Study: Impact of COVID-19 Measures on Airport Capacity

The aviation industry was affected by COVID-19 like no other industrial sector. Airports need to be secured in order to minimize the risk of spreading the virus and maintain trust and confidence into air transportation again. In order to support a safe and smooth recovery from COVID-19 lockdown, EASA/ECDC, ICAO, ACI, and IATA issued guidelines and recommendations.


On behalf of EUROCONTROL the Airport Research Center GmbH (ARC) assessed the impact of the COVID-19 measures on airport capacity for terminal operations by using a simulation test environment representing a generic airport and various sub-scenarios.


  • To what degree do COVID-19 measures impact the airport capacity?
  • How much additional space might airports need in key zones that are most affected by COVID-19 measures?
  • At what percentage of 2019 traffic volumes will airports reach saturation capacity?
  • How much does the passenger journey time through the terminal increase?

Intention of Study

  • Share lessons learned with airport community
  • Present a methodology how these topics could be customized for a specific local airport

COVID-19 Impact on Airport Operations Webinar

In this webinar we presented the results of the study, that was conducted by ARC on behalf of EUROCONTROL and involved major European airports like Paris Charles-de-Gaulle, London Heathrow, Stuttgart and Stockholm Arlanda Airports as well as ACI EUROPE, EASA and IATA in the provision of airport and airline perspective.

Overview of Airport Activities

The management of the COVID crisis brings new challenges. In addition to the increased sanitation and disinfection measures, one major task is to enable passengers and airport staff to keep physical distance. In this context, airports should plan, coordinate and conduct the following activities:

Potential Health Check

The risk for air traffic leading to recurring local outbreaks is inherent as soon as airlines carry infected passengers, which are hard to identify when they are asymptomatic. This adds uncertainties for all aviation stakeholders regarding travel restrictions or quarantine measures taken by local governments. The focus is therefore on implementing risk based measures which amongst physical distancing and enhanced sanitation may include health checks for arriving and/or departing passengers.

Health Check Options

  • Thermal temperature screening
    was implemented at several airports in the initial phase of the pandemic, but has been identified by EASA as a high-cost but low efficiency measure, because passengers without symptoms (up to 75%) are not detected.
  • PCR testing before departure
    could be done off-airport before travelling or at the airport with results provided 2 to 3h after the test. Some countries have implemented requirements for recent negative PCR test (e.g. 48-72 hours before departure).
  • PCR testing on arrival
    has been implemented, in particular from defined “risk areas”. National authorities put rules into place but currently have difficulties with local testing capacities to ensure timely results.
  • Health self-declaration
    is requested by some governments as further measure. Airlines had to ask health questions related to COVID. That was initially performed during check-in by agents, but most airlines have now integrated this to the online check-in. Some governments request this information online before travel.
  • Passenger locator cards / online health forms
    have been established by some national authorities (e.g. Spain or Greece) to ask self-declaration health questions as well as enable contact tracing in a more efficient way, request passengers to fill in online forms. With an online system, a QR code can generated that passengers show during the check-in and eventually on arrival to prove that they provided the required.

Since no standard process for health checks at airports has been defined yet, several what-if scenarios have been simulated in the generic test environment, allowing an easy customization for a local airport.

The simulation model shall support the understanding and dimensioning of a health checkpoint.

Simulation of a potential Health Check


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As first area in the passengers’ process chain the departure hall including check-in is considered to be one major element regarding the potential requirement for any additional COVID related early checks of the passengers. In addition, any changes regarding passenger characteristics due to COVID, e.g. different show-up behavior at the airport or number of checked luggage, will immediately have an influence on the check-in process. Next to these process related impacts, the need for physical distance while queuing for the actual check-in transaction has to be considered.

COVID-19 Impact

The following key changes compared to pre-COVID are expected:

  • Passengers tend to arrive at the airport earlier
  • Passengers check-in more luggage
  • The check-in process takes longer due to health questions and more paperwork
  • Passengers keep physical distance in queues

It is very likely that these changes will lead to prolonged waiting times and queues, although the specific numbers will certainly depend on the traffic cluster and operational conditions. In any case, the study figured out relevant issues when stakeholders (airlines, ground handler, airport) do not react to the changed conditions adequately.

Mitigation Measures

The following list gives examples for optimization measures to be tested with the simulation model:

  • Expansion of queuing system
  • Balancing of manpower to new demand
  • Adjustment of counter opening times
  • Including health questions in online check-in
  • Optimization of allocation

Security Control

At many airports, the security checkpoint is often close to its capacity limit already. Changing conditions in times of COVID put additional pressure on that sensitive system and new factors need to be considered for ensuring both, fluent processes as well as the safety of passengers.

  • COVID measures have a negative impact on security throughput
  • Less capacity of available queue space due to physical distance rules
  • Changing staffing requirements

Microscopic Analysis

The reduction off drop off positions is one typical initial measure airports introduced shortly after the COVID outbreak in order to comply with enforced physical distance rules. This – in combination with other measures – resulted in a significant reduction of throughput capacity.

Thus, some airports have already started to adapt measures to ensure health safety with other equivalent measures less impacting the handling capacity. In any case, some measures will remain and the simulation model can be used as valuable indicator to identify a suitable operational setup.

The bottleneck sub-process of a security lane is very laxout specific. It can be the drop-off zone, body scanner, secondary search etc. Thus, also the recommended way of implementating COVID measures differs.

For the analyzed example setup the following is observed:

  • Limitation of drop off positions
    Reducing the drop off position from 2 to 1 position leads to a major capacity drop of 50%. A redution from 3 to 2 would have less impact but still be considerable.
  • Dropping more items
    The increased number of trays and required additional time for divesting can lead to a capacity drop of 30%.
  • Repeated passenger scans
    Since a WTMD scan is usually fast and does not require passengers to dwell and wait for scanning results, the throughput limitation due to rescanned passengers is rather negligible. However, when many passengers are asked to drop further items, the throughput capacity can be reduce by 20%.
  • Repeated X-Ray scans of trays
    In the sample security setup, repeated X-Ray scans of trays have only low impact on sample security setup. Sensitivity scenarios showed that only rescanning more than 50% of trays would have higher impacts on the lane’s throughput.
  • Limited number of passengers in tray pick-up zone
    This measure shows a rather low impact on throughput capacity for regular lanes but the impact rises for high performance lanes with higher throughput in the front section.

Security Control Simulation: Impact of Covid-19 Measures

The following video demonstrates for an example layout and operational concept, how the throughput change can be assessed.


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Macroscopic Analysis

Due to physical distance requirements and decrease in throughput capacity, the requirement for a well-balanced staffing of lanes gets more relevant. This might even raise the need for an update of the regular staffing rules. For a given demand more lanes need to be opened compared to pre-COVID to overcome the reduced handling capacity and physical distancing.

Boarding Gates

Gate Holdrooms

Boarding gate areas as main dwell areas for passengers at an airport are directly affected by physical distance requirements. Thus, an airport may need to rethink its allocation principles in terms of which flights could still be accommodated by each gate holdroom.


At the time of the study, the airport stakeholders described the following key changes compared to Pre-COVID:

  • Use of every second seat only
  • Physical distance for standing passengers
  • Limited availability of retail areas
  • Earlier show-up of passengers

Airports face the task of calculating new saturation capacities for their boarding gates as input for their further decisions about allocation and other operational measures. Based on 1.5m physical distance, such a new temporary saturation capacity is expected to be around 70% of the former capacity.

For single closed gates the decision whether a flight can still be allocated there is relatively easy to answer; however, the elaboration of allocation principles for open gate areas, where passengers also use space of nearby gates, can be more advanced.

The simulation model helps to get a feeling on the new occupancy level and elaborate new concepts for an adapted allocation.

Boarding Process

Depending on the organization of the boarding process, there are several potential issues leading to a prolonged boarding time:

  • Boarding by groups
    inefficiencies and idle times when calling to counter
  • Health or travel document checks
    lower throughput rate at boarding counter, e.g. due to more Timatic checks
  • Back-to-front boarding
    less passengers taking a seat simultaneously
  • Physical distancing in cabin
    increased time for storing hand luggage

Boarding Analysis: Random vs. Back-to-Front


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Baggage Reclaim

Before the COVID outbreak, passengers were used to wait quite close to each other at a baggage reclaim belt

COVID-19 Impact

In times of COVID, depending on physical distance requirements, passengers are now consuming more space than before.

Dependent on physical distance rule that would mean a waiting area capacity drop of -25% (1.5m physical distance) or even -50% (2m physical distance).

This might require moving away from historic belt allocation rules.

  • Gaps / empty belts between simultaneous arrivals
  • Allocation of large belts also to narrowbody flights

Further Mitigation Measures

In case the required space cannot be assigned by a changed allocation, there are further measures to ensure health and physical distancing, e.g. by:

  • secondary waiting areas for passengers not fitting into the primary area
  • one person per travel group picking up all luggage
  • delayed inflow into the baggage reclaim hall (up to a delay of deboarding, to allow a head start for luggage)

Saturation Capacity

Capacity Reduction

Applying COVID-19 measures in the used example airport indicates a capacity loss of 25-40%, in particular related to physical distancing of 1.5m. This means, considering an airport that operated close to its saturation capacity would already hit a new saturation capacity with 60-75% of Pre-COVID peaks. At this point, the airport should prepare mitigation measures to overcome the capacity constraints if health measures cannot be alleviated at the same time.

Note that the actual saturation capacity is airport specific and depends on layout, local situation and how saturated the airport was in the pre-COVID situation already.

Influence of Airports on Saturation Capacity

In general, there is a “fix” capacity loss that quantifies the capacity drop caused by COVID measures, which is mainly physical distance related. Secondly, there is also a “flexible” component defining capacity at risk. This relates to a capacity reduction dependent on layout-specifics and processes. Mitigation is in general possible, but requires a change in procedures (e.g. changed allocation principles, more processes off-site, changes in passenger flows) and might involve higher operating costs (e.g. due to increased staffing levels).

Slot Coordination Issues

For slot coordinated airports, this also means that the figures for declared capacity might need to be reviewed. Formerly not coordinated airports might also need to check from a terminal infrastructure point of view, which terminal component(s) limit peak capacity and if and where they need to take measures in place to reduce risks for unwanted queues and congestions.

Passenger Journey

The analysis of the various processes throughout the passenger’s journey at an airport shows that COVID health measures and side-effects have manifold impact on the experienced Level of Service of a passenger and/or the way an airport needs to organize the different checkpoints now.

When summarizing the additional time and space needed for the entire passenger journey it can be distinguished between a ‘mandatory’ delay and a ‘risk factor’ for delay.

  • A mandatory delay / additional space provision
    predetermined by local regulations (e.g. physical distance or additional health check). The related additional time and space requirement will happen to each affected passenger. The airport would not have any chance to avoid this but can only apply the predetermined measures.
  • A risk factor for delay / space provision
    Next to the above “fix” part, the COVID measures involve indirect challenges, which airport stakeholders can react to in order to prevent worse impacts (e.g. by adequate staffing). If these risk factors are not addressed properly at an early stage, they will add further delays to the passenger journey or will result in even higher space requirements at checkpoints.

Conclusion, Updates and Customization

The COVID crisis is quite dynamic and local regulations are constantly changing. The measures analyzed and input used in this scope was defined from the best knowledge at the time of this study. With these scenarios, first knowledge could be gained to develop fast mitigation measures.

A significant evolution of the crisis would call for the review of the scenarios. For actual decisions at a local airport a customized analysis is recommended. The application of the same methodology at 2 European airports by ARC shows that the weakest terminal components were different (due to specific layout and local operational conditions), but the capacity loss by area was in a similar order of magnitude for both airports as identified in this study.

Full Report

The above examples are just a quick snapshot of the analyzed scenarios.

The full report can be downloaded at the Eurocontrol website.