In 2018 and 2019, airports across the country and the globe were fast-tracking major upgrades to their terminals to increase capacity and satisfy the growing number of passengers, marking an aviation development and construction boom not seen in nearly 30 years. Fast forward to 2020, and the impact of Covid-19 on air traffic and the dramatic overnight decline in passengers has forced the deferral or outright cancellation of many of these scheduled construction programs.

While this could be seen as a negative result of the pandemic, the current climate offers project owners and stakeholders the opportunity to revisit and revamp their aviation capital programs in a way that benefits all involved parties while improving the airport experience to meet new needs and standards.

Back in April, domestic passengers were barely 4 percent of the same-day numbers in 2019, and, today, that has picked up to approximately 30 percent of what it was one year ago. While domestic travel has picked up and the U.S. air travel industry is starting to see some relief, international travel has been hit the hardest and is bouncing back at a slower pace. International passengers totaled less than 3 percent of their same-day numbers in April, although that number has improved to 10 percent today.

While the lack of a quick and immediate recovery has made it nearly impossible for the originally scheduled airport expansion projects around the world to kick off, the international aviation industry is using this time to proactively plan its route to come back stronger and safer than ever for eager travelers and employees. There is still a lot of uncertainty over when U.S. airport traffic will completely recover, but most forecasters are currently predicting a two- to three-year lag in growth.

This extended recovery time is allowing project decision-makers to push beyond typical renovation and upgrade work, such as improvements to air quality and passenger circulation, and really dive into what airports of the future should look like and what changes can be made now to provide a safer and more efficient travel experience. It is also providing an opportunity to potentially engage in larger-scale construction projects, which can inconvenience operations, at a time with less traffic and therefore less impact on travelers.

In what has been a welcome surprise to many, the TSA has been using this time to completely reevaluate the security process, potentially resulting in changes that would make the current experience unrecognizable. The main goal for TSA security checkpoints is to make them as integrated and frictionless as possible by reducing physical contact and providing a less stressful screening process. This revised approach means the deployment of new state-of-the-art computed tomography scanners that utilize 3D baggage imagery, thus allowing passengers to leave laptops and other electronic devices in their carry-on bags. The TSA is also looking at introducing self-service checkpoints.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is currently hosting a pilot program for these self-standing security consoles, which utilize touchless face recognition technology to replace face-to-face interactions with TSA agents. The new automated technology initiative automatically authenticates a traveler’s ID, matches the live photo with the image on their ID, and confirms their flight information in near real-time.

Taking health safety one step further, the TSA also debuted antimicrobial bins at security checkpoints across 30 major 30 U.S. airports earlier this summer, while airport leadership has been applying antimicrobial coatings on high-touch surfaces throughout their airports, such as faucets, handles and seating, to protect both staff and travelers.

“As we saw post-9/11 and are once again experiencing due to COVID-19, changes to safety-related protocols will have a tremendous impact on how our industry designs and builds airports in the future,” said Gavin Middleton, chief operating officer of project management firm Lehrer Cumming, which is leading many of the revamped construction plans at nearby airports. “Not only do functioning terminals need to be flexible enough to adapt to the unexpected, but aviation industry designers, construction teams, terminal operators, airlines, and government agencies must collaborate now to chart a course for planning, designing and building the airport of the future in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment.”

Leaders in the aviation design and construction community are also exploring new gate designs that could allow self-boarding. Potential solutions include automated smart gates, which would provide a faster and more efficient boarding process while minimizing contact with boarding agents.

“The challenge of predicting future needs and building airports accordingly is something that will continue to require planning, foresight and creativity by those of us in this industry,” adds James Sumwalt, Senior Vice President with Lehrer Cumming.

During all of this uncertainty, one thing is for sure: Those involved in the aviation construction and design industries are not sitting back and waiting for things to return to normal. The travel experience will be forever changed, and passengers will benefit the most from this revitalization.