In the months since the virus began its global advance, our understanding of it has grown. We now know more than ever, but the situation remains extremely dangerous. It’s a fine balance the aviation sector, like many others, is trying to strike; allowing people to travel once again, but doing it in a way that doesn’t put them at unnecessary risk, or their intended destination.

Awarded by London-based institute Skytrax, the ‘5-Star Covid-19 Airport’ certification acknowledges and celebrates good practices and procedures at airports across the world. Evaluated by Skytrax auditors, assessments include procedural efficiency checks, visual observation analysis and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) sampling tests with, the institute says, with consistency being a key determinant in the final rating applied. 

Edward Plaisted, the CEO of Skytrax, explains and offers some insight into the challenges involved with keeping the aviation sector running.

Andrew Tunnicliffe (AT): Can you tell us what your aim is with the Covid-19 Airport Safety Rating?

Edward Plaisted (EP): Most airports around the world published their own Covid-19 policies, and our key purpose with the ratings is to evaluate the success and reality of such policies through direct testing and evaluation. In contrast, Airport Council International provides a ‘Health Accreditation’ based on an airport filling out a form on their intended or proposed Covid-19 policies, which we feel is potentially misleading since it has no direct correlation to the actual standards being provided by the airport.

AT: Why did you choose the metrics you use for ratings (see below)?

EP: Within the published summary we show approximately 20 key items covering the product, procedural and ATP based cleanliness results. We try to show the factors that are easiest compared on a side-to-side basis versus other airports and are presented in a more customer-friendly format. The actual audit topic agenda we use for an average size airport comprises approximately 400 areas evaluated.

AT: How many visits are your auditors making a month and how do you decide which airports to visit?

EP: With international border restrictions and quarantine policies, we are covering the airports which our staff can physically travel in and out of. All staff are based ex-UK, and with our own restrictive policies in recent months, airport coverage and trip planning requires an exact science all of its own.

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AT: What has made for a good safety rating?

EP: The higher ratings are generally supported by the best levels of consistency, be this the level of customer monitoring and control, standard and visibility of hand sanitisers or cleanliness standards for tested areas. The airports with more dedicated and focussed biosecurity teams, Covid-19 marshals etc. tend also to be higher rated overall. 

The visibility, branding and prominence of Covid-19 signage and information is a distinguishing factor. Some airports are blending this with their standard brand colours, whilst others have created maximum visibility formats to ensure Covid-19 information is clearly displayed at all times.

AT: How have airports had to change their processes and what challenges do they still face?

EP: Cleaning practices and materials are primary, including the use of ultraviolet in many areas, but also signage for social distancing across all terminal areas, face mask usage, handwashing and hand sanitisers etc. A key challenge for some is getting the theory into active application. Where, for example, we may see no proper control of customer face mask usage, we will often find this is an airport where many staff are similarly lacking in their own discipline [with regards to] face mask usage. 

Some cleaning areas produce contrasting results where, for example, the airport company have contractors to cover the main terminal areas, but food and beverage operators may be responsible for their own cleaning; we have come across a lot of variances and in some case incorrect cleaning products being used in some applications. 

Moving forward, the main challenge will be to maintain heightened awareness and enhanced cleaning systems and to not allow standards to slip back to the pre-pandemic era.

AT: How long will the system be in operation for and is it something you can learn from for a world after Covid-19?

EP: The standard Airport Ratings we have worked with for many years have always placed high importance on cleanliness standards, cleaning systems, efficiency and consistency at each airport. The ATP testing was introduced in 2020 to add a more scientific investigation and analysis format. As we move forward, there is likely to be a much-heightened focus on hygiene and cleanliness aspects of the air travel experience – for customers, airports and airlines alike – and in time we expect the terminology of ‘Covid-19’ to be replaced with ‘Hygiene’, but the overall focus will be the same.

What are the metrics Skytrax is using?

Skytrax says the ‘basic measures’ airports should be taking to prevent the spread of the virus and keep people safe include:

  • Covid-19 information: there should be clear, consistent and prominent signage covering things such as social distancing and wearing face masks, as well as any information specific to that airport (for example, temperature control and luggage).
  • Social distancing: airports’ seating and queueing, for example, should be altered to ensure people can remain at a distance, all supported by prominent signs. Access to smaller areas such as toilets should be controlled too and outlets should ensure they are providing the right information and tools to help.
  • Face masks and personal protection equipment (PPE): the use of face masks must be enforced on all, whilst airport staff needing to get closer to customers must have the correct PPE.
  • Hand hygiene: handwashing should be encouraged, with access to facilities being made as widely available as possible. This includes in all high footfall areas such as ATMs, children’s play areas and retail, as well as at all stages on the customer’s journey through the airport. Toilets should be well stocked with paper towels and soap always available, in addition to electric dryers.
  • ovid-19 testing: testing should be available as the list of countries not willing to accept travellers without a negative test continues to grow.