Air travel looks different now, and not just because traffic has declined precipitously. Travelers at Pittsburgh International Airport, for instance, must wear face coverings and practice distancing, and staff have ramped up cleaning practices, all to combat spread of the coronavirus.
At the airport’s planned new $1.1 billion terminal and multimodal complex, things will look more different still. Although April’s scheduled groundbreaking was postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Allegheny County Airport Authority has continued the design process with a new focus on public health.
It’s a challenge for a facility that, in normal times, routinely hosts 15,000 or more passengers a day, not to mention hundreds of airport and airline employees. The airport has convened staff, members of its design team, public-health experts and more in a series of “post-pandemic design workshops.” Ideas will be incorporated into a design process that is still only 60 percent complete, says the authority’s chief development officer, Paul Hoback.
Some approaches seek to prevent crowds and long lines, like the kind often found at TSA checkpoints. Hoback said travelers in the new terminal might find themselves receiving the sort of digital notifications restaurant patrons get when their tables are ready.
“We can offer something like a digital queuing experience at our security checkpoint, so we don’t have hundreds of people in line that would have to socially distance and spread themselves way out,” he said.
Waiting areas at terminal gates, meanwhile, might have movable, wheeled seats, instead of fixed seating, to allow individuals or groups to distance themselves from other travelers, he said.
Other strategies will seek to make visiting the airport as “touchless” as possible.
“We’re thinking about how can we make that entire experience a touchless experience, by looking at things like a touchless check-in process, touchless bag check,” Hoback said. And when doors must have handles, those handles might be coated in an antimicrobial copper film, he said.
Distancing requirements might suggest that a newly constructed terminal would need to be much bigger. And indeed, Hoback said, a report commissioned by one U.S. airport found that an airport where distancing was in place with traditional traffic-flow patterns would have to be ten times larger than usual.
However, he said, “We do not believe that there’s going to be significant change in the space of our airport design." That's thanks to techniques like digital queuing, and designing security checkpoints as spaces that flex in response to the needs of the moment.
He also said the airport did not anticipate its post-pandemic design adaptations would add to the project’s $1.1 billion budget.
What is less certain is when construction might begin. The project was put on hold in late March, weeks after the pandemic shutdown began, and just weeks before site preparation was to begin.
The airline industry has since taken a beating, to put it mildly. At one point in April, air traffic in Pittsburgh, as around the nation, was down 95 percent. It’s since recovered a bit, but Hoback said passengers at the airport still number 4,000 or less per day – about 80 percent fewer than normal for this usually busy time of year.
A vaccine for COVID-19, of course, would help restore fliers’ confidence. But Hoback acknowledges that experts say it could be up to five years before ridership returns to pre-COVID-19 numbers.
Moreover, Pittsburgh International is one of a number of U.S. airports whose credit outlook was recently downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, from “stable” to “negative.” That could make it more expensive to borrow the funds needed for the new terminal.
But Hoback says the airport is optimistic that things could begin turning around in 2021. “We’re hoping for no more than a one-year delay in construction,” said Hoback.