Airports expecting crowding problem even with travel demand still low

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It seems ironic, at best, and oxymoronic, at worst.

The demand for air travel is still quite low in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, down about 86% to 89% compared to the same time period last year.

So why are airports preparing for the challenges of overcrowding at their respective facilities?

Welcome to social distancing.

Right now it might not be an issue, but as the flying public slowly returns to the air, it will become a case of too many people and not enough space. Where once officials were fine with packing in customers like sardines — ticket counters, security checkpoints, seating at the gate — social distancing and the lack of useable space will certainly make things difficult.

“If we can’t make a safe, healthy and comfortable passenger experience coming out of this, we are going to end up with a protracted downturn,” Chris Oswald, senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the trade group Airports Council International-North America, told Travel Weekly.

Oswald said airports are “very concerned” about the difficulties that await when they must balance social distancing with traffic.

And what’s the old saying? Numbers don’t lie? Well, airports already have the math to prove it.

Travel Weekly wrote that Copenhagen Optimization, a provider of technological solutions for airports, estimates that in pre-pandemic times, people normally stood 1 1/2 feet apart in security lines and 3 feet apart in check-in lines. Apply the social distancing rules of people being 6 feet apart, and airports would top out at approximately 40% to 50% of their usual maximum passenger volume, the company estimates.

And it will come quickly.

John Grant, senior analyst for the flight data analytics company OAG, estimates worldwide demand will reach 30% of airport capacity by the end of August and 50% of last year’s demand by the end of this year. Add in social distancing, and you have potential chaos.

U.K.-based company Veovo unveiled a solution last month that enables passengers to book specific arrival times for airport checkpoints. The company says the solution adjusts available time slots for checkpoint reservations in real time based upon wait times, allowing for even distribution.

It’s just one solution that San Francisco International Airport is considering, for example.

Said Miami International Airport’s director of information systems Maurice Jenkins: “It’s going to be a challenge. There’s no magic pill for it.”

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