Designing a new airport terminal for a post-pandemic world - with Pittsburgh’s airport terminal modernisation still in the design phase it is taking an opportunity to take a fresh look at the plans

4 May, 2020

There remain so many questions over the recovery of travel; many focus around the airport experience which has been picked out as one of the biggest areas of concern. These have essentially been remodelled over the past couple of decades to meet more stringent security needs, meet changing traveller habits, embracing new technology, while, of course, maximising revenues for the airport operator.

The growth of LCC travel and the need for high utilisation had increasingly seen passengers packed into small areas in order to get aircraft back in the air as quickly as possible. This could quite often see tens of people squeezed into a stairwell to help airlines meet 30 minute turnarounds. That, for certain, will change, as well the security bottleneck and those luggage trays that are constantly recycled through the system.

Arriving at the airport less than a hour before departure will now likely be confined to history - some suggestions are that passengers will have to arrive four hours before departure to be processed through an airport system compliant with social distancing guidance - but, so much else remains uncertain. Some airports are already tentatively changing their layout, others ordering technology to reduce human interactions. They have shown they can do this previously and will move quickly to adapt to the 'new normal'.

For some the timing is allowing them to rethink their future plans. On example its Pittsburgh International Airport in the United States of America (USA) With its billion-dollar terminal modernisation programme still in the design phase, and with delays in the construction schedule, airport leaders are using the opportunity to take a fresh look at the plans.

Because of current industry conditions resulting from Covid-19, chief development officer Paul Hoback has asked the design team to consider how new health recommendations like social distancing, increased hand-washing and sanitising, and wearing masks in public might prompt future changes to airport facilities.

"With our design at 60% complete, we're in a good position to begin looking at the newest health standards and emerging trends to determine how we can be a leader in the post-pandemic world," he says. So, what does the future airport terminal look like and how do airports need to pivot their current thinking to place public health at top of mind? "These are not easy questions to answer," acknowledges the Pittsburgh International team.

IMAGE - Pittsburgh International Airport's terminal modernisation programme is looking to incorporate new health recommendations as design work continues

Source: Gensler + HDR in association with luis vidal + architects

Numerous reports into travel health and infectious disease transmission highlight that airports facilitate opportunities for disease transmission due to close human contact in queuing areas, sharing of restrooms, waiting areas and dining tables; and a high number of touched surfaces (e.g., kiosks, handrails, security bins). In addition, air travel highlights the interaction of large numbers of individuals from geographically diverse regions, with differing immunity and endemic diseases.

Keep it clean may be the simple solution, but it is not as simple as that. Pittsburgh International's terminal modernisation is all about right-sizing, operating more cost efficiently and improving the passenger experience. Now, well-being has taken centre stage. But, that is not just the well-being of the users, but the building itself.

There is an increasing belief that health and well-being must be integrated into a broader systems change approach in buildings and cities, alongside net zero carbon and energy efficiency targets, if we are to accelerate the transition to a healthy and sustainable future.

Speaking during a webinar on 'Designing for well-being', hosted this last week by the World Economic Forum, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) president Rachel Gutter noted the important role that buildings can play in the fight against viruses. "We believe that buildings and those that tend to them can be frontline caregivers in this recovery phase, being able to function in and of themselves as agents of public health," she said.

"The goal is to use the built environment and building systems to improve health of the occupants and capitalise on the increased savings and productivity generated through these improvements," explains Carolyn Sponza, senior associate at Gensler, one of the design firms working on the Pittsburgh International project.

CHART - Pittsburgh International Airport had seen strong passenger growth during the last years of the previous decadeSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and Pittsburgh International Airport reports

One of the primary tasks for the design team is to evaluate how new social distancing guidelines overlay on the current plans. "Many public areas in airports are planned on criteria that specify a certain number of square feet per person," Ms Sponza acknowledges. "These guidelines will probably be replaced by others that require more separation."

Public spaces will need to become resilient to respond to health issues, according to Ms Sponza. "For instance, every design team might include a public health consultant that can perform risk modelling. Or, a requirement that buildings need to include more natural ventilation," she says.

Changes in processing and daily airport operations also may be necessary, as the airport acknowledges in its Blue Sky News publication. "Will passengers need a health scan before they enter the building or exit a flight? If so, all of the processing points (such as ticket counters, security checkpoints and boarding areas) may need to flex to accommodate different numbers of people at different times. Additionally, more hands-free fixtures, improved ventilation systems, and digital queuing or robotic cleaning may be implemented," it says.

There may currently be lots of unknowns, but just like in Pittsburgh airports across the world are already planning for a future. The only problem is that we don't even know what it looks like right now.