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Infrastructure epidemiology and the airport industry

How to reduce risk and achieve operational resilience

COVID 19 Coronavirus

September 4, 2020

High-traffic assets such as airports, can act as a vector for the spread of COVID-19. Data-driven solutions could be key to achieving operational resilience.

With the global economy dependent on the transportation sector, its personnel need to be equipped to build a first line of defence to limit their infrastructure’s potential to act as a vector for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was a key message delivered to delegates by a panel of experts last month at the first in a series of webinars hosted by Willis Towers Watson, scheduled to replace the annual gathering of the Airport Risk Community.

The defence against the virus will need to be marshalled, even as most airport operators are seeing significant declines in revenue, labour resources and employee/consumer confidence, in addition to rising operating costs.

It may sound like mission impossible, but there are solutions available to help owners cope with the current contagion-related risks and begin the process of getting their businesses back on track as opportunities arise.

Mott MacDonald, a global engineering and management consultancy, recently combined its recognised infrastructure knowledge and expertise in controlling infectious disease to create ‘Infrastructure Epidemiology’.

‘Infrastructure Epidemiology’, a data-driven science that can reduce the pandemic-related risks experienced in high-traffic assets

Chris Chalk, the organisation’s Global Sector Leader for Aviation, told webinar delegates that the programme helps asset owners to identify potential ‘hot spots’ within their facilities where intervention has the greatest opportunity to reduce virus-related risks.

“Epidemiology is a quantitative and data-driven science and as such, it fits very well with aviation, which is always consulting numbers. Central to epidemiology are risk and exposure ratings; those exposures are then modified with various interventions to reduce the risk of the disease,” Mr. Chalk said. “This is a principle that can be applied across all different forms of infrastructure. If you combine that with infrastructure, you can build a public health based approach that helps asset owners to restore services and rebuild confidence.”

Applying Mott MacDonald’s approach to Infrastructure Epidemiology – marrying epidemiological evidence with process mapping, passenger-flow models and other modelling tools – helps the operator to better understand the nature and location of the risks.

The operational ‘fingerprint’ of each airport differs, so there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. However, the goals and objectives for undertaking the process remain the same, including:

  1. Understanding and quantifying the risks across the journey through the airport
  2. Minimising access to the system to those who are fit to fly
  3. Minimising time spent in the terminal, especially in the common use areas
  4. Minimising contact with other passengers, in particular those from other flights
  5. Optimising hygiene regimes and give them the same importance as security

Process mapping can help limit access to specific areas of the airport to those who need to be there, and reduce human dwell times across the system. It also helps to identify human touch points, which may need to be reduced.

Many of the world’s leading airports have increasingly embraced automation in the past decade, but some of the touch points created (self check-in, fingerprint recognition scanners, hand dryers, etc.) are now high-risk places where a virus can be contracted.

Fewer touch points equal fewer points to clean, allowing limited human resources to be reallocated.

The emphasis is on optimising the approach (to cleaning) rather than maximising the approach.”

Chris Chalk
Global Aviation Sector Leader, Mott MacDonald

“The emphasis is on optimising the approach (to cleaning) rather than maximising the approach,” Mr. Chalk told delegates and his fellow panellists. “Everyone is fixated on being able to clean everything. But we want to encourage a closer examination of why you are doing it. What’s the logic or payback? In that way, we encourage more informed risk management.”

In some respects, Infrastructure Epidemiology uses a management-systems approach to address the pandemic-related risks to the business. Measuring the risks of conducting ‘business as usual’ can establish a baseline from which the benefits of each intervention – such as social distancing, eliminating touch points, adjusted communications or new technologies – can be measured.

In this way, the resources for measures and programmes that are proven ineffective at lowering risks can be diverted to areas that show more promise, potentially building capacity without building cost.

For airports and their stakeholders to successfully ‘reset’ operations as the pandemic eases, it is going to take more than social distancing, mask enforcement or the marshalling of rigid cleaning regimes.

Operational resilience will need to be reinforced by introducing new work practices and redesigned facilities that optimise business processes and the flow of people. New technologies and digital solutions are bound to be foundational to the rebuilding process; as will the effective communication of new strategies, both to airport users and employees.

Finally, with many sources of revenue uncertain in the short to medium term and financial pressures building, all this will need to be achieved cost-effectively. This is where the data-driven science of Infrastructure Epidemiology can help to refocus resources and prioritise management strategies.

The data-driven science of Infrastructure Epidemiology can help to refocus resources and prioritise management strategies

“This [virus] risk is likely to be around for a long time; we don’t know how long. So it will help to have an informed selection of intervention, and informed investment priorities,” Mr. Chalk said. “It also helps to communicate with the public and your staff more clearly when you create a common currency of risk.”


Chris Chalk
Global Aviation Sector Leader, Mott MacDonald

Airport Risk Community Leadership

Darren Porter
Managing Director, Aerospace

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