Probability of ExposurePotential Impact of ExposureMitigation Options / Decision
Home > City StationLow “I have decided to walk, and I can social distance as I go”High “I just don’t want to get this virus as I have a pre-existing medical condition that makes me fearful of the outcome”  None needed
City Station > Airport StationMedium “I can buy a ticket online but still have to spend time on the train with others”High (as above)Decision: “I am going to reduce exposure risk by asking my partner to give me a lift”
Airport Station > Aircraft GateHigh “I can check-in online and travel without checking bags, but I can’t avoid going through Security where I will be exposed to people and have to touch security bins”High (as above)Option 1: Do not travel

Option 2: Travel but select the least risky departure airport “I need to know what each Airport and what TSA is doing to minimize risk and whether they are creating a safe enough environment for me to justify traveling
FlightMedium “I have chosen a window seat, will wear a mask and avoid using the bathroom, but I still worry about the proximity of other passengers”High (as above)Option 1: Do not travel

Option 2: Travel but select the least risky flight “I need to know what each Airline is doing to minimize risk and whether they are creating a safe enough environment for me to justify traveling”
Arrival Gate > Rental Car DepotHigh “I have no choice but to go through Immigration which is often crowded”  High (as above)Option 1: Do not travel

Option 2: Travel but select the least risky arrivals airport “I need to know what each Airport and what U.K. Border Force is doing to minimize risk and whether they are creating a safe enough environment for me to justify traveling”
Rental Car Depot > DestinationHigh “I don’t like the idea of waiting in line for a rental car and wonder about whether I can catch the virus from the steering wheel?”High (as above)Option 1: Change Mode: “I could get someone to pick me up”

Option 2: Travel but select the least risky rental car company “I need to know what each Rental Car Company is offering in terms of contactless collection and car cleaning”  
My Possible Risk Assessment

Where is the weakest link?

There are several High-High risks across this journey. The question is whether each can be mitigated so that the passenger feels safe. It’s no good being safe in some segments and exposed in others. After all, you only have to catch coronavirus once. The weakest link matters.

Passengers are empowered to minimize risk themselves on some segments, but they can’t avoid the march through the departing airport, the hours on the flight, or the trek through the arrival airport. They can, however, make some choices. They can choose whether to fly. They can choose when to fly. And they can choose which airports or airlines or car rental companies to use. And that is why, in our opinion, this is going to get a bit competitive and those who’ll recover fastest will be those who can prove to passengers that they will be ‘safe enough’.

In-Flight Risk

Whilst it might seem counter-intuitive, there are many arguing that the flight itself is not the hotbed of disease transmission you might imagine. They argue that people face forwards, don’t move around much, seatbacks provide barriers, and the air flows from ceiling to floor – although watch this to set the scene:

In any case, risk reduction options are limited. Symptomatic passengers can be denied travel, passenger loads can be reduced and seat plans updated to spread passengers around, cleaning routines can be enhanced and cabin staff can implement processes to minimize contact and avoid build-up of bathroom queues. No doubt some airlines will do this better than others. Once all these measures are implemented and explained, it will be for passengers to judge whether they want to fly at all and with which airlines.

Airport Risk

If the idea of hours on a plane hasn’t put them off, passengers’ attention will be on the airports, which are generally recognized to be high risk environments for disease transmission. They are crowded places with lots of people from all over the world moving through them, crossing tracks, and engaging with staff, services and surfaces.

We know that people can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus as the disease spreads through small droplets present when an infected person coughs or exhales. People can catch COVID-19 if they breathe in these droplets (which is why it is important to socially distance) or by touching objects or surfaces carrying the droplets and then their face (which is why venue cleanliness and personal hygiene is critical).

As we imagine the journey through an airport, we can all take some responsibility for our well-being – choosing to travel at quiet times, social distancing where possible, maybe wearing face masks, avoiding crowded entrances or areas, avoiding touching things, and washing our hands. But there are certain areas in an airport where we are forced to crowd or forced to wait or forced to touch and these must be the focus for rebuilding confidence. These areas are:

Turn-Up Areas and Check-In (if not able to check in offline) and Bag Drop (if travelling with hold luggage). Check-in halls are often some of the most crowded areas in airports. Operators may be able – through smart planning, effective operational interventions and the use of technology – to spread people out, minimize contact, and enforce social distancing between passengers and staff alike. But check-in halls are going to need to change and passengers may get pushed (to assure separation) back into entrances, holding areas and curbside queuing locations, which then themselves becoming challenging.

Security. Every passenger and their hand luggage must be screened through at least one security checkpoint. These areas are characterized by queues, waiting and crowding. Sometimes ticket document checking requires passengers or staff to touch documents or devices. Passenger screening may require queuing for scanners and pat-downs. And baggage screening involves touching surfaces that other people and bags have touched. This makes it one of the most difficult environments to make safe and one where passengers and staff will demand significant change before feeling safe. And as social distancing is implemented within checkpoints, queues before the checkpoint will grow and they too will need to be spaced out – and soon we are going to run out of space.

Immigration. Every passenger arriving from overseas must pass through border and customs control. Just like security, these zones are mandatory, crowded and involve touching things. And, by definition, they are heaving with people from all around the world, some of whom are likely to be carriers of disease. So, passengers will be looking for significant change and reassurance before feeling confident about international travel again.

Crowded departure lounges/concourses/gates. In many terminals space quickly runs out at busy times of the day in the concourses and gates. Passengers can of course take some responsibility for their well-being here. But, at peak times or when air traffic or weather delays kick in, these areas can quickly become over-crowded and hold passengers captive for many hours.

So, airports may be the weakest link. And, within airports, it is the check-in areas, security and immigration checkpoints and crowded departure gates that cause most concern because passengers are forced to crowd, forced to wait and forced to touch. For passengers to feel “safe enough” those responsible for these areas, whether the Airport, Airlines or Agencies, will have to invest in risk mitigation measures to reduce risk, prove they have reduced risk, and deal with the consequences of those measures, which will significantly disrupt and challenge normal operations.

ACI – Managing COVID-19

So far the advice is limited to documents like this one from ACI which lays out some best practice examples of what airports are already doing and thinking: https://store.aci.aero/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Airport-Operational-Practice-Examples-for-Managing-COVID19.pdf

Clearly there will be a lot more like this to come as terminals and airport start to compete for recovering passenger numbers and the industry settles on new minimum standards and best practice guidance.

We’re entering a new era. Those of us old enough to remember “travel before terrorism” understand how the arrival of those threats created fear and changed aviation forever. Now the arrival of disease transmission risk is about to do the same. In the next few blog entries, we’ll focus on the different measures – new policies, processes and technologies – that could mitigate this risk and enhance passenger confidence in airports. And we’ll be assessing how they can come together effectively and affordably to ensure the most ambitious airports and airlines “get flying again”.

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