The first aircraft screeched into the tarmac illuminated by the gentle rays of early morning light. Most of the passengers on board had no idea where they had landed, or why. There were mutterings about a terrorist attack in New York, but the finer details escaped them.

Stepping off the aircraft into the crisp Newfoundland air, they soon realised that they had been diverted to Gander International Airport, an isolated hub off the east coast of Canada home to almost as many moose as people. Soon enough another aircraft hit the tarmac, and then another, as crowds of locals came to witness this mass influx of passengers. For the people of Gander this was a bizarre spectacle. Aside from military vessels and the odd emergency landing, ‘plane people’ were a rare sight. A few hours later, almost 7,000 had been crammed on to the tarmac. Passengers arriving would soon learn the harrowing truth behind their brief diversion to Newfoundland, as they watched the 9/11 attacks unfold on local television screens.

Far from being a unique, singular event, the relocation to Gander was the first form of governmental response to an event that changed the world and aviation forever. As the townspeople welcomed the new visitors with kindness, giving them food and shelter, this relocation was the first response to an act of hate. It represented the dawning of a new age and a journey into a turbulent post-9/11 landscape we have become all too familiar with, manifested in airport security regimes so rigorous as to border on the paranoid, resting on a solid foundation of X-ray machines and restrictions on liquids, lest a bomb be hidden in either.

Now with Covid-19 raging across the globe, airports are caught in a similar transition. After all, it was by passing unnoticed through terminals in China on to flights to Europe that the disease began its rampage through Italy, Spain, the UK and from there on to the US and South America. The airport, therefore, can either be the prime vector for the transmission of the virus or the first line in the defence against its spread. As such, hubs are fortifying themselves against future attacks by weaving temperature checks and screening measures into terminal operations.

Adapt to the challenge

While the technology exists to defend against the spread of Covid-19, the money to fund it is lacking. The global slump in demand for international flights has led to many operators calling on national governments to throw them a lifeline. Forecasting an estimated £78bn decline in global airport revenues for 2020, Airports Council International (ACI) has called Covid-19 an “existential” threat for the industry and urged governments to provide “[financial] relief and assistance” to airports around the world.

“Without airlines, you don’t have airports, so whether it’s grants or loans, it makes sense for governments to support airlines,” says Henry Harteveldt, principal at travel advisory group Atmosphere Research. “This virus is nobody’s fault. This isn’t the result of a dot-com bubble, or bad lending practices, or terrorism. It’s a health pandemic.” Of course, as Harteveldt is keen to stress, in these unprecedented times – with strain being placed on hospitals and care homes – the question of where to distribute public funding is not an easy one.

“We’re talking about loans, not charity,” Harteveldt says. “If you’re going to lend taxpayer’s money to an institution, whether it’s an airport or an airline, the government has to expect a reasonable chance of that money being repaid.”

Financial modelling aside, the place where the impact of Covid-19 will be felt most acutely is in the terminal space, where airports and airlines are rethinking and implementing new measures to combat the spread of the pandemic. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the days of open airport interactions are set to be a thing of the past as Heathrow, JFK and Singapore Changi have begun to exclusively use online check-ins and contactless payments. Meanwhile, biometric scanning procedures are being trialled in Munich and Sydney to identify passengers and minimise the risk of human contact. In this sense, Covid-19 has merely accelerated change, rather than shaping it outright. As Harteveldt maintains, many airports have been evolving check-in kiosks towards using contactless interaction for years, with iris recognition and facial scanning introduced as “part of the natural progression of technology”.

Such measures will become a more familiar facet of airport design, as architects and planners seek to build pandemic-proof structures that incorporate screening technologies and social-distancing measures to detect and alleviate the spread of future viruses. Naturally, some airports are more advanced than others. Hong Kong International Airport, for example, is testing a full-body disinfectant device, which sanitises users within 40 seconds, killing bacteria and viruses on skin and clothing.

The effects of the pandemic are also likely to have a lasting impact on terminal design as architects seek to incorporate advanced screening technologies and social-distancing measures into their designs. Although the ACI and other organisations are working to develop a set of guidelines for screening, no comprehensive and unified approach has been agreed, with different countries embracing conflicting strategies.

“This virus is nobody’s fault. This isn’t the result of a dot-com bubble, or bad lending practices, or terrorism. It’s a health pandemic.”

The US, for example, is set to roll out temperature checks for all passengers attempting to board aircraft at major airports. The UK, meanwhile, has avoided thermal screening, with experts claiming the measures hold little clinical value and detect only a very small number of cases. They might have a point. Researchers at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control concluded that approximately 75% of passengers travelling with Covid-19 from Chinese cities would not be detected by thermal screening, predominantly because a significant number of those infected are asymptomatic. According to a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, between August 2014 and January 2016, not a single case of Ebola was detected among 300,000 passengers screened before boarding flights to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but four infected passengers were allowed through exit screening because they were yet to develop symptoms. Similarly, during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, Chinese and Japanese airports only captured tiny portions of those infected with the disease by thermal screening. Others slipped through the net.

Blood testing has not fared much better. Air Emirates made headlines in April for becoming the first airline to experiment with blood sampling, but they have since been deemed inaccurate – trials in Spain found that there was only a 30% accuracy rate in correctly identifying pathogens.

Moreover, with the quick turnaround times required for large influxes of passengers to pass through boarding quickly and efficiently, even if blood testing can accurately identify Covid-carriers, it would need to be carried out at a much faster rate. “I just don’t know if that’s a practical idea when you’ve got a hundred passengers trying to board in an A380 and it’s taking 15 minutes to get the results back,” Harteveldt says.

“In the past airports have done everything they can to make the cleaning as invisible as possible. What they need to do now is view the cleaning staff as soldiers working to save us.”

An invisible enemy

While most airport jobs are likely to be altered by the pandemic, perhaps none will be as revitalised as the role of airport cleaner. While in the past cleaning staff have been seen as a necessary but largely inconspicuous cog in the airport machine, strict hygiene standards and rigorous cleaning procedures will become a major selling point for passengers across the globe. “In the past, airports have done everything they could to make the cleaning as invisible as possible,” Harteveldt says. “What they need to do now is view the cleaning staff as soldiers working to save us. That means not only more frequent and thorough cleaning, but letting people know that is going on.”

While this might represent a well-deserved lift for these underappreciated staff members, there is no guarantee that all airport cleaners will be human. Hong Kong International Airport, for example, is using autonomous robots to kill pesky microbes with rays of ultraviolet light. For Harteveldt, far from being a ‘publicity stunt’, this emphasis on cleanliness – whether from human staff in PPE, or robotic equivalents – is going to become part of a long-term strategy used by the aviation industry to reassure passengers about airport safety. While post-9/11 the sector embraced tight security and background checks, now, he says, its weapons against the equally insidious prospect of a new pandemic are hand sanitising stations and a boundless enthusiasm for spotless surfaces.

“It’s about making sure that the public realises airports are taking this very seriously, and that this isn’t a temporary action and this isn’t a publicity stunt,” Harteveldt says. “This is a new way of doing business.” A system where passengers are required to have some form of medical identification on their person is also likely to come into force. While biometricsbased technologies can support health screening, [at airports] a ‘health passport’ can provide an easy way for border and customs officials to verify that an individual is fit to travel. In Chile, this is taking the form of release certificates with smartphone QR codes for citizens 14 days clear of Covid-19 symptoms. The UK, meanwhile, has been busily drafting plans for an immunity passport scheme, with digital identity technology company Onfido in talks to create a biometric-based identity document that verifies immunity levels. This move extends beyond national boundaries, with European tourism centres such as Sardinia and the Balearic Islands advocating an antibody-based passport scheme to enable safe entry for tourists.

All of these proposed measures entail some sacrifice of personal privacy on the part of individual passengers, insofar as they demand access to health records and other unique details. Harteveldt sees this as one of many necessary sacrifices people are going to have to make to travel and fight this deadly pandemic. After all, going to an airport means doing business on its operator’s terms. “That may mean submitting information to prove you are healthy enough to travel. You have every right to expect that your data will be kept safe, but some sharing is going to be necessary,” Harteveldt concludes. “If an airport is conducting screening, it has a responsibility to share that with the airline and vice-versa.”

Just as the industry did post-9/11, the aviation business is still reacting to the unique demands of the Covid-19 landscape, repurposing long-term business strategies and elements of terminal design to cope with the virus. While nobody can be fully certain what the future holds, airports and airlines have weathered many storms, not least the harrowing threat of globalised terrorism, and have responded by adapting their processes to become tougher, more robust institutions. A similarly dogged attitude is once again required to stop the spread of this invisible and infectious new enemy.


Forecasted decline in global airport revenues for 2020, with a loss of 4.6 billion passengers.
Airports Council International


Passengers travelling with Covid-19 from Chinese cities would not be detected by thermal screening.
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control