The relaxation of international travel restrictions could spark chaos at UK airports according to new insights from ONHYS, a company specialising in flow management technologies. This follows a simulation that shows that if airports accommodated 50% more passengers than their maximum numbers, passenger queuing periods at security could explode five-fold.
Based on a simulation of an airport with 14 million annual passengers, ONHYS’ analysis demonstrates that passenger congestion grows in a non-linear way, meaning that if airports were to see 50% more passengers through their gates, on top of their maximum occupancy levels, this would lead to queues that are 500%, not 50%, longer.
The consequences of this on an international hub such as Heathrow, which sees more than 80 million travellers annually, could be disastrous. ONHYS’ analysis, which incorporates the International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards on levels of service, shows that a 50% increase in the number of passengers will negatively affect overall airport performance by creating unbearable levels of density and discomfort, as well as the inability to maintain social distancing.This simulation also confirms recent conclusions drawn by the IATA last month on the topic.
Implications for post-lockdown international travel
Overseas travel in the UK has been highly anticipated since the announcement of the UK’s roadmap to lifting pandemic restrictions was announced in February 2021. The UK ban on non-essential international travel has now been lifted as of 17 May, with popular destinations ranked under a traffic light system. With many eagerly anticipating the next review, scheduled for the 24 June, airports must begin to prepare themselves for a potential influx of passengers as destinations are eventually green-listed.
The effects of the ease of travel restrictions at airports on a national level have already been visible for some time. The length of passenger queues was already increasing even before concrete post restriction travel plans were laid out by the UK government with reports of holidaymakers arriving at Heathrow and being forced to queue for up to six hours increasingly prevalent during March and April, due to coronavirus border checks.
Based on the results of the ONHYS simulation, these are only set to increase sharply. With the Delta variant, originating from India, becoming more widespread in the UK, solving this problem is an absolute priority to ensure passenger flows remain optimised and socially distanced.
Accounting for increased passenger flows: finding long-term solutions
Sébastien Paris, CEO and founder of ONHYS, said: “Our analysis demonstrates the potential constraints of rapidly increasing passenger numbers, and how a 50% increase leads to a substantial scaling up of risk.
“It’s therefore essential to find better solutions irrespective of specific airport capacity. By simulating various situations and using multiple metrics including passenger numbers, congestion, wait duration in queues, or service levels, it becomes possible to make informed decisions. Regular simulations at the likes of Heathrow, Gatwick and all UK airports can help determine the maximum possible capacity as well as the best operational procedures without risking overcrowded and stagnant queues in real life, thus decreasing the risk of contamination. ONHYS’s simulations can help key decision makers prepare for this eventuality, as well as enabling them to evaluate the spread of COVID within a specific space.”
Queues lasting several hours are not a novelty. Last year, passengers in UK airports reported wait times in the range of several hours to get through security. Another solution discussed in the media to combat this issue is to digitise the Passenger Locator Form (PLF), a form that is manually-checked and shows a passenger’s vaccination history. This digitisation would make it readable by automated ‘e-gates’, which already read passports without the need for airport staff intervention.
Paris continued: “Yet, solutions such as simulations or “digital twins” aren’t enough on their own. On top of a growing risk of future pandemics and public health concerns, we are faced with exponential population growth and higher service, mobility and security expectations from users. This consequently puts pressure on urban planners to account for an increased amount of people in a fixed space whilst simultaneously putting their mobility, security and sanitation needs first. It’s time to begin preparing for future pandemics and accept that this won’t be the last public health crisis in our lifetimes.
“This challenge is not a quick-fix or unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, and airports will almost certainly face similar issues in the future; we need to review the whole process in a holistic and intelligent way. To do this, we need to have a detailed and comprehensive overview of passenger movement within a fixed space.”
The most reliable way to obtain this overview is to rely on new technological solutions and advancements that harness the power of artificial intelligence, digital twin technology, or real-time data integration. This is why ONHYS is working on enriching its technological offering with a new solution capable of both simulating and analysing real-time crowd flows to augment the management of facility operations in real time.