Exec: Airports Must Embrace Innovation to Transcend Pandemic ‘Survival Mode’
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (SAN) had celebrated six straight years of exponential growth, reaching a height in 2019 of 25 million passengers served and $11.9 billion generated annually in economic impact for the southern California region. This year, however, with traveler demand plummeting across the industry, that trend reversed, causing a 71.5% traffic decline.
Nevertheless, Becker expressed optimism for the industry’s ability to bounce back once the pandemic is over. “I think the industry as a whole will benefit from this,” Becker said. “We will be back, and we will thrive, but I do believe it will look different.”
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For airport managers like Becker, who spoke at Embry-Riddle’s most recent Aviation Outlook webinar event, the industry changed shape seemingly overnight. Her 661-acre facility, hosting the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S. and third-busiest in the world, is quieter now, lined with Plexiglass service desks and closed refreshment shops. Still, she sees opportunity.
“Clients are so much more conscientious about safety now. … They want more contactless systems,” she said, adding that airlines have also become more selective of their routes. “A little more strategic.”
Overall, that’s a good thing, Becker added, noting that restrictions foster creative thinking. As a relatively small airport — 50 of her facilities could fit inside Denver International Airport alone — SAN has always had to prioritize efficiency, and doing so has made the business stronger.
“We feel we have to stay a step ahead, which is hard to do in such a regulated environment,” she said.
That desire to stay ahead of the curve is what prompted the launch of SAN’s Airport Innovation Lab, an effort to create programs that streamline the passenger experience — programs like “At Your Gate,” a service that delivers food orders to passengers waiting to board. The service started at SAN and is now operating in 15 airports across the country.
We will be back, and we will thrive, but I do believe it will look different.
Additionally, Becker and her team are beginning to think through how urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles can be integrated into their facility.
“I think it can create a competitive opportunity,” she said, noting that UAMs would also make airports located in less-central locations much more attractive to passengers. “We as airports will have to find a way to evolve to accommodate this new mode. Our infrastructure will change.”
The expansion of automated and touchless systems, enhanced safety procedures and refined boarding processes are just a few of the areas where Becker has seen positive change in response to the pandemic — but she expects more to come, especially as technology rises to meet newfound challenges.The Sept. 23 webinar featuring Kim Becker is available for playback online. For recaps on prior guests, visit the Aviation Outlook website.
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