The design and operation of airports must change if owners are to derive maximum value from their asset during and after COVID-19, a multi-national planning and design firm says.

Releasing its latest report, engineering firm Aurecon says airports worldwide have been impacted by COVID related travel restrictions.

In response, changes are needed in both the layout of airport spaces and in operating processes such as booking, checking in, screening and security.

Depending on airport specifics, change could be needed in between 70 to 100 areas on the passenger journey.

In its report, Aurecon said airport owners should consider four areas.

1) Capital assets and expenditure

First, capital assets and expenditure need to be considered as COVID provides an opportunity during the current quiet period for operators to consider which parts of their assets can be maintained, updated or brought online.

When doing this, focus should revolve around projects that deliver maximum value.

2) Digital transformation

Next, there is digital transformation.

Here, Aurecon describes opportunities in several areas.

One area is automation.

Robots which conduct cleaning, for example, are already used in airports such as Changi, Hong Kong and Pittsburgh.

Proximity sensors installed throughout airports and connected to the phone app of airlines could be used to board passengers whilst avoiding interactions with ground crew.

Working with governments and healthcare authorities, airlines and airports could examine the possibility of health passports for passengers to ensure that they are virus free before they travel. A passenger’s phone could hold pre-recorded health details that enable them to check-in and pass through border control e-gates without additional screening.

Further opportunities lie in contactless processing.

Some airports may consider an all-biometric check in system through which passengers use their face as identification and obtain a bag-tag.

Luggage could enter a ‘fogging tunnel’ to be disinfected prior to being loaded on the plane.

Touchless bathrooms may also be considered. Smartphone apps could be used to enable passengers to access public conveniences, visualise their wait time and enter a virtual queue – the app notifying the person and unlocking/opening doors when their turn has arrived. Simpler ‘touchless’ applications include automatic taps, soap dispensers and flushing.

To help with all this, digital modelling will be needed to simulate passenger flows and to predict the impact of peak hourly flows on processing facilities.

Toward this end, Aurecon recommends asset owners create a digital twin for their terminal buildings – a digital representation of their physical asset.

This enables scenario assessments to be undertaken in a manner which is dimensionally accurate but which is also devoid of risk.

This will help owners to better understand operational constraints, passenger movements and experiences as well as to extend the life of assets through predictive and preventative maintenance assessments.

3) Wayfinding, Communication and Layout

Next, wayfinding and communication will be critical.

Here, airports should consider not just alternative layouts but also how information will be communicated as travellers adjust to these.

Actions might include:

  • Social distancing voice messages and clear signage.
  • Reconfigured border control queues.
  • Floor stickers when queuing.
  • Social distancing signs displayed in car parks and outside the terminal building.
  • Signage with visual and/or audio reminders for social distancing in bathrooms.
  • Extra staff to inform passengers about social distancing.
  • Extra signage to instruct passengers on how to use automated facilities.

To facilitate passenger confidence, more information should be provided about airport cleaning regimes throughout concourses and lounges.

Confidence could be further aided through additions of visible elements such as hand sanitising stations and removal of others such as public drinking stations.

4) Passenger behaviour

Finally, airports should use this as an opportunity to improve customer experience.

When doing this, simple assumptions or guesses about passenger behaviour and their response to operational changes should be avoided.

Whilst detailed data analysis through surveys to derive insights into travel and movement preferences and behaviour is ideal, previously recorded passenger data may be used if time available to conduct a survey is insufficient.

Aurecon Aviation Industry Leader, Australia and New Zealand Brett Reiss said airports should prepare for an environment of more stringent health regulations.

“Currently airports have adopted similar guidelines to supermarkets and pharmacies with floor stickers to encourage social distancing and free hand sanitiser but more sophisticated reconfigurations will be required.,” he said.

“Additional regulations may be imposed on airports to conduct COVID-19 testing and screening. To prepare for this and to restore consumer confidence, airports need to start thinking now about the significant changes that will have to take place for airport entry, passenger flows, permanent floor markings, baggage processing, COVID-19 screening pathways, the use of touchless technology and the additional operational staff that may be required,” Mr Reiss said.

Summary of Areas Requiring Change

According to Aurecon, a summary of areas requiring change is as follows:


  • Modifications will be required to physical infrastructure and operating procedures, including the addition of testing stations, installation of routes to segregate passengers and more wayfinding signage in and outside terminal buildings
  • Airports will need a system for reigniting the commercial potential of terminals to benefit retail businesses and passengers
  • To handle increased health screening, airports are recommended to consider more automated check-in areas, installation of contactless procedures, spreading peak demand, increased queuing zones, increased numbers of processing desks, limiting terminal entry to travellers only

Contactless processing

  • COVID-19 has accelerated passenger expectations for contactless end-to-end traveller journeys, including check-in, bag drop, security, customs, bathroom facilities and boarding
  • Automating as many passenger processes as possible will be favoured by most airports

Human behaviour

  • Expected that health approvals will be necessary for passengers to obtain prior to travel, and possibly entrenched through bilateral health agreements between countries
  • Airports and airlines will have to collaborate to convince travellers the risk of infection on a flight is low thanks to improved cleaning efforts, sophisticated cabin ventilation systems and adequate screening before and after boarding