More than a year has passed since the Coronavirus hit the world. Air travel changed abruptly as border restrictions came to force. For airports, the major concern went beyond getting aircraft optimally turned and passengers departing safely. They had to face the challenges of managing a large number of parked planes. With the pandemic not over yet, no one can truly predict what the future will hold. However, some signs suggest things might look better for the industry this year. So far, over 450 million vaccine doses have been administered across more than 130 territories. In regions where infection levels fall further, entry restrictions have been wholly or partially lifted for the immunized public. With market confidence growing, airports must prepare to scale up operations. The starting point is those terminal areas normally associated with congestion such as the security checkpoints.
In our previous article, we discussed three main challenges for airport controls as traffic begins to increase. During the phases of restart and recovery, passengers will expect that airports maintain health measures. That includes the reduction of face-to-face interaction and manual pat-downs. To maximize capacity at security lanes, operators will have to implement several changes. What could be airports´ strategy to adopt them smoothly?
Managing new requirements at security checkpoints
1. Define a multi-layered approach towards physical distancing
Processes at security checkpoints have been evolving, but some basic principles remain almost unchanged. For instance, during screening, physical and verbal interactions between travelers and staff are almost inevitable. Furthermore, manual searches are still necessary, as x-ray technology sometimes does not have such high precision to spot all suspicious items. If, in pre-COVID times, control checks were time and space consuming, now it is even more so. Implementing hygiene protocols reduces drop off positions and waiting space, affecting capacity throughput. How can operators enforce enhanced sanitary rules when terminals are not originally designed for this purpose?
A strategy to tackle this could include a combination of short- and long-term solutions such as:
Implementation of signages and public announcements
This is perhaps the easiest way to remind passengers about physical distancing. The use of signage can help planners to flexibly distribute passengers in lining up areas and optimally limit the number of people in queues. Personnel can then organize security lanes in a way that maximizes capacity, for example, by accommodating travelers living at the same address.
Since these visuals may go unnoticed at times of heavy traffic, they are usually applied in combination with other methods. We already see airports using sticker placements on the floor together with some technologies like sensors to track occupancy and space utilization.
Adopting the right tech
A common way to ensure physical distancing is using innovations that enable quick and efficient passenger flows. From Wi-Fi/BLE sensors to camera-based solutions, crowd control systems help to deliver passenger movement insights and improve capacity planning. Video analytics offer a detailed picture of what the high risk zones are in the airport. From this information, operators can analyze the root causes of the bottlenecks and determine how to improve them. Another application is when quick decisions have to be made. Based on real-time data, supervisors can decide, for instance, whether to limit drop off positions so that passengers do not get too close.
Looking at more sophisticated technologies, we find virtual queuing systems. These tools seem to be gaining popularity to effectively avoid congregations. Recently, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the first US gateway to trial virtual queuing for crowded lines at security checkpoints. Via QR or NFC, customers can pre-book their time slot to pass controls when they arrive at the terminal. After registration, users receive a waiting number. The application sends a notification to indicate that the person is next in line.
Other technological advancements that can contribute to reducing processing times include modern screening equipment with increased detection capability and lower rates of false alarms, and biometrics, an effective tool allowing for contactless identity checks.
2. Make staff rostering adaptative
As airports around the world prepare for ramping up operations, their main focus is to protect the welfare of travelers and employees. Minimizing potential virus contaminations through the implementation of enhanced sanitation puts increasing pressure on management. These additional activities can create delays or simply affect the optimal execution of daily tasks. Therefore, decision makers have to ensure that manpower is correctly deployed to cover these requirements.
During the first months of the pandemic outbreak, airports counted with minimal staff on hand to maintain processes at security checkpoints. Now that personnel are gradually returning to work, airports need to be ready to manage staffing fluctuations due to very dynamic demand. Dedicated software facilitates adjusting roster and shift plans efficiently to more than expected traffic. These tools consider COVID-related variables in the planning phase like extra space due to physical distancing and waiting time targets.
3. Dynamic forecast of show-ups
Instead of following traditional summer and winter schedules, airlines are changing their network services on a monthly or even weekly basis. Short-term booking fluctuations from passengers facing uncertainty due to travel restrictions affect airport planning. Decisions typically relied on historical data of when travelers were likely to show up. Today, additional health screenings, improved cleanings, and other factors make this method no longer relevant.
To increase resourcing accuracy in areas like security checkpoints, dispatchers require up-to-the-minute information. Dynamic forecasting systems enable decision makers to gather live data to create passenger show-up profiles at varied security throughput levels. On the day of operations, the capacity plan and forecasts are continually updated following real-time changes. With this input, airports can optimize workforce allocation and reduce crowd density.
The pandemic has opened new challenges for security checkpoints, but also opportunities for improvement. Each airport will define its own strategy for the ramp-up, as they are unique in regulatory requirements, passenger profile and existing infrastructure. However, there is a common link relating to the crucial role of technology for thriving the New Normal. Studies estimate the impact of COVID-19 measures in security lane throughput as a reduction of 50% capacity or even more. With less space available and increasing processing times, automation is the key to assisting terminal supervisors in preventing crowds.
As traffic volumes rebound, dispatchers will need valuable insights to determine how many security lanes to open, as well as how many staff members need to be allocated. Smart optimization techniques such as dynamic show-ups forecasting and adaptative resource planning will become paramount to deal with and prepare for changes in operational processes. Following a data-driven approach, airports can test out different scenarios to achieve the maximal utilization of resources.
The Coronavirus involves continuous learning as the industry faces issues never experienced before. To build operational resilience, these new aspects must be underpinned by a robust security culture. As the word suggests, the creation of this culture has to start by raising awareness on the importance of adhering to safety guidelines. An efficient communication campaign with travelers and staff will allow them to prepare for a new security control experience; an experience that leans on innovation to make the journey more streamlined and intuitive.