Globally, airports are presumed to be the point of contact and spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This is because people who contracted the virus were those who largely travelled by air from one country to another; from one city to another and aircraft was initially seen as potential host of the virus, a presumption that has been dispelled by further studies and research.
The belief that airports and air travel in general are major culprits for the spread of the disease, prompted governments of various nations to introduce policies that drastically curbed air travel and rendered the airports literally empty of their hustle and bustle and the milling of thousands of passenger in world’s busiest airports.
According to BBC report, the collapse in air travel demand has been driven largely by public policy. As Covid-19 spreads, governments worldwide chose – in the interests of preserving public health – to ban entry to non-residents.
Some countries like India, Malaysia and South Africa stopped issuing visitor visas. Others like the Australia, New Zealand and the United States suspended visa-free travel reciprocity. The move not only ended the plans of millions of travellers but also forced airlines to stop serving once-lucrative markets. Flying empty planes around makes little fiscal sense. Consequently, getting planes back in the air will require an easing of government entry restrictions.
In addition to easing of government’s policy, air travellers have to be convinced that the airports are safe to travel through, hence the COVID-19 safety protocol at the airports. In Nigeria, despite the fact that evacuation flights were taking place, almost on daily basis at the Lagos and Abuja airports, for the airports to be certified safe by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) must have to introduce the COVID-19 safety protocols, which was the prescription of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), as domesticated by the regulatory authority, NCAA.
Upgrading Airport Facilities
The General Manager, Corporate Affairs, FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu told THISDAY that the world was hit by Coronavirus pandemic suddenly and leaving policy makers and health professionals nonplussed. The world began to battle a virus that does not have a cure and its weird ways largely unknown, just as people are dying every day, their lives being snuffed by the virus.
“When the novel coronavirus pandemic traced to Wuhan in China began ravaging nations around February this year, little did the world know that the virus would not only bring the global economy to a temporary halt, but would also herald a new order of socio-economic interactions.
“Beside the direct effects of the virus on global health and safety which culminated in millions of people getting infected and some losing their lives in the ensuing battles, there has also been huge loss of revenue by individuals, organisations and nations due to the abrupt closure of businesses,” she said.
Yakubu noted that as organisations and nations continue to gradually reopen for socio-economic and other activities, “we can safely conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic has instituted a new order of doing business which has been globally acclaimed as the New Normal.”
“For us in the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Covid-19 has availed us the opportunity of critically re-evaluating our system with a view to repositioning for improved safety, security, competitiveness and profitability at our airports.
“In planning for safe reopening of our airports, we made efforts to interact with and analyse what other airport groups were doing, copied the ones applicable and useful to us, and also adhered strictly to national and international protocols/guidelines on reopening so as to ensure that passengers and airport users are protected from being infected with the virus as we gradually recommence flight operations,” the FAAN spokesman said.
Preparing the Airports
Airport World, the magazine of Airport Council International (ACI), has noted that the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry has been unprecedented, reporting that air travel is down by 95 per cent from a year ago as a result of the travel ban and lockdowns in many countries. The magazine also said experts have also estimated that passenger numbers for 2020 could drop by 40 per cent, representing a significant decline in revenue for airlines and airports across the world. So the question is, “What can airports and airlines do to rebuild confidence in air travel?”
In preparing the airports for reopening, FAAN said it categorised the airports into five cardinal areas, which inclu
de structural adjustment, procedural modification, intern-agency collaboration, awareness campaign/sensitization and training of manpower.
On structural adjustment, FAAN said prior to the Covid-19 era, there were no restrictions to human interactions in public places, consequently facilities that would support such arrangements.
However, due to the need to arrest the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it became necessary that physical distancing be introduced in human interactions especially at public places.
“Consequently, we needed to re-structure our facilities and infrastructure to support this new order of human interactions. If you go to any of our airports now, you will discover that we have introduced some barricades to guide the safe movement of passengers and airport users.
“We have also fixed automated hand sanitising dispenser machines as well as hand washing facilities at strategic locations at our airports. The floors of our airports have also been marked to ensure compliance with physical distancing requirements.
“Our toilets, co-bus and other operational facilities have also been upgraded to comply with the Covid-19 operational guidelines,” Yakubu said.
The agency said one of the changes that the Covid-19 has brought with it is in the area of operational procedures was procedural modification.
“We can no longer continue to do things the way we use to do them in the past. For example, because of the need to make better use of the limited resources available in the situation, we have informed airport users that aides and protocol officers of VIPs would no longer be allowed to follow their principals into the terminals. Only passengers would be allowed to access the terminals,” Yakubu said.
Also, commercial protocol activities have now been streamlined at the airports such that only the FAAN Executive Protocol Unit would now be allowed to carry out such services to ensure orderliness.
Passengers are also expected to always wear their facemasks at the airports, wash their hands intermittently and sanitise them, disinfect their bags before check-in, amongst other procedural modifications.
There is also inter-agency collaboration to make things work. So FAAN is collaborating with relevant agencies like the Federal Ministry of Health, the Port Health Service, National Center for Diseases Control, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, the Airline Operators of Nigeria, amongst several others to ensure that the health and safety protocols put in place are strictly adhered to by passengers and other airport users.
FAAN said the major part of its task was creating awareness and sensitising travellers and other airport users.
“This is a very important part of our Post Covid-19 efforts as it bothers on behavioral change. We are using all medium possible to drive home the message on the need for passengers and airport users to embrace the New Normal in the interest of safety.
“We have commenced a strategic media campaign to sensitize and educate the public on the need to always adhere to laid down protocols using both the traditional and new media,” Yakubu added.
FAAN has to carry out manpower training within the shortest possible time. This was one of the major requirements given to the agency by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, which directed that FAAN staff must be given focused trainings on management of pandemics like the Covid-19.
“Some World Health Organization trainings were consequently recommended as mandatory. Our members of staff have gone through these trainings and have been certified fit and ready to operate in the New Normal. These are some of the measures we have put in place to ensure safety of passengers as we reopen our airports for operation,” the FAAN spokesman said.
Airline operators and other travellers have expressed satisfaction with what FAAN did in order to protect passengers from Coronavirus infection at the airports. The former governor of Cross River state, Donald Duke expressed surprise when he landed at the Margret Ekpo International Airport after several months under lockdown. He said he was satisfied with the social distancing protocols, the markings and the way FAAN staff guided the passengers to ensure that the protocol was not compromised.
Before reopening the airports, the Managing Director of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Capt. Rabiu Yadudu gave details of the changes that would take place at the airports before passengers would be allowed to use the facilities.
He said that the agency would implement flight spacing at all its airports in order to ensure prevention of spread of Coronavirus pandemic when flight operations resume.
The Managing Director insisted that passengers’ safety was priority, adding that 90 per cent of the FAAN personnel were trained by WHO.
Spacing the Flights
In order to ensure that crowd was avoided, FAAN scheduled flights to create spacing between flights. This was novel; may be the agency took a cue from other airports in the world.
“We have already told NCAA that we are going to space the flights. No two airlines will depart at the same time from our airports. The spacing is not to make things difficult for the operators, but to protect their staff and other users of our airports. It is not going to be unnecessary spacing. Like I told them, it is not a slot, but just spacing of flights,” Yadudu had explained.
Airline operators have expressed satisfaction with what FAAN has done at the airports to keep passengers safe from the Coronavirus pandemic. Also before certifying the airports for flight resumption, NCAA had commended FAAN for abiding by the Covid-19 protocols and also ensuring that international safety and security standard were still maintained.
To ensure that things work according to plans, four airports were re-opened at the beginning and later other airports were re-opened after FAAN could confirm that the changes done were effective.
ICAO made recommendations on airport safety for passengers at the airports.
“Guidance for the operation of terminal buildings needs to consider all aspects of operations, including who has access to the building, the upkeep of cleanliness and disinfection procedures in place within the terminal building, as well as health measures, provision for first-aid/medical attention guidance, and protocols for passengers and staff,” ICAO stated.
FAAN has upgraded the airports to meet the given standard for Covid-19 protocols for the airports.