The role airports play in the world is critical. Even a minor disruption to their operations has immediate cascading impacts, which can be familiar to anyone who has experienced a delayed departure and the dreaded “Will I make my connection?” stress that follows. However, airport disruptions create far greater economic and business operations impacts than the occasional need to catch a later flight. Cargo aviation operations provide a critical part of global trade, accounting for the movement of nearly US$7 trillion worth of goods annually. Additionally, the air transport industry supports 29 million jobs globally and billions of dollars in local economies. Meanwhile, amid the global pandemic, aviation supports critical healthcare operations, carrying doctors and specialists rapidly to areas where they are needed; epidemiological investigators to locations of emerging diseases; and medications valued at more than US$1 trillion to locations around the world. These examples emphasize the need to ensure that aviation, and its component parts – including airports – remain resilient and functional at all times.
Airports are often referred to as cities unto themselves as they are composed of highly complicated, intertwined, and highly technical infrastructure. They are also very expensive to operate. With the widespread emergence of COVID-19, governments imposed travel restrictions and passenger air service decreased more than 60% (see Fig. 1). As a result, revenues generated from retail services within airports, landing and terminal fees paid by airlines, and other revenue sources have greatly reduced.
To offset this unprecedented impact, governments provided economic relief to their flagship airlines. In the United States, two tranches of funding support in 2020 provided a total of US$40 billion to its major air carriers. However, despite their symbiotic relationship with airlines, airports received only US$4 billion. Even if only providing cargo and limited passenger service, every airport must be fully functional to ensure safe operations. The current crisis has strained airport budgets significantly and will have a lasting impact on their ability to invest in their own infrastructure. As such, smart decision-making that enhances resilience against future disruptions is critically important. Leveraging emerging technology can make these efforts faster, more accurate, and less expensive.
Historic Damage & Recovery
In this light, the team reviewed the damage and recovery of major airports around the world following various past earthquakes, floods, and extreme wind events, in order to understand the different factors that can potentially impact the recovery process. Six key components identified by FEMA’s HAZUS-MH Risk Assessment guide include the following for focused risk assessment: terminal buildings, air traffic control tower, hanger facilities, fuel facilities, parking, and runways. In addition to these components, the study also focused on: power availability; ease of site access for employees, flight crews, and travelers; and prioritization of the airport usage for rescue and military operations. The hazard events examined included:
- Earthquake-related damage and recovery
- 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (M6.9), USA – 17 October 1989
- 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (Kobe earthquake), Japan (M6.9) – 17 January 1995
- 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake (Great East Japan Earthquake) (M9.1) – 11 March 2011
- 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, Japan (M7.0) – 16 April 2016
- 2016 Ecuador Earthquake (M7.8) – 16 April 2016
- 2020 Salt Lake City Earthquake, USA (M5.7) – 18 March 2020
- Flood-related damage and recovery
- Typhoon Bart (No. 18), Japan – 24 September 1999
- Chicago Severe Rain, USA – 12 September 2008
- Hurricane Harvey, USA – 24 August 2017
- Typhoon Jebi (No. 21), Japan – 4 September 2018
- Extreme wind-related damage and recovery
- Hurricane Katrina, USA – 29 August 2005
- St. Louis Tornado, USA – 22 April 2011
- Hurricane Sandy, USA – 29 October 2012
- Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport Thunderstorm/Wind Event, USA – 27 September 2014
- Hurricane Irma, USA – 10 September 2017
Key Factors to Consider
Based on the review, partial-to-near-full functional recovery of airports after disruptive events is rather quick. Though permanent repair efforts can typically take many weeks to many months, limited operations can be resumed within 24 hours and full/near-full restoration of both cargo and passenger services resumed within a few days. Noteworthy is that many of the hazard events reviewed began with operational reductions due to predicted adverse weather. These actions are necessary and reflective of decades of planning that has resulted in aviation achieving a period of unprecedented safety. Leaders must dedicate attention to minimizing the likelihood of those brief cessations of normal operations, extending for hours beyond the initial lifecycle of the precipitating hazard due to minor damage. The trend to rapid restoration is a testament to the work that has been accomplished. Ultimately, the race to resilience has no finish line. Consistent investment is needed.
Key factors controlling downtime due to impacts from the assessed natural hazards and some initial considerations include:
- Pre-incident closures and/or operational limitations – Integration with alerting authorities (e.g., weather services, emergency management offices) as well as the quality (accuracy, completeness, and timeliness) of alerts received enhances pro-active operational decision-making. These actions may include coordination with airlines, personnel, and travelers, as well as allowing time for securing vulnerable locations and equipment.
- Hazard event duration and severity – Planning and investment have been focused on routine events, not extreme incidents. Access to high-resolution rare event scenarios would provide risk managers with a more comprehensive understanding of vulnerabilities.
- Runway/taxiway inspection and debris removal – Speed of runway/taxiway inspection and debris removal has a direct correlation to the speed at which operations can be resumed. Plans for rapid equipment deployment are necessary.
- Air traffic control (ATC) damage and power restoration – (1) Loss of ATC facilities, partial or complete, is one of the most significant impacts and poses one of the most critical safety issues. ATC facilities have typically been built to withstand known risks; however, older facilities may have significant vulnerabilities. ATC dependencies such as power, telecom, and water were identified as repeated points of failure. (2) Hardening of existing facilities, securing equipment to resist breakage, ensuring onsite redundancy, and having repair materials on-hand (e.g., cover broken windows), allows for not just rapid restoration but potentially nearly uninterrupted service.
- Non-ATC facility power restoration – There is little to no superfluous infrastructure within an airport. All support facilities and services, including security and ancillary aviation services, are critical to operations. Pre-incident storage in safe locations for mobile equipment, hardening against water intrusion, and investing in back-up power generation are highly recommended.
- Structural damage inspection and immediate repair – (1) The ability to rapidly conduct inspections for structural integrity issues, as well as having “quick fix” materials stored onsite (e.g., tarps, plywood), enhances the ability of an airport to quickly resume at least partial services. (2) Training staff to conduct rapid inspections supports more quickly arranging for professional repair by external contractors.
- Site access – The ability of employees, flight crews, and passengers to access the site can significantly complicate response and recovery. Multiple examples exist of travelers becoming stranded and the airport having to serve as a make-shift shelter. Airport planners should work with regional planners to develop transportation contingencies.
Minimizing Impacts & Discovering New Solutions
Post-hazard impacts can be minimized and recovery times can be expedited by examining the vulnerabilities of various common airport infrastructure factors and focusing mitigation and planning efforts accordingly. Airport executive leaders and emergency managers engage in extensive operational and physical risk assessment and planning activities. However, planning is a time-consuming process that requires considerable effort by various stakeholders across the entire enterprise. It can be difficult to assess the copious amounts of highly detailed data, schematics, and systems, as well as overlay the business and operational processes that rely on them in a holistic manner. In the near future, technology will make this process easier.
Emerging solutions are able to create multidimensional views of both physical and operational systems, assess the impacts of natural hazards on both, and provide detailed predictions of damage, operational disruptions, and business downtime. Newly created machine learning models, in combination with physics-based and observation-based models, can estimate impacts and recovery times much faster, more accurately, and at scale. This scalability allows for impacts on the broader community as well as impacts to supply chains dispersed over regional and international boundaries to be considered, thus providing the most holistic understanding of vulnerability possible with today’s technology.
Critical infrastructure leaders, including those responsible for the world’s airports, should be actively monitoring for new solutions to identify those that can support their efforts. Partnering with academic researchers and developers of new technology, in support of studies such as this, is an imperative to ensure the accuracy and usefulness of the research and technological solutions that are developed. Early adoption of innovative solutions (which require real-world practical use for additional development) are key to the common mission: reducing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience.