Article by Fiona Strens, Founder at CrowdVision

Stating the obvious, the COVID-19 crisis creates significant challenges for airports and aviation. There are currently international, national and state lockdowns preventing air travel; meanwhile these organizations are keeping essential supplies moving at the same time as fighting for their financial survival.

Understanding + Improving + Proving

As the restrictions are lifted, the ambition will be to “get flying again” but only if passengers, staff and regulators can be persuaded that it’s safe to do so. This is all about reducing and mitigating disease transmission risk, so recovery strategies will need to be layered and multi-faceted, focused not only on understanding risk and improving safety but also on proving it to a skeptical audience.

Industry bodies like ACI and IATA are working hard to produce new safety policies, guidelines and standards which seek to break disease transmission chains between passengers and staff alike. At the level of “me” this means reducing the risk of “me catching COVID as I travel” and at the population level it means driving down the now famous R0. Evidence-based policies require detailed understanding of how disease actually spreads which means absorbing and applying what the academics have to say – here are a couple of good articles:

  • For the mathematicians:  Jointly authored by our very own CTO – Dr Anders Johansson – this article, written well before COVID was in our daily vocabulary, discusses the importance of both the distance and time elements in transmission chains and explains in detail the basis of the models that are driving today’s decision-makers.
  • For the practitioners: Penned by Professor Erin Bromage of the University of Massachusetts, this blog goes beyond generalized modelling and statistics to some specific and detailed examples of how COVID-19 has spread – these really make you sit up and think!

Re-starting + Recovery + Resilience

One headline from both of these articles is that we run the risk of reducing a complex subject to simple straplines whereas, in reality, there are so many factors associated with location, environment, air flows, crowd behaviors and more that determine actual transmission in any particular scenario. We still have a load of learning to do and that is why capturing and using data will be so important – to understand, to improve and ultimately to prove how safe an airport is. Data will be critical:

  • to restart – to create confidence in travel
  • to recover – to adapt as passenger numbers increase and safety policies adjust
  • to create resilience to future threats and hazards that we can’t predict today

Screening + SafeSeparation + SafeSurfaces

The practical measures being considered for introduction in airports embrace three main themes:

  • Screening to filter symptomatic or otherwise high-risk people. Passengers may be screened remotely before they leave home (maybe requiring a known medical status to check-in) or as they enter the terminal or arrive at checkpoints along their journey (for example using handheld  thermometers or elevated body temperature detecting cameras). Being ‘filtered out’ could result in further testing, risk-differentiated handling or even being denied travel. Getting screening right is therefore not only a technical challenge but an ethical and jurisdictional one, leading to different approaches and take-up levels being anticipated in different regions and cultures.

SafeSeparation to reduce transmission between people. Even when rigorous screening is in place, there is no guarantee that silent disease carriers are not close by. Fear of disease transmission will likely remain until vaccines or cures take it away. We therefore assume that social (physical) distancing management and enforcement will be a must-have through the passenger journey and world-wide, with additional measures like mask-wearing to minimize transmission when people get too close.

SafeSurfaces to reduce transmission via things. Although a combination of screening and separating people may effectively reduce person-to-person transmission, disease can be transmitted via surfaces. So, risk reduction also means reducing the need for people to touch surfaces that other people have touched and/or ensuring those surfaces are sanitized and can’t contribute to disease transmission. Removing unnecessary touchpoints by using contactless processes is ideal but there will always be some that cannot be avoided and that is where sanitization regimes are key.

Data Will Differentiate

Despite the thermometers, floor stickers and notices of enhanced cleaning processes, the traveling public will only really be convinced with evidence. In an ideal world, airports would be able to make safety claims based on outcomes (evidence of no or reduced disease transmission) but this is clearly not possible now. The next best thing will be to present evidence of safety interventions, such as:

  • Screening: the percentage of passenger and staff communities screened and evidence of screening method/technology efficacy.
  • SafeSeparation: achievement of separation (distance) achieved between people at different times and in different locations and measurement of levels of exposure (time) for each passenger or staff population.
  • SafeSurfaces: evidence of the deployment of contactless and touchless processing, activity level measurement at touchpoints, associated cleaning frequency and availability/usage of bathrooms.

At CrowdVision we are “data people” but we are also staff and passengers who need to be persuaded alongside the rest of the traveling population. We believe the most powerful narratives will be those where an airport can prove they are serious about collecting and sharing safety data, prove that they outperform other comparable airports or other transport options, and prove that they are using data to understand risk and improve safety.

Do you agree? If so, you may want to talk to us about data for your airport.

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