The year 2020 brought about some major changes in just about every industry, but those involved in airports and travel have undoubtedly been hit the hardest. Between health concerns and shelter at home policies, airports have seen a major decline in traffic and activity. Data from the TSA indicates that as of late December, the number of travelers are down 76% from the previous year.
Despite these changes, airports all around the world are forging on. Construction projects in many airports continue to move forward and some locations are even fast-tracking their initiatives and saving money in the process.
When things get better — which they will — the airports that found ways to adapt and made the most of 2020 will be in a great position to take their operations to new heights in 2021 and beyond.
This article will look into the effects of COVID-19 on airport construction, and how these locations can work through the crisis and come out stronger.
How Airports Have Been Hit Hard in the Past
It’s important to remember that airports have experienced downturns in the past. While the 2020 crisis is unique in many ways, the travel industry has been hit by a number of unexpected events, recessions, and health crises in previous years.
In 2001, the 9/11 attacks caused a 30% drop in U.S. travel demand, leading to reductions in capacity and the loss of over 62,000 airline jobs. Meanwhile, the SARS outbreak caused sharp decline in U.S. flight arrivals for several months.
And who could forget the Great Recession of 2008? The global financial crisis resulted in a 5.58% drop in airport efficiency between 2008 and 2009, leading to a loss of $5.5 billion worldwide. But despite economic turbulence, the airport and travel industries have bounced back. Airline passengers in the U.S. went from 704 million in 2009 to 763 million in 2014. The numbers kept climbing from there, and in 2019, passenger totals were up 4.1% from 2018.
All this to say that airports have experienced — and recovered from — downturns in the past, and they will do it again when the pandemic is over. How and when the recovery will happen may be unclear, but there are a number of silver linings and positive outcomes that are emerging from this crisis.
Let’s explore them below.
Working Through Crisis
The timing may not feel ideal, but a downturn could provide a period in which airports can finish a good amount of work and poise themselves for recovery.
For starters, certain airport projects may be too far along to postpone.
This is the case at Denver International Airport which continued its work to add 39 new gates. The project, which has been underway since 2018, saw significant progress in 2020. Even more impressive is that in addition to continuing existing work, the airport accelerated the refurbishment of its concourses and customized the new gates and the buildings of nearby offices for Southwest and United airlines.
According to The Denver Post, “That refurbishment work had been planned for several years out, but now DIA officials are considering putting those tasks on the same track as the new gates, which are pegged for completion by early 2022.”
It’s worth noting that airports never really close, so there’s always some work to be done. And while traffic to these locations have dropped significantly, airports can use this as an opportunity to fast track construction projects and lower costs.
At Salt Lake City International Airport, for example, the low foot traffic has paved the way for the early demolition of old terminals and concourses and allowed the airport to expand faster. Not only that, but the project will be up to $300 million cheaper.
It’s also been refreshing to see new airport installations and facilities being unveiled despite the current crisis. In November 2020, LaGuardia Airport added a 25-foot tall water tower showcasing various shapes and patterns. At around the same time, Dallas Fort Worth Airport opened a new Coca-Cola themed lounge for travelers to enjoy.
There are also airports that repurposed their space for non-travel events and activities. Places like Ontario International Airport in California, Lincoln Airport in Nebraska, and Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio set up movie screens and held drive-in movie nights at their locations.
These airports are showing us that opportunities can be found even in the most difficult times. There may be fewer planes in the sky, but there’s still plenty of work to be done on the ground.
Coming Out Stronger
It will take years for airports and the airline industry in general to fully recover from the 2020 crisis.
So, what can they do in the meantime? For starters, airports must work to create a positive traveller experience to regain foot traffic, and this entails proper upgrades and maintenance to their locations.
Even when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available and people feel more comfortable going out, airline travel will still look very different. For one, there needs to be more space between passengers. Facilities must also be refitted to accommodate enhanced safety measures such as sanitizing stations and health check areas.
We can already see these things in action. USA Today reports:
Airports throughout the country have sprouted hand-sanitizing stations, PPE vending machines and temperature-check programs. They have developed contactless systems for bag check, check-in, security screening and boarding as well as for food orders and delivery. And cleaning and sanitizing robots have joined the permanent staff at many airports.
Regardless of what happens or what needs to be accomplished in the future, maintaining a can-do mindset and staying resilient are critical. After all, you can’t come up with creative ideas from a place of hopelessness and fear.
The good news is that the industry has proven to be adept at handling downturns and bouncing back from unfortunate periods.
As Nick Careen, Senior Vice President of Airport Passenger Cargo and Security at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said at an industry event, while COVID-19 has “no parallel to draw upon in recent memory… the airline industry has illustrated time and time again that if there’s any industry in the world that knows how to deal with a crisis, it’s this one.”
The Airport Industry Won’t Stay Down for Long
Airports may be going through some tough times, but there are plenty of silver linings, particularly when it comes to construction. Lower foot traffic at airports are opening up opportunities to finish projects ahead of schedule and below budget. Meanwhile, the increased health concerns are prodding airports to come up with new ways to make travel safer and more convenient for passengers.
When all this is over, airports won’t just bounce back — they will come out of the crisis better and stronger than before.
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