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Forbes: Return of the Airport: What Airports Invest in to Survive Covid-19

Forbes / Katina Stefanova / July 2, 2020

I had the pleasure to speak to Brian Cobb, the Chief Innovation Officer at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). During the interview, we spoke about the new-normal for airports in the post-Covid-19 world. Brian, whose job is to envision the future for aviation and to implement progressive, yet effective solutions, shared his perspective of the challenges airports are facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the investments they are making in order to make flying safe again.


Katina: Brian, you have twenty-nine years of aviation experience, working in both the airline and airport sectors. Could you please tell us what ideas do you have and what projects are you driving today to make airports safe for flying again? 

Brian: Right now we have to reestablish the trust and confidence of our product. When I say our product, I very much view it as the experience of flying - a combined product of airlines and airports. Airlines typically own the experience onboard and the airports provide the connection point. Both these worlds have changed dramatically. The biggest difference post-Covid-19 is that passengers and governments alike will be acutely aware of the risk of contagion. There are a number of changes to our operations we are already implementing:

Many standards and new functions of the airport will be automated in order to drive efficiency and minimize human contact.

In the post-Covid-19 world, when travelers get to the airport, they will meet more robots and fewer people. Human contact is more likely to spread disease and thus, the new airport environment will look to minimize that while maximizing service. Automation was already on the way - we can already imagine taking an autonomous driving car to the airport. Covid-19 will speed automation up.

Our initial efforts have been focused on amplifying our already high cleaning standards. CVG has launched autonomous floor scrubbers. In the past, most of the cleaning had to happen overnight. However, to meet the new standards for disinfecting and cleaning in a post-pandemic environment more frequent large area cleaning will be needed. From the perspective of the travelers, seeing cleaning crews during the day used to be disruptive. Now, seeing continuous cleaning provides a sense of security.

The other area of automation that travelers will see will be in the food service areas. How food is made available to passengers and how it is consumed has to further minimize the risk of contagion. Self-service, automated food carts, and automated check-outs are all coming to the airport.

Katina: When you say autonomous cleaning units, are you using a different type of cleaning technology? For example, are you using UV light or a combination of other technologies that are particularly suited for eradicating viruses or the spread of viruses? Has there been any innovation in that aspect?

Brian: This is where we face a learning curve similar to what airports experienced post 9/11. To mitigate the risks arising from 9/11, airports and airlines rushed to implement new technology to improve the physical security of travel and prevent future terrorist attacks. On the one hand, that was good because it drove fast change and adaptation. However, there was a tremendous amount of waste due to unproven solutions, which were implemented and did not really work. Therefore, they had to be replaced later. Airports have always been at the forefront of innovation. The very concept of flight symbolizes the human pursuit to innovate and I am confident that in the post-Covid-19 world airports will adapt quickly. However, at CVG, our goal is to drive innovation without waste, which requires relying on science, not on fads. 

Extensive testing and validation of new technology is the main lesson learned from 9/11, which airports are handling better to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.