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Road to recovery


Joe Bates provides a snapshot of how the region’s airports have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and are planning for a brighter future.

The region’s airports have turned to technology and new processes and procedures to ensure that they are equipped, ready and able to handle passengers when government’s finally lift travel restrictions and commercial flights can effectively begin again.

Canberra (CBR), Doha (DOH), Dubai (DXB) and Hong Kong (HKG) have been among the most high profile in announcing their new measures, which have included everything from the introduction of touchless technology and quarantine rooms to robotic cleaners.

Canberra Airport in Australia, for example, was the first Australian gateway to install new temperature scanning equipment ahead of the return of passenger traffic.

The airport is currently handling around 90 domestic flights per week between Canberra and four destinations (Brisbane, Newcastle, Melbourne and Sydney), with Adelaide and a trans-Tasman service to Wellington in New Zealand set to join them in July.

According to head of aviation, Michael Thomson, temperature screening and other new COVID-19 precautions show that Canberra Airport is a safe and secure place for passengers.

“Passengers departing Canberra arrive at airport security as usual and as they pass through security a camera takes their image and records their temperature in real-time,” explains Thomson.

“If a passenger has a body temperature over 37.8ºF they will be attended by a registered nurse immediately. The nurse will provide a face mask, offer to take their temperature again, and ask the passenger to participate in a questionnaire.

“If a passenger continues to display signs of high temperature or fever, then the airline they intend to travel with will be informed. This way both the individual passenger and the airlines will be best informed to make sensible decisions about whether the passenger should be travelling at this time.

“This is one measure in a suite of measures we are employing through and beyond COVID-19 – including extra cleaning, hand-sanitiser being available for all, social distancing measures within the terminal and more.”

Pioneering Hong Kong

Hong Kong International Airport was one of the first major gateways in the world to apply the latest disinfection technologies, including disinfection channels, antimicrobial coating and autonomous cleaning robots to protect passengers and staff from COVID-19 infection.

The airport has effectively become the test bed for CLeanTech, a full-body disinfection channel facility, which is being trialled during live operations at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA).

According to Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK), passengers using the facility “will have a temperature check before entering an enclosed channel for the 40-second disinfection and sanitising procedures”.

It notes that the interior surface of the channel is equipped with antimicrobial coating which can remotely kill virus and bacteria on human bodies and clothing by using the technologies of photocatalyst and ‘nano needles’.

‘Sanitising spray’ is also applied for instant disinfection, says AAHK, adding that the channel is kept under negative pressure to prevent cross-contamination between the outside and inside environment.

AAHK is also conducting a pilot test of applying antimicrobial coating on all passenger facilities.

An invisible coating to destroy germs, bacteria and viruses is applied to high-touch surfaces in the terminal, including handles and seats of Automated People Movers and passenger buses, smart check-in kiosks and elevator buttons.

And that’s not all, as AAHK reveals that autonomous cleaning robots are also being deployed to ensure the thorough disinfection of public areas and passenger facilities.

Called Intelligent Sterilization Robots, each one is equipped with an ultra violet light steriliser and air steriliser, and deployed round-the-clock in public toilets and key operating areas in the terminal building.

According to AAHK, the robot can move around autonomously and sterilise up to 99.99% of bacteria in its vicinity, including both the air and object surfaces, in just 10 minutes.

AAHK’s deputy director for service delivery, Steven Yiu, said: “The safety and wellbeing of airport staff and passengers are always our first priority.”

Diligent Dubai

Another extremely proactive gateway in the battle against COVID-19 is Dubai International Airport (DXB), which has worked in tandem with home-carrier, Emirates, to ensure the maximum protection for passengers and staff against the killer disease.

Its efforts include social distancing, conducting thermal screening and COVID-19 testing in support of health authorities and undertaking robust deep-cleaning and sanitisation to help alleviate customer concerns about air travel now that scheduled services have started to resume.

While Emirates believes that it has set industry-leading safety standards for its passengers with the introduction of complimentary hygiene kits that include masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes and
hand sanitiser.

It states that the new hygiene kits, launched for the resumption of services to nine destinations from Dubai International Airport (DXB) in late May, show the care being taken at every step of the travel journey, “redefining safety and hygiene standards on board and on the ground”.

Onboard aircraft, all cabin crew will be fully kitted out in PPE; cabin service assistants (CSAs) will ensure toilets are cleaned  every 45 minute; comfort items such as mattresses, pillows, blankets, headphones and toys will be hygienically sealed; and magazines and print reading material will be banned to minimise the risk of cross infection.

Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, hopes that “the robust measures” in place at DXB will encourage passengers to slowly return to using the world’s busiest international airport, although he expects that it could be 18 months to two years before traffic figures return to anywhere near their pre-COVID-19 levels.

Until then, he noted that the airport operator is taking appropriate measures to control costs and optimise liquidity.

Qatar’s high-tech solutions

Not far away in Qatar, Doha’s Hamad International Airport has begun using robotics and advanced thermal screening helmets as part of the measures being introduced for the Post-COVID-19 era.

“The airport has adapted to the changes brought on by the spread of COVID-19 on the world, especially on the travel sector,” explains DOH’s chief operating officer, Badr Mohammed Al Meer.

“Recovery plans have been put in place with priority given to the safety and comfort of travellers and employees. These plans include the use of the latest advanced technology to achieve the highest safety standards for the future travel experience.”

The airport notes that its ‘smart screening helmet’ is a wearable intelligent helmet, which is portable, safe and effective, and enables contactless temperature measurement.

This helmet uses multiple advanced technologies such as infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and AR (augmented reality) display. It can also enable implementation of mobile deployment-based control scenarios.

Qatar’s gateway to the world has also invested in fully autonomous disinfectant robots, which emit a concentrated UV-C light that is proven to be effective in eliminating majority of infectious microorganisms.

The robots are being deployed in vulnerable high passenger flow areas to reduce the spread of pathogens. Furthermore, DOH has invested in ultraviolet disinfection tunnels that it uses to disinfect all checked-in passenger luggage (departing, arriving and transferring).

Planning for the future

Without doubt COVID-19 will force some airports to amend or put on hold infrastructure development plans until a time when traffic levels pick up and make investing in costly new facilities economically viable.

However, some airports have decided to announce new plans or push on with those already underway as they are confident that the current downturn in traffic will be only a temporary situation.

One of these is Sihanouk International Airport in Cambodia, which in early June unveiled an ambitious enhancement package to ensure that the country’s third busiest airport after Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is equipped to handle demand for the next 20 years.

Construction of a second passenger terminal between now and 2030, extending the airport’s runway by 800 metres to 3,300 metres, a new taxiway and additional aircraft stands are the key projects of Phase 1 of the new development plan.

Phase 2, up to the year 2040, will see the expansion of the terminal and the addition of a number of new ancillary and support facilities to the further the operational capabilities and performance of its airfield.

One Phase 1 project scheduled for completion in the second half of 2020 is the extension and renovation of the runway, which airport operator Cambodia Airports notes is in its “last stretch”.

When complete, they will be capable of handling widebody aircraft and long-haul flights for the first time.

Alain Brun, CEO of Cambodia Airports, said: “The masterplan for the international airport in Sihanoukville is testament to Cambodia Airports/VINCI Airports continued commitment in enhancing air connectivity and, therefore, in contributing to unlocking business and tourism opportunities for the benefit of the people of Cambodia.”

Global investor, VINCI Airports, has a controlling 70% stake in Cambodia Airports.

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