Gabriel Friedman | Publishing date:Jun 26, 2020
Nearly two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks transformed airports, leading to security barriers where none had existed before, the coronavirus pandemic is once again upending air travel.
This time around, the focus is on health measures, and the use of technology that in theory could make the experience “touchless” and more automated, but could also lead to higher ticket prices.
Air travel is about to go through its biggest transformation since 9/11 — and passengers will pay for it
“We need faster, cleaner, better ways to get through the airport,” Robyn McVicker, vice president of operations and maintenance at Vancouver Airport Authority told the Financial Post. “It’s something that we believe is the future.”
Already, Vancouver airport and others are doubling down on touchless technology that allows passengers to print a baggage ticket and drop their bags off at a self-serve kiosk that eliminates the need to touch or interact with anyone at the airport.
She said her team is already working on a project called “Phoenix” that reimagines “every single process in the airport” using technology, whether that means waiting in line, waiting at the gate and even the need for paper tickets. In the future, McVicker thinks airports will begin using biometric facial scans, so that passengers can glide through the airport in less time, with less waiting.
“The industry has never been more aligned on how do we make things better than it is today,” said McVicker.
There is much at stake in figuring out how to bring air travel back. Airports across the country are already facing sharp declines in revenue. Even with widespread layoffs, some airports are looking to raise money by increasing the fees that passengers pay, or borrowing, just to support the costs of their overhead.
Nathan Janzen, a senior economist with the Royal Bank of Canada, said that aspects of the economy “that require people to congregate” will be the slowest to recover.
But he said airports form a crucial backbone to the economy, allowing people to travel to a region, facilitating investment in businesses and allowing a freer flow of goods.
“Those are the kinds of things that can be a structural impediment to a longer term to medium term recovery, if you don’t figure out a way to make them work,” Janzen said.
The drop in air travel has been dramatic. One day in mid-June, about 5,000 people arrived or departed on a flight out of the Vancouver International Airport — about 97 per cent less than the 75,000 people that would normally service the airport.
Across the country, other airports, big and small, are experiencing similar situations. In Calgary, for example, about 1,000 passengers were travelling on a day when normally there would be 24,500 passengers.
Toronto’s Pearson Airport reported a 97 per cent drop in passenger traffic in April.
At Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport, around 350 people travelled through compared to nearly 13,000 on average at this time in prior years.
“But that’s really good news,” said Barry Rempel, president and chief executive of Winnipeg Airports Authority, “because we had days, for example, the 6th of May, we had fewer than a hundred people boarding.”
Rempel is hopeful that as federal and provincial authorities relax social distancing guidelines, air travel will slowly pick up again, but he knows that regional airports such as the one in Winnipeg will likely trail airports that have a more international flight list.
In any case, no one is under any illusion that air travel will snap back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.
In March, the country’s airlines gradually suspended most or in some cases all of their flights as federal and provincial health authorities issued new rules to contain the spread of COVID-19, in a move that corresponded with tens of thousands of layoffs.
Toronto-based Porter Airlines stopped flying altogether and still has no plans to resume flights until July 29 at the earliest.
Montreal-based Air Transat has said it plans to resume flying on July 23 after a four-month hiatus.
Calgary-based Westjet has said it is only flying five per cent of its schedule, and is not releasing a schedule beyond Aug. 5.
Montreal-based Air Canada has reduced its flight schedule by 85 to 90 per cent. A The company says it’s hopeful that it will see a recovery, which would mean that its flight schedule would only be reduced by 75 per cent.
All airlines have implemented temperature checks, health screening questions and enhanced cleaning. Seat distancing, or leaving the middle seat unoccupied on larger planes, and only booking every other seat on smaller planes, has also become de rigeur.
Transport Canada also requires all passengers at least two years old to bring their own face mask and wear it throughout the duration of the flight.
Despite these measures, people aren’t travelling.
“The airport’s not a comfortable place these days,” said Rempel. “It’s a welcoming building, but it’s empty.”
To coax people back into airports, he said staff are taking extra precautions — hand sanitizer stations have been added throughout the building and the staff to passenger ratio is high enough that every single screen can be immediately cleaned after it’s used.
They have even installed a new technology that cleans the escalator handrail on a constant basis.
“Think of it as a bath that the handrail goes through every time it makes a circuit,” said Rempel. “That’s the kind of thing we’re doing.”
Still, Rempel said his revenues are currently about three per cent of normal. While the Winnipeg Airport Authority slashed capital spending plans from $175 million to $7 million, Rempel has also applied to raise the airport‘improvement fee’ that every passenger pays as part of their ticket fare, from $25 to $38.
“If traffic comes back next year — it won’t, I believe — then we’ll be reducing that,” he said, adding that otherwise the increase should help sustain the airport through 2024 or 2025, by which time he expects air travel to resume to normal levels.
While the federal government has waived the lease payments that airports pay until December — which typically amount to between 11-12 per cent of total revenues, according to several airport executives interviewed for this article — Rempel said it will not be enough to save his airport.
Reid Fiest, a spokesman for Calgary Airports Authority, said his company is hoping the federal waiver is extended for four or five years so airports can manage their debt.
“We’re doing a lot to try and make people feel comfortable and that it’s safe to travel,” said Fiest, adding he expects it could take three to five years, “but there is still a lot of uncertainty.”
The simple reality is no one knows when air travel will return.
“It’s the billion-dollar question,” said McVicker. “The reality is forecasting is a voodoo science right now.”