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The human aspect of airport recovery post COVID-19

What are the possible routes to survival?

Aerospace|Health and Benefits|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

November 10, 2020

Compared to any other pre-pandemic restriction on passenger movements, COVID-19’s impact has been catastrophic.

No one is really sure when we will start flying again in anything like the numbers seen only a few short months ago. And clearly in the meantime, most airport operators are focused on surviving a pandemic that is threatening 4.8 million jobs across the global aviation industry according to the latest figures from IATA and Airports Council International.1

The possible routes to that survival, ultimately all lead to people and human factors. The confidence of consumers to fly again, the confidence of employees that it is safe to return to work, and the ability of organizations to keep people in employment, with or without government support. Also, in the medium to longer term, as the industry recovers, the ability to once again attract, engage and retain the human talent needed in an industry that, in all likelihood, will have reinvented the way work is done and the customer experience. In short, the industry needs a new “psychological contract” with its employees, customers and investors.

Eco-systems that connect people

At the turn of the millennium, airports began evolving from basic transportation hubs to complex ecosystems designed with human interaction and connectivity in mind. In many cases, this shift provided fertile environments for sustainable revenue growth and investments in infrastructure.

The pandemic changed all that in a matter of months. The aggressive spread of the COVID-19 virus quickly turned many airports into ‘ghost towns’, barely operating with limited users and minimal staff. Ancillary services, once thriving contributors to airport operations, have been shut for months; revenue losses, shrinking capital reserves and deferred or declining infrastructure investments have become all too common.

Due to the nature of their operations, it also falls to airports to marshal a first line of defence against the spread of communicable disease. The skill with which airport operators respond to the pandemic will help to rebuild the public’s confidence that the threat is under control. But reassuring the public – both workers and end-users – about their health and safety is a complex challenge.

The skill with which airport operators respond to the pandemic will help to rebuild the public’s confidence that the threat is under control.

Customer confidence

On the user side, building consumer confidence will require airport managers to build safe passenger corridors from drop-off locations to the aircraft and vice-versa. Airport transits will need to be redesigned to optimise the flow of people, and technological and digital solutions will need to be introduced to minimise the potential for human contact and interaction.

All of this is likely to mean significant increases in operating cost, even as revenues fall.

Risks to the public are greater during communicable health crises and they are interconnected; this means no airport can be an island, and mitigation strategies need to reflect that. Ensuring public health and safety will require collaboration across a facility’s commercial and regulatory ecosystem, which includes other airports, governments, airlines and other employers.

People matter

While technology and automation can support the control of contagions, employees are the first line of defence for airport security, as well as the health and safety of passengers. So employee trust, confidence and wellbeing are crucial to an effective pandemic strategy.

A recent Willis Towers Watson survey of 230,000+ employees from more than 50 unique employers across many industries found more than half of respondents to be suffering from moderate to high degrees of anxiety due to the pandemic; 25% felt that the current environment was distracting them from work, and almost a third were worried about money2.

These numbers could be significantly higher for airport employees, who are facing reduced work hours, furloughs and layoffs. Even those who remain fully employed are likely worried about their own health (as well as their family’s) and safety every time they come to work.

Airports now face a growing challenge of attracting, retaining and engaging their employees who, given the widespread use of third-party contractors, may only comprise part of their facility’s overall workforce, but have a disproportionate impact on the health and safety of passengers.

Airports now face a growing challenge of attracting, retaining and engaging their employees.

In the short-term, airports will need to work differently, with the focus on keeping employees safe and managing labour costs. To help their businesses emerge from the crisis stronger, airport managers will need to focus on how their employees work, build resilience to deal with fluid workplace challenges and maximize the return on investments in their employees.

Helping employees cope

Strategies that minimise the distractions employees face and help them to remain focused on customer safety and experience are critical to restoring stability in a highly uncertain and stressful environment. This may include initiatives to:

  • Understand employee concerns by conducting frequent and regular pulse surveys so that targeted strategies could be implemented, such as flexible work arrangements and short-term revisions to leave policies. For such strategies to be effective, it is important for managers to listen to employees with empathy and help them manage stress and remain engaged.
  • Help employees manage their health risks and keep their families safe by providing access to frequent testing and pandemic cover as well as access to ‘tele-health’ services.
  • Build trust by communicating frequently and transparently, consider risk-based pay and incentive strategies for front-line employees, and build awareness and promote the use of benefits and wellbeing programmes.

Regardless of the above, cost management is likely to be the key focus for most operators. In order to spend money where it matters, it remains important to understand and budget for costs of employee rewards programmes and to free up cash by eliminating or suspending programs that are underutilized, while negotiating vendor costs and services that matter more to employees.

People strategies for a different future?

Airports have always offered a dynamic work environment and opportunities for employees. While that perception may be fading and the future less clear, the current environment offers a defining moment for leadership, which can be seized to embed strategies that will endure over the long-term.

The current environment offers a defining moment for leadership, which can be seized to embed strategies that will endure over the long-term.

The cost of work can be reduced by redesigning jobs, accelerating automation and digitization strategies and adopting talent-sharing/borrowing models. There are options to restructure reward programs by aligning pay with new ways of working, reskill and upskill talent and redesign career pathways to engage employees and offer benefit programs that employee needs and values. Through the pandemic many employees have reset their priorities and what is important to them may have changed. Aligning spend with employee values will help manage costs and increase the return on investments made in employee programs.

Reframe the employee experience, tidy up legacy arrangements and break down silos both within HR and across the business to create one common, foundational people infrastructure that supports the business to be agile and respond to external changes quickly. Designing and implementing a transparent people framework that provides the business with a view of skills, capabilities and people, enabling leaders and HR to deploy talent flexibly and efficiently will drive an employee experience to enable business resilience.

The pandemic may have significantly derailed the plans of most airport operators and had a profound impact on the way they operate, perhaps permanently. But it also presents an opportunity to find new ways of working, build resilience and optimise labor resources to create businesses that are better than they were.

This article first appeared in the The Airport Operator: Winter 2020 Magazine. For the full publication, please click below to download.

In 2018 Willis Towers Watson created the Airport Risk Community (ARC) providing a network through which knowledge and expertise can be shared, whilst advising on emerging risks and trends within the sector.



2 Willis Towers Watson Employee Opinion Norm Database results as at May 2020, representing over 230,000 employees of 50+ unique companies.

Title File Type File Size
The Airport Operator: Winter 2020 Magazine PDF 3.7 MB

Managing Director, Human Capital and Benefits, and Integrated Solutions Leader non-North America

Ruchi Arora
Senior Director – Talent Management & Rewards Practice Leader, Western Europe

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