By Gavin Gibbon
Analysts warn smaller airports simply won't be able to afford to make necessary changes, while costs could be passed on to passengers
The future of the aviation industry is up in the air – figuratively speaking, of course, as carriers remain grounded in anticipation of a return to the skies for scheduled passenger flights in the coming weeks.
While all the talk has been centred upon the future of airlines - the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cut airlines’ passenger revenue by more than half, or roughly $314 billion, this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – industry analysts have expressed concerns over the ability of airports to adapt to a post-lockdown world.
Social distancing, disinfecting, sanitisation, self-service Duty Free counters, automated check-in procedures, biometrics, hand-wash dispensers, face masks, robots…
It’s true to say, a trip through the airport will be a whole lot different from the last time you packed a suitcase to travel.
Saj Ahmad, chief analyst, Strategic Aero Research, told Arabian Business, the cost of implementing new health and safety measures may be too much for some airports and could be reflected in the price of tickets going forward.
He said: “It is nothing short of a mammoth task and ultimately, someone somewhere is going to have to foot the bill. That will be spread to airlines who in turn will pass it on to suppliers as well as passengers.”
He added: “Bigger airports with more throughput and traffic will be able to cope better than smaller, regional or city airports. Could this mean only the fittest survive and connectivity suffers? Almost certainly. And will every airport be able to afford these changes? Will they too need bailing out like airlines? Very probably.”
Covid-19 had a noticeable impact on passenger traffic at the world’s leading international airport during the first quarter of the year as DXB recorded a total of 17.8 million customers, a year-on-year contraction of 19.8 percent due to dampened demand and reduced flight numbers caused by the suspension of services by regulatory authorities in the UAE and elsewhere.
In a bid to restore customer confidence in travel, Dubai Airports has implemented a range of measures including social distancing and conducting thermal screening and Covid-19 testing, among others.
The airport operator has also carried out stringent deep-cleaning and thorough sanitisation over the past three months.
John Grant, senior analyst with OAG, agreed that not all airports can afford to implement such measures and called for a level of realism in any future plans.
He told Arabian Business: “If airports, regardless of size and scale, have to comply to a common set of standards, then smaller airports may not be able to make such investments.”
Emirates president Sir Tim Clark has already said that social distancing on aeroplanes would not make economic or environmental sense.
While anyone who has stood in a queue for check-in, security, immigration or boarding will certainly have room to wonder how such measures can ever be implemented effectively within airports.
Heathrow Airport’s boss, John Holland-Kaye, has previously said keeping the required two metres gap at all times will be “physically impossible” at large airports. A less palatable alternative for Holland-Kaye and his peers, though, is that governments cap the number of departing flights to prevent crowding.
One thing for certain is that it will take time – there will be no last minute dash through the concourse to catch a flight.
Etihad Airways last week warned passengers to arrive four hours ahead of their departure time, and aviation expert John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, believed this could have a knock-on effect, in terms of scheduling.
He told Arabian Business: “The challenge until or unless a vaccine is found will be to handle recovering volumes of traffic at sufficient speed to avoid limitations to airport capacity and hence impacting flight punctuality and indeed the number of flights.”
Ahmad, however, suggested the gradual return to the skies may play in airports’ favour as they adjust to the “new normal”.
“While the entire industry is still in freefall, passenger numbers now are manageable and so the inconvenience of added checks and delays are perhaps somewhat palatable. Going forward, as air travel rises, so too will the pressure on airports to limit contact,” he said.
Post Covid-19 will also, undoubtedly, impact such creature comforts as spas and lounges, while first and business class passengers may be seated last in future.
Chris Bryant, Bloomberg Opinion columnist, said: “Years of airline cost cuts and rigorous counterterrorism checks have made flying a frustrating experience for passengers. Even those fortunate enough to turn left when boarding often complain about the indignities and delays of modern airports. Hygiene measures, health checks and social distancing will only make the experience feel more dispiriting, whether you’re in economy or business.”
Extra time in the airport should, effectively, be good news for duty free establishments and F&B outlets, whose revenues have been utterly decimated over the last three months since passenger fleets were grounded.
Dubai Duty Free (DDF) has introduced concierge service to assist customers with their purchases and minimise physical contact. DDF partially reopened its retail area in Concourse B – west at Dubai International Airport (DXB) on June 7.
Under this new initiative, the customer can order products from the concierge counter, the goods will then be picked by the duty-free staff and delivered to the customer for payment.
They have also re-introduced the ‘click and collect’ service, allowing customers to order online 48 hours before travelling, with the goods available for pick up on departure.
At the start of the year, DDF announced record annual sales of $2.029 billion for 2019, eclipsing last year’s high of $2.105bn.
Despite the recent innovations, Grant believed DDF and other duty free operations will be hit by the new health and safety measures. “There will be potential losses in revenue from duty free sales and concessionaires, as a result of increased space requirements,” he said.
Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dubai Airports and Emirates were trialling plans to replace traditional passport and paper travel documents with biometrics and face recognition, according to reports, increasing the ease and speed with which passengers can move quickly from check-in to their aircraft seat.
The system, known as ‘One ID’ had already been tested on flights between London and Dubai and further trials were due to be held on flights between Dubai and Australia later this year, according to media reports.
That, and other technologies will be at the forefront of future airport travel.
“We were heading that way from a cost efficiency perspective anyway; this will just accelerate that,” said Grant.
Accelerate is possibly the wrong choice of words when describing airports of the future.