3 Challenges Faced at Airport Security Control as Air Travel Rebounds

Flight bookings are heating up. Progress in the vaccination process in certain parts of the globe is making travelers optimistic about summer. By the end of April, good news came from Australia and New Zealand with the resumption of flights between both countries without a quarantine requirement. We also heard that several tourist destinations are planning to open specifically for visitors that can prove immunization. With COVID-variants surging and concerns about new infections, vacationers will have to adhere to specific entry requirements. Even if traveling domestically, mask-wearing, social distancing, and frequent sanitizing are expected to continue to be the norm. These containment measures crucial for aviation recovery are part of a New Normal where security control at airports plays a major role.

Security checkpoints in terminals have been around for over 50 years. Though, in the last two decades, controls have grown much more rigorous following major security threats. Changes include adopting more advanced technology like going from traditional walk-through-metal-detectors to more sophisticated scanners. The processes taking place here are part of such a complex system that operators are often close to reaching the capacity limit. And what is the immediate result of that? It is passengers waiting in line with no clear understanding of what is transpiring. To address this, there are various methods to manage long queues including displaying expected wait times, allocating more staff, and readjusting the queue layouts.  

However, in the current pandemic situation, things may look even more challenging. Studies point out that new hygiene factors could extend processing times delaying passengers departing for an estimated  10 minutes. With airports expecting a busy second half of the year, in which ways could throughput capacity at the security area be affected? 

COVID-19 and the impact on the airport security control area

1. New queue space requirements due to physical distancing

Before the Coronavirus outbreak, travelers used to stand close to one another before passing the security control. The IATA Level Service of Standards estimated the average space consumption per traveler to be 1m². This value served as a reference for decision makers to plan their queue systems for the day of operations. Today, the picture looks quite different with the enforcement of physical distancing rules. Last year, sanitary experts agreed that this measure is one of the most effective measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Since then, airports request queuing passengers at terminals to keep a minimum distance from each other.

So far, there is no general rule regarding whether it is better to maintain a 1.5m or 2m distance. There are diverse recommendations, but it ultimately depends on the respective country to decide what is the norm. According to Eurocontrol, most European territories apply the physical distance requirement of 1.5m distance. Based on this value, the calculation of space consumption per passenger at terminals would be 2m². In comparison with the 1m² in pre-pandemic times, the queue space capacity at security control areas now would be reduced by 50%. This means that a queue layout that typically accommodates 400 passengers, now can only fit 200.  With fewer people per lane, one could think that the overall time invested in this checkpoint will decline. But improved sanitation, repeated scans and fewer drop-off positions actually extend the duration of common processes. As traffic rebounds, increasing space availability will be critical.

Operators should focus on key limiting components at security control areas to reduce the impact of COVID-19 measures on capacity.

2. Enhanced cleaning of security equipment

Part of the typical experience at security control includes removing things from the pockets and placing them in trays. Especially in days of high traffic, security trays have to be quickly recycled, passing through the hands of hundreds of travelers. A study found out that these items have the highest risk level for transmission of viruses compared to other surfaces at airports. For this reason, the International Civil Aviation Organization recommends routinely disinfecting security screening equipment and for staff to wear gloves for its manipulation.

More often sanitation of surfaces and equipment is key to reassure the public. However, these additional activities are likely to require not only more personnel, but also reduced capacity utilization of the equipment. For instance, travelers can expect more repeated X-ray scans to minimize the manual inspection of their bags. If the content of an item cannot be identified by the screening machine at first, it will have to pass a second evaluation. This time, the passenger could be asked to take the object from his bag to achieve better insights. By doing so, the number of trays used per person could increase. In this scenario, Eurocontrol calculates the need for one extra tray for 75% of people. Planners must consider such additional requirements to have the necessary number of trays clean and ready for use.

3. Passenger show ups remain difficult to predict

As long as the Coronavirus remains a threat, we can expect less predictable passenger show ups than under regular operational periods. Governments have their own entry regulations that can be eased or tightened depending on the progress in containing the virus. These rules may lead to confusion among the public as they do not know exactly what travel and health requirements they must comply with at the destination. With border restrictions likely to change at short notice, many travelers still opt to book their flights ad-hoc. Such unpredictable behavior makes resource planning particularly challenging, especially in critical areas like security control.  

Another factor that adds unpredictability to the forecast process is earlier arrivals. When looking at what experts see will be a bright summer for aviation, it is reasonable to think that questions arise around potential crowds at terminals. In fact, pent-up demand and the eagerness of people to take to the skies again could lead to massive attendance at the airport. To avoid crowds, travelers tend to arrive long before their flight departures. This strategy also helps to reduce time pressure, since safety guidelines in place slower the overall journey.

Conclusions

With tourist destinations reopening this summer, all eyes will be on the aviation industry to ensure the safety and satisfaction of passengers. Each airport has its own approach towards COVID-19 prevention based on government regulations and health organization recommendations. This could be problematic in that there is no harmonized action to tackle the pandemic. Nevertheless, measures like social distancing are now part of our daily lives and are likely to remain in place going forward. But how practical is this when there is limited space within terminals?

The new sanitary protocols affect terminal operations, their punctuality and performance. Processes at security control will have to continue to integrate these measures, while adjusting to the new Service Level Agreements. Airports are already experiencing a reduction in throughput. It is estimated that those facilities that used to be congested before the pandemic could reach their maximum capacity at just 60-75% of their peak 2019 traffic. This is an indication of the urgency of innovative solutions to bring greater efficiency and effectiveness to the system.

Technology is set to play a crucial role in overcoming these challenges. The need for ad-hoc changes in staff and equipment allocation forces operators to look beyond historical data. Terminals were not designed to accommodate 1.5 m distancing between passengers in the security lanes, which is why we expect the reduction by 50% in capacity utilization. With infrastructure changes less likely to occur, airports will have to find ways to optimize their available space.

How can operators approach these limitations proactively? Find out in our next blog post.

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