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Building Types

Upgrading to first class: The future of airports

The future of aviation is an ongoing discussion, but there are immediate actions being taken to build confidence both onboard planes as well as in the airports improved security and best practices to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

By James Dietz September 3, 2020
Courtesy: Henderson Engineers/Gensler/Ryan Gobuty

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation has been one of the hardest-hit industries. With stay-at-home orders and travel limiting measures being implemented all over the world, air travel decreased dramatically over fears of contracting the infection in highly trafficked airports and confined spaces within an airplane.

The future of aviation is an ongoing discussion, but what is certain is that there will be changes, updates and solutions implemented to help lessen the risk of infection. There are immediate actions being taken to build confidence both onboard planes as well as in the airports. Currently, passengers and crews aboard aircraft are adapting to changes like increased stringent cleaning between every flight, fewer seats being sold to allow for social distancing, and requiring masks except when enjoying a refreshment.

Travelers are noticing just as many differences, if not more, on the ground as they are at 30,000 feet. Many of the common revenue drivers for airports including shops, restaurants, and bars are closed or only open in a limited fashion. The common crowding at gates is being replaced with staging passengers to limit close quarters when boarding; and facemasks are required when boarding and are strongly encouraged throughout terminals. But behind the scenes, airports are considering a variety of long-term infection control technologies and strategies that create the flexibility to respond to future crises.

As we’ve seen over the last few months, there are three transmission vectors for infections within buildings: airborne, surface, and droplet. Each requires a different approach to address. Below are the strategies and technologies our aviation partners are considering.

1. Airborne transmission

UVc lighting: Ultraviolet (UVc) lighting has been a popular technology and can be incorporated into air handlers and in the upper zones of the spaces. Upper air UVc can be a visible and straight-forward solution to implement. The visibility brings confidence to passengers.

HEPA filtration/bipolar ionization: Advanced filtration products such as HEPA filtration and bipolar ionization can be difference makers. Many airports already use these technologies for airplane exhaust fume control. It is important to research and confirm product claims. Reviewing how different technologies could get incorporated into facilities with a qualified engineer is a good place to start.

Maintain higher humidity levels: It is also recommended that buildings maintain higher humidity levels. As people exhale, the air particles include moisture that makes them heavy and fall within an approximate six-foot radius zone. This makes them easy to clean with surface cleaning procedures. Lower space humidity levels will dry out the air particles making them lighter and allowing them to become more aerosol. When the particles are aerosol, they hang in the air longer, are harder to capture and deactivate, and are subject to air drafts and pressure differences.

Facility managers can implement airflow strategies that assist in containing contaminants from the breathing zone. This can be achieved with fewer zones per air handler to prevent cross-contamination and allow more airflow pressure zones to create air barriers, controlling the movement of aerosolized particles. Expanding “occupied” operation to increase ventilation also yields positive results.

2. Surface contact transmission

Cleaning: Increasing surface cleaning is of the one of the priorities in minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Robots with UV lights mounted on them are available for sanitation. UVc lights in restrooms and hold rooms providing automated cleaning cycles can be effective solutions and limit maintenance labor, but this must be done when people are not present in the space so cleaning schedules will be necessary which include closing the areas to passengers and crew members. Using digital signage and occupancy control to ensure the space is empty are important. All areas that provide touchpoints for passengers must be routinely cleaned as that provides a surface for the virus to live on

TSA screening: TSA screening is a major point of discussion. Studies have shown that the security area – and particularly baggage bins used for screening individual items – has been a transmission point with the germs living on the containers and then being touched by travelers who follow by touching their faces. Replacing plastic bins with antimicrobial trays can be an effective way in reducing the risk of surface transmission at TSA checkpoints. UVc lighting has been discussed as a potential option to run over the bins to kill the bacteria before they are used again. UVc only kills what it touches in its line of sight.

Baggage claim: With the ability for the virus to live on surfaces, baggage runs the risk of being a transmission point. UVc lighting again is an option to run over the bags before they are loaded on and off airplanes. A UVc-equipped tunnel could be a viable solution. Technology exists for baggage to automatically run through UV lighting and likely will become more mainstream at airports in the months and years ahead, as some international countries have already implemented. Another solution that has emerged is eliminating the standard baggage claim areas and delivering luggage straight to bag drop-off locations, whether that be lodging, rental car areas, or to residences through transport services. McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas was one of the first to implement remote baggage drop-off and delivery at several hotels and convention centers.

Restrooms/food service areas: A simple solution to assist in passenger experience is adding digital displays and people counting at the entrance of restrooms and food service areas. Counting the number of people using an area and notifying potential occupants of the current capacity can allow passengers to make informed decisions, potentially using other restrooms and food courts. It could easily be provided in a phone app and used to monitor cleaning needs. Wait time monitoring displays can assist in preventing too many people within a restroom at a single time. All gender design with increased stalls and higher stall walls can also be a difference maker.

High-traffic areas such as restrooms and food service areas should implement as many touchless fixtures and non-contact processes as possible. This can include open doorways and touchless sinks and toilets in restrooms. In restaurants, bars, and other locations where food is served, implementing technology via apps to order and pick up pre-packaged food will likely become increasingly popular. Just Walk Out technology, as seen in typical retail and restaurant spaces, can make a huge difference for concession and retail. Understanding the infrastructure improvements will be critical to application for many of these technologies need more data capacity, cooling airflow, and space in plenums and ceilings. These locations can also benefit from UVc lighting to kill the virus. The system can be run periodically when areas are cleared of people to run the lighting for a limited amount of time.

3. Droplet transmission

Social distancing: With the large number of people passing through airports – especially as those numbers continue to rise – social distancing becomes vitally important. Travelers come from all over the world, so airports and planes pose an elevated risk for the spread COVID-19 and other diseases. Airports and airlines will need a plan on where to allow passengers to wait for their plane and maintain social distancing. This could create on opportunity for specialty spaces and exclusive lounges to give passengers spaces away from others. Call to gate and limited access make this feasible.

Ticketing: Expect airline apps for boarding passes to become the norm with printed boarding passes becoming a thing of the past and more difficult to get. Self-tagging baggage and multiple locations for baggage drop-off must be accounted for to limit crowd sizes in a particular area. These conveniences already exist for customers in some airports and are good for enhanced customer service. Indoor positioning indicators should be installed to help spread out individuals.

Security: Biometric access controls and lane speed monitoring can improve safety in security areas. Advanced scanners with more throughput and centralized review will also help limit large numbers of customers from being forced to gather in close proximity. Expansion of TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR Pass provides many advantages for social distancing purposes.

Hold rooms/boarding: Hold room separation can also limit the number of people gathered in a single area. This will require more seating locations in other areas within airport terminals.

As mentioned above, the call-to-gate/just-in-time boarding system is likely to become permanent. Not only does this shorten lines, it makes the boarding process more efficient.

Common use systems to use all gates and self-boarding gates will also lessen droplet transmission opportunities by creating flexibility in gate usage.

Air travel has been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we know that flying won’t become any less necessary as stay-at-home orders across the country and world continue to diminish. Building systems engineers are uniquely equipped to support this essential industry in providing solutions that will ease the fears of passengers. We take that responsibility and opportunity seriously to develop design strategies that will clear your facilities for takeoff.

This article originally appeared on Henderson Engineers’ websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner. 


James Dietz
Author Bio: With a passion for the user experience, James Dietz is the perfect individual to pilot our aviation practice. He believes that temperature, lighting, and acoustics play an important role in how much people enjoy a space, and it’s the design of those systems that makes the biggest difference, especially in the aviation market.