It’s been more than a year since many business travelers have passed through an airport, and enough has changed to surprise even the most experienced business traveler.
“Before Covid, as a business traveler, they knew what to expect and they were confident they can make it through [the airport] in a certain amount of time,” said PPD global travel associate Jennifer Steinke. “I don’t think that experience is the same anymore.”
As borders open, air travel demand is accelerating. More than 2 million people streamed through U.S. airport security checkpoints on June 11, the first time that daily benchmark was reached since early March 2020, according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. “The airport is not dead anymore,” Steinke said. “They are packed.”
“If you are coming back for the first time now, I think many are going to be shocked. It’s going to look like summer 2019,” said Jeff Livney, chief experience officer of Servy, a technology provider for airport restaurants and concessionaires.
At some airports, travelers will find themselves spending more time in passenger processing. The average time spent to get to on a flight has increased substantially, especially for international travel, according to the International Air Travel Association. Time spent at the airport on the passenger journey, which includes check-in, security, border control, customs and baggage claim, has increased from 90 minutes on average pre-Covid to as much as three hours during park times, according to a study IATA released in May. Most of that increase in time was due to lengthier check-in and border control processes, according to IATA.
International entry requirements, including providing proof of negative Covid-19 tests, are a key driver of inbound travel delays. On a trip to Japan, a group of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. travelers had to spend six hours to clear customs once they arrived in Tokyo, said Takeda global head of travel, meetings and events Michelle De Costa Her travelers had to use a variety of apps and provide paperwork documenting their PCR tests.
“For international travel, it’s really a hands-on event because even if you are able to get there, there are different apps you are required to download, and going through customs is a longer experience,” De Costa said. “If you don’t have Global Entry or [you’re not] a premium passenger you really, in the major airports, need to give yourself a lot of time to clear security. “
To speed up passenger processing, some airlines have introduced a self-testing option for travelers to lower the time they spent on the journey. On June 24, Delta, for example, introduced at-home Covid-19 testing for international travelers through its website.
Additionally, airport screening staff remain well below pre-crisis levels, especially in the United States. In June, the acting head of the TSA issued a memo warning of shortages at 131 of the U.S.’s largest airports, according to The Washington Post.
The New Airport Experience
Once past screening, travelers will return to a cleaner airport. “In terms of cleanliness, I don’t think we’ve ever had a time where the airports, the lounges and everything is really clean,” said De Costa. “It’s as clean as it can possibly be and safe for everyone.” Masks remain federally mandated at U.S. airports.
“There’s been a lot of elements added to terminal passenger’s journey,” said Stewart Steeves,
CEO of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, manager and developer of LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B. “Everything from several hundred hand sanitizers and hand wipe sanitizers throughout the facility to glass guard to every gate counter, customer service counter, TSA inspection booth. Enhancing cleaning of the facility, enhanced airflow. Everything people expect as a result of the pandemic has been added.”
Beyond cleanliness, the passenger experience across the journey will vary. “As you move through the airport, you won’t necessarily have the most consistent experience,” said Steinke. Airport stakeholders—including screening authorities, vendors, lounge operators, terminal operators and concessionaires—are providing different levels of service.
Some airlines are reopening lounges. United, for example, has been reopening its airport hub lounges in monthly phases and hopes to have all domestic lounges open by the end of the year, according to United managing director of lounges and premium services Alexander Dorow. Social distancing measures remain and occupancy levels still are restricted, he said.
Lounge food and beverage services, often grab-and-go when lounges first reopened, have advanced. “More food and beverages are open, and the experience is by far better as they have become more comfortable opening up,” Steinke said. De Costa noted the variety of available food options is limited compared with before the pandemic, and warm food is less available.
“You are going to still see some of the prepackaged items we’ve had before but you are going to have a more robust offering than what was previously available,” said Dorow. He said United is following the guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Restaurants and concessionaires are relying on more self-service technologies due to the ongoing labor shortage and longer lines caused by increased demand. ” Where you can utilize less staff is by having the guest order themselves if you’re that constrained. We’ve seen that as a big push, which is sort of forced adoption,” said Livney.
In some cases, travelers will arrive or depart from newly renovated terminals providing touchless experiences. La Guardia’s Terminal B, for example, continued its renovation through the pandemic. “Somebody can travel through the whole airport experience, through check-in to purchasing food and beverages, without touching anything, and that includes using the bathrooms,” Steeves said of Terminal B’s new airport experience. Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh are two other airports where major expansion and innovation plans continued through the pandemic.
To keep basic operations running, other airports, however, have had to cancel or suspend their construction projects, due to massive revenue losses during the pandemic. Raleigh-Durham International Airport, for example, deferred $96 million in construction projects.
Business Travelers Must Plan Ahead
To persevere through potential friction-heavy experiences, business travelers need to plan ahead. “The most important element is for travelers to plan and prepare their travel, as travel still remains somewhat complex,” said Airports Council International VP of safety and operations Thomas Romig. He recommended business travelers scan airport webpages, which often include expected wait time and health protocols, to understand what to expect as they prepare for their trips.
Airlines may alert travelers to remind them to check what they need to do when they arrive at their destination. “Some airlines are really proactively letting people know, ‘Hey, there might be some Covid-related restrictions or things you have to do at the destination you’re going to,’ ” Steinke said.
Some corporates provide airport preparation advice as part of their return to travel initiatives. “We’re doing a return to travel webcast with the details you need,” said De Costa. “We are telling people to have a refillable water bottle with you, healthy snacks, things that sustain you should the journey take longer than you expect.”
Travel managers could get some help from evolving technologies like Lumo, which predicts TSA wait times at major airports—giving travelers foresight as they plan their journeys—but not all programs will be able to make that technology investment. Plus, advance information doesn’t actually change the situation on the ground.
To reduce wait times, business travelers also could use fast-track services. “The things like TSA PreCheck, Clear and lounge access are more important than ever,” Steinke said. “If you don’t have that as a business traveler, then you are stuck in [long lines].”
Is This Sustainable?
As vaccinations spread and optimism increases that the pandemic is on the wane, how long Covid-related safety measures and protocols will remain in place for now is an open question, at airports and elsewhere.
“I wonder how long [the protocols] are sustainable,” said Steinke. “It would seem like it was easier for them to implement the protocols because there wasn’t a lot of people.”
Some measures like social distancing are already being less followed and/or enforced, according to De Costa and Steinke. “I think the social distancing is beginning to taper off, ” said De Costa.
What could follow is a greater divergence in the passenger experience between individual airports due to tight budget constraints. Passenger traffic and revenue is not expected to fully return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, according to Airports Council International North America. Airports in the region are estimated to lose at least $40 billion through March 2022.
Stakeholders of smaller airports might hold off service improvements in the near future due to the financial situation. On June 22, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it will provide $8 billion in economic relief to domestic airports. The funding will help airports keep staff and reimburse operational expense, debt service payments, costs related to Covid-19 protocol implementation and rent relief to retail and concession vendors. Raleigh-Durham, Seattle-Tacoma International and Portland International are airports approved to receive funding.
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