As the world continues to deal with the fallout of a deadly pandemic, many are wondering what the new normal will look like for life in general and, particularly, for air travel.
With Pittsburgh International Airport’s billion-dollar Terminal Modernization Program still in the design phase, and with delays in the construction schedule, leaders are using the opportunity to take a fresh look at the plans.
Because of current industry conditions resulting from COVID-19, Chief Development Officer Paul Hoback has asked the design team to consider how new health recommendations like social distancing, increased hand-washing and sanitizing, and wearing masks in public might prompt future changes to airport facilities.
“With our design at 60% complete, we’re in a good position to begin looking at the newest health standards and emerging trends to determine how we can be a leader in the post-pandemic world,” he said. “So, what does the terminal look like? How do we need to pivot on our current thinking to place public health at top of mind?”
These are not easy questions to answer.
In a 2013 report titled “Infectious Disease Mitigation in Airports and on Aircraft” by the Airports Cooperative Research Program, experts cited the unique challenges to public health posed by aviation.
“Airports and aircraft afford opportunities for disease transmission due to close human contact in queuing areas, sharing of restrooms, waiting areas and dining tables; and a high number of touched surfaces (e.g., kiosks, handrails, security bins). In addition, air travel highlights the interaction of large numbers of individuals from geographically diverse regions, with differing immunity and endemic diseases.”
It may be common sense that clean buildings play a role in improving public health, but it’s not always common practice, and solutions can be costly. However, the TMP has always been about right-sizing, operating more cost efficiently and improving the passenger experience.
A WELL building is one designed with a focus on the health and wellness of the people in the building.
“The goal is to use the built environment and building systems to improve health of the occupants and capitalize on the increased savings and productivity generated through these improvements,” said Carolyn Sponza, senior associate at Gensler, one of the design firms working on the TMP.
The WELL building standard focuses on 10 concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind and Community.
The standard works in harmony with LEED certification for green and sustainable initiatives, which is already part of the TMP design. Large parts of the WELL Building Standard are based on building systems like HVAC, and both design and implementation are important.
“This is perhaps the most timely conversation we’ve been having in recent days,” said Nicole Graycar, principal at cd², an owner’s representation and design consulting firm. “People will need to feel safe getting back to flying because it sustains our economy.”
In addition, TMP design firms Gensler and HDR sit on the Fitwel Advisory Council. Like WELL and LEED, Fitwel is an earned designation that evaluates health and wellness within the design, development and operation of buildings and communities.
One of the first tasks for the design team is to evaluate how new social distancing guidelines overlay on the current plans. “Many public areas in airports are planned on criteria that specify a certain number of square feet per person,” Sponza said. “These guidelines will probably be replaced by others that require more separation.”
Changes in processing and daily airport operations also may be necessary. Will passengers need a health scan before they enter the building or exit a flight? If so, all of the processing points (such as ticket counters, security checkpoints and boarding areas) may need to flex to accommodate different numbers of people at different times. Additionally, more hands-free fixtures, improved ventilation systems, and digital queuing or robotic cleaning may be implemented.
Public spaces will need to become resilient to respond to health issues, Sponza said. “For instance, every design team might include a public health consultant that can perform risk modeling. Or, a requirement that buildings need to include more natural ventilation,” she said.
Hoback said the TMP team is already working to add a new best practice working group on public health to join others on customer experience, sustainability and accessibility.
Graycar believes the Pittsburgh region is uniquely qualified to lead the effort in opening an airport that is the most modern and “well” in the world.
“We really think this could be a collaborative effort for our region in terms of the foundations, medical and research institutions and tech firms,” said Graycar. “Pittsburgh is uniquely qualified to spearhead this effort. The innovation can begin now so that the airport can return to normal, or better than normal, ideally.”