The industry may be taking small steps forward post-COVID-19, but the airport landscape looks very different than it did six months ago. Carroll McCormick sees how two North American airports are keeping staff and passengers safe
Ensuring the health and safety of airport staff and passengers, and making people feel confident enough to come to airports, are critical tasks in the strange new world emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. San Antonio International Airport (SAT) in the United States and Montreal Trudeau International Airport (YUL) in Canada, for example, have adopted a range of procedures intended to do just this.
While there is not a co-ordinated national programme for ensuring consistent procedures across Canadian airports, according to Aéroports de Montréal, which runs the Trudeau and Mirabel airports, Transport Canada has been issuing guidelines and quite specific requirements that they must follow. These include temperature screening and the mandatory use of non-medical masks or face coverings over the mouth and nose while travelling.
On April 17, Transport Canada announced that all passengers would have to cover their mouths and noses “at Canadian airport screening checkpoints, where the screeners cannot always keep two metres of separation between themselves and the traveller, when they cannot physically distance from others or as directed by the airline employees, and when directed to do so by a public health order or public health official.” Face masks also became mandatory on all flights.
“Aéroports de Montréal has been working closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Direction de la santé publique du Québec [Quebec Public Health Department] to make sure that the measures implemented were complying with both the federal and provincial recommendations,” said Anne-Sophie Hamel-Longtin, director of Corporate Affairs and Media Relations.
She added: “All Canadian airports have been in close contact through various forums to make sure that programmes were consistent. At YUL, we also closely monitored what was being implemented in airports around the world, looking at best practices in the industry and recommendations from various groups, such as the guidelines from International Civil Aviation Organization and Airports Council International.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the national requirements for airports to comply with procedures known to reduce the spread of SARS CoV-2, which is the virus responsible for COVID-19, could best be characterised as being softer than those implemented in Canada.
For example, Runway To Recovery: The United States Framework for Airlines and Airports to Mitigate the Public Health Risks of Coronavirus, July 2020, issued by the US Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, while full of useful guidance, uses language such as: “Discourage symptomatic or ill passengers... from coming to the airport.”
However, airports and agencies can choose to impose firmer requirements. This May 7, the Transportation Security Administration imposed unambiguous rules, including saying that “its employees must wear facial protection while at screening checkpoints.”
Staff at SAT have been wearing face masks since April, according to Jesus Saenz, director of Airports, SAT: “There has been a lot of self-compliance by staff and passengers. We have been encouraging everyone to wear masks all the way back to April. We also started making our own masks in April.”
Furthermore, Mr Saenz said: “On July 2, our governor issued a mandate to wear masks in all public facilities.” The airport is a member of a city initiative called ‘Greater. SAfer. Together.’, in which business owners pledge to implement the use of face coverings, practise social distancing, conduct temperature checks, provide hand sanitisers and encourage contactless payment when possible. “We are fortunate that all the stakeholders have joined this programme,” Mr Saenz noted. “Specific efforts [in the airport include] six-foot social distancing, floor decals, [stressing] the importance of hand washing and installing over 230 hand sanitisers.”
This includes hand sanitisers for staff and agents who handle documents: “To ensure that if you have to handle documents there is a hand sanitiser readily available so you can clean your hands immediately after.”
We are partnering with each of our stakeholders to be sure we are sending the right message
Jesus Saenz d irector, SAT
Until June, San Antonio had a Stay Home, Work Safe Order that strongly advised citizens to stay at home as much as possible and, when out, to wear face coverings, practise social distancing and follow other guidance for slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“[It] encouraged people who didn’t feel well to stay home,” Mr Saenz said. “We have worked with community leaders – for example, the Health Department. We participate in American Association of Airport Executives calls. We are partnering with each of our stakeholders to be sure we are sending the right message, to gain consumer confidence. It is extremely important that we build confidence, reduce passenger anxiety and ensure their safety, so that they will feel comfortable coming back.”
Both Montreal Trudeau and San Antonio have implemented a slew of health and safety procedures from parking garage to gate. Trudeau has 11 doors on the departures level and nine on the arrivals level, but only two on the departures level and one on the arrivals level are currently being used. At each of these doors, the airport has set up health checkpoints, where passengers must wash their hands, answer questions to determine if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and wear a face mask.
Staff are checking passengers’ temperatures, too. A reading of 38ºC or more is too high, according to the Transport Canada recommendation.
“If a passenger has a fever upon their arrival at the terminal, our employees at the health checkpoints will contact their air carrier. The decision of letting a passenger board an aircraft is taken by the airline, not the airport. If the airline decides not to let the passenger take their flight, they will make arrangements with them,” said Ms Hamel-Longtin.
Furthermore, only staff and passengers – with exceptions for people accompanying minors or anyone providing special assistance – are allowed in the terminal.
San Antonio has not locked any of its doors, nor set up health checkpoints. “As passengers arrive, they are afforded the opportunity to ingress the terminals at various points to allow social distancing,” Mr Saenz noted. “Passengers are allowed in as long as they are wearing masks. We are not screening any of the passengers at this time, but we are encouraging those who feel unwell to contact their airline. We have employee screening at other checkpoints.” The airport also has a guaranteed short-and long-term parking programme, at which “Touchless entry – the use of credit cards to open the gates – had been implemented prior to the [pandemic].[So] only you handle your credit card.”
Before leaving for the Trudeau airport, passengers can book parking spaces and even reserve passage through the security checkpoints. “When they do so, they are given a specific time to go through a dedicated checkpoint corridor, thus avoiding lines,” said Ms Hamel-Longtin.
Both YUL and SAT have self-check-in kiosks, and the latter has installed additional common-use versions. Both airports also have baggage self-tagging and bag drop programmes.
The decision to let a passenger board an aircraft is taken by the airline, not the airport
Anne-Sophie Hamel-Longtin Montreal Trudeau Intnl
San Antonio has also been working to reduce contact at the security checkpoints. In a pilot programme in early July, for example, the airport installed three new CT machines at security checkpoints that perform 3D, 360º view-checking of carryon bags. “We are moving toward not having to take electronic equipment from bags to reduce the number of touches you have,” Mr Saenz said.
Toronto Pearson airport does not currently allow cash to be used at any of its concessions, but it is still acceptable at San Antonio, although signage encourages cashless contact.
Other health and safety measures at YUL include automated vending machines installed at each health checkpoint, where passengers and employees can buy disposable face masks for CA$2, along with regular disinfecting of baggage carts, cleaning and disinfecting public areas ten times a day where passengers are travelling, and reduced seating at concessions to ensure social distancing.
At SAT, Mr Saenz said: “Our volunteer ambassadors have masks that they distribute. We are a mask-friendly and a mask-wearing and welcoming environment. We [also] moved around concession seating and removed a lot of seating in baggage claims.”
The airport has affixed nearly 800 decals on gate area seats that read ‘Stay Safe Leave Space’ to encourage social distancing. Mr Saenz noted: “There are floor decals placed strategically around the complex. There are decals in some of the boarding areas, too.
“To encourage social distancing, decals have been placed around baggage claim devices, TSA queuing and the Federal Inspection Services Facility for international arriving passengers.”
The airport is communicating these measures to passengers in several ways. “We have a number of overhead announcements... [as well as] signs over baggage claim areas reminding passengers of social distancing. We are using existing flight information display systems and incorporating messaging. We translate all of our signage into both English and Spanish,” Mr Saenz said.
From our standpoint it is about really digging deeply to find patience, kindness and consideration
Jesus Sa enz director, SAT
At Montreal, Ms Hamel-Longtin detailed: “ADM makes sure to promote the mandatory 14-day isolation rule to its passengers through poster campaigns and messaging on its public announcement system at the arrivals area of the terminal. Enhanced screening measures at airports include stronger and more visible messages [and] health screening questions at kiosks.” And, like SAT and other airports, YUL has detailed COVID-19 information on its website splash page.
Procedures and health checks have also been put in place to offer advice and guidlines to arriving passengers. Ms Hamel-Longtin explained: “All arriving international passengers at YUL are subject to screening measures by a border officer and, if need be, will be directed to a quarantine officer for additional health screening... Roving Canada Border Services Agency officers [are also] screening arriving passengers and passengers in the customs hall to ensure public health messages are delivered and reinforced.”
Montreal says it sees collaboration as key to making its health and safety measures a success: “We have worked closely with airlines and government agencies at all steps of our process. We have weekly airport operation committee meetings, and we share the information with all airport partners. We have designed signage and make sure it [is] used in all terminal areas.”
Mr Saenz concluded: “When we launched our COVID-19 task force [and] started this initiative, we had this effort to make sure everyone was on the same page. We created this task force [so that] everyone has responsibility for this experience, and I think that is what is making the difference right now. You need information in real time and to be consistent. Four months in and we are still dealing with this difficult pandemic. From our standpoint it is [about] really digging deeply to find patience, kindness and consideration, dealing with everyone so they have information.”