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Can you pandemic-proof an airport?

Northern Ontario airport operators are facing empty facilities and huge financial challenges

The global pandemic has hit the aviation industry hard and until a vaccine is produced don't expect passenger traffic levels to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels any time soon.

As regional economies gradually begin to open up, what air travellers can expect are heightened levels of health screening at airports as the questions multiply of how to safely restart air travel.

Operators of small airports in Northern Ontario face a myriad of challenges as fewer flights have cut into revenue streams with likely longer-term financial pain coming in the form of new health regulations and protocols coming from the government designed to give travellers a more hygienic journey.

Sioux Lookout Airport manager Ben Hancharuk is wondering what the so-called return to normalcy will look like in reopening full domestic air travel and how his operation can stay on solid financial ground.

"The problem of COVID-19 is not going away," said Hancharuk. "Doesn't matter whether you're a big airport or small airport, everybody's dying."

Air traffic at the normally bustling northwestern Ontario airport is down 80 per cent by his estimation, many of those flights servicing remote First Nation communities, which have self-imposed travel bans.

Pre-COVID, Sioux Lookout would see 35 to 40 flights daily. Today, a busy day is eight landings.

Inside the new $15-million terminal, which handles more than 100,000 passengers annually, Hancharuk said they've posted awareness signage, floor markings, and removed banks of seats to remain the proper two-metre physical distancing, as prescribed by the local health unit.

Those protocols and measures are easy to maintain under restricted conditions.

"As people start to come back and travel and fill these hold rooms, what do you do?" Hancharuk said.

"I don't see any airport under normal conditions where you can maintain physical distancing (without adding square footage). It's impossible."

Small airport operators don't have the capacity or the physical space to keep travellers safely separated, and certainly no money for costly retrofits.

"There's no building big enough to keep everybody six feet apart," said Hancharuk.

For independent authorities or municipally run airports like Sioux Lookout, almost all their revenue for operations and capital infrastructure projects comes from three sources: landing and terminal fees charged to the airlines; non-aeronautical fees like parking, restaurants and shops; and airport improvement fees on airline tickets.

Hancharuk calls the precipitous decline in air traffic and revenue "staggering," forcing him to tap into airport reserve funds, and flipping what was once a $95,000 surplus into a $35,000 deficit, in order to maintain daily operations.

"We shut the economy down. We're bleeding red ink," he said.

In April, the City of North Bay floated $400,000 to Jack Garland Airport to keep that facility operating until the end of the year.

As a director with the Regional Community Airports of Canada (RCAC), Hancharuk said many of his counterparts are in the same predicament.

The solution by NavCanada – the not-for-profit private corporation that manages air traffic services – is to hike service charges by 29.5 per cent to boost cash flow.

That makes no sense to Hancharuk. Air carriers will simply pass those added costs onto the flying public.

"We can't recover on the backs of travellers. The airlines are starving. How do we recover together?"

He's backing an RCAC proposal for Ottawa to cover 75 per cent of the projected revenue loss of regional airports. They, in turn, will pass the savings onto the airlines.

The only real answer, he said, fingers crossed, is to get the economy moving.

"As far as the economy goes, we really can't wait any longer. I'm sorry, but we have to take the risk. If they open it today or three months from now, there's going to be a spike of cases regardless because we have so many people who are either carriers (of the virus) or are susceptible.

"We're going to have to pull the Band-Aid off and get rolling here pretty soon."

Trent Gervais, president-CEO of the Loomex Group, the managers of municipal airports in Dryden, Geraldton and Nakina, agrees the industry has to brace for an inevitable second wave of coronavirus.

There will be added costs for stepped-up cleaning and sanitation efforts, and providing airport staff with personal protective equipment but, further ahead, he sees major changes coming in how terminal buildings will be reconfigured to deal with future pandemics.

Airport design is predicated on handling large passenger volumes at peak times of the day, as evidenced in the side-by-side lounge seating.

"There's going to be a whole rethinking on the design around pedestrian flow," said Gervais.

"The whole aerospace industry is all geared toward getting as many people in and onto the plane as you can."

With many airports seeing a more than 90 per cent drop-off in sales and revenue, if government-mandated physical distancing becomes the new norm, Gervais said airport operators and municipalities will be hard-pressed to bear the costs of redesigning terminals.

He hopes these extra costs aren't downloaded upon airports and municipalities.

"This is an industry that's been decimated overnight," he said. "On top of trying to crawl out from that debt, they'll have to make changes on how they do business. It's going to cost a lot of money, so where's it coming from?"

The entire aviation industry will need an infusion of stimulus funding to institute these preventative measures. Gervais hopes Ottawa will throw airports a lifeline, not just bail out the big carriers.

"My biggest worry will be that the airports will be forgotten. And I'm not talking about the Pearsons of the world – they'll be fine. The Saults, the Thunder Bays, Sudburys and North Bays... it's going to be costly to make renovations to an older building."

But for small airports without scheduled air service, government funding sources are non-existent, said Gervais, who wants changes to the chronically underfunded Airports Capital Assistance Program to address the critical needs of these facilities.

The 9/11 highjackings prompted dramatic changes in terminal design, infrastructure, and security procedures to deal with the next wave of terrorist threats. But trying to contain the spread of a biomedical contagion inside a commercial aircraft cabin or a terminal building remains a learn-as-you go process.

Representatives from the Canadian Airports Council and InterVISTAS Consulting, providers of advice to clients like the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, declined interview requests, saying the situation is still too fluid to comment.

But airport terminal designer Cecilia Einarson and her colleagues at Stantec have written a series of web blogs to spur the conversation of how airports might function in a post-pandemic world.

"Never has a biosecurity threat like this come," said Einarson, a senior principal and airport sector leader with Stantec in Vancouver.

"It's like we've all been hit by a car and we're trying to stand up and see what's the next step."

Her design team is talking with clients and revisiting projects in re-evaluating all areas of a terminal building to determine where people congregate, queue up and to find solutions of how to reduce direct contact with people and surfaces, speed travellers through choke-points, and scatter them throughout the building prior to boarding flights.

Einarson is working with the Vancouver International Airport to examine what should be the capacity of a security hold room with social distancing measures put in place. If the seating is dramatically reduced, where in the building do you put the overflow?

There are simple fixes for lounge areas like installing flexible screens and seating to provide appropriate spacing and adding more hand-washing stations.

How safe and efficient the travel process will be will depend on how fast airports, health authorities, and government jointly adopt a common protocol for health screening.

Einarson poses the question if there are ways to integregate health and security screening into one process?

Security agents at checkpoints are often required to search carry-on luggage and perform pat-downs. The wider adoption of touchless technologies might reduce physical contact.

There are digital solutions available, such as online check-ins through a phone app, self-serve baggage drop-offs, microchip tracking baggage tags, and biometric face recognition technology to verify passenger identity.

These technologies would reduce the number of check-in counters and help process passengers faster, allowing them to shop or eat in other areas of the terminal prior to boarding flights.

"It requires a lot of funding from airports, which is currently a big issue," Einarson said.

Stantec is also looking into how to reopen airport retail establishments, huge revenue generators for big airports, but again that means managing groups of shoppers, and taking special precautions in handling and packaging food items.

International air carriers are now responsible for taking passenger temperature checks at the point of departure for flights bound for Canada. Within Canada, checks will be done by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority at Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver by the end of July, with temperature screening stations setting up at the next 11 busiest airports by September.

Einarson said there are discussions about "immunity passports" and suggestions that travellers might have to prove they're healthy prior to boarding an airport by getting a doctor's note 24 hours prior to departure.

That might be infringing upon privacy laws, she said, but people might have to waive those rights as a condition to travel.

The challenge for airport designers is how to keep the aesthetics of the terminal building and maintain the revenue-generating services without making these places look sterile amid these disease prevention upgrades.

"Before all this happened the focus was the passenger experience, putting art in airports and going to a higher level of customer service. Everybody was focused on making an identity for their location and making it pleasant to travel through that airport," Einarson said.

"A return to travel is going to take people building their confidence back and that's going to be the issue."