The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented disruption to commercial air travel and significant financial and operational challenges to airports. Considered critical infrastructure, commercial service airports in the United States continued to operate throughout the pandemic. During the initial months of the pandemic, their operators had to make response decisions with an incomplete understanding of COVID-19 transmission characteristics and at a time when diagnostic tests, therapeutics, and vaccines were limited or did not exist. While the COVID-19 pandemic presented many unique challenges for airports, it also provided the airport industry an opportunity to learn from its experiences and better prepare for future disease outbreaks. To take advantage of this opportunity, the Airport Cooperative Research Program (within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) asked ERG to determine and document lessons learned.
ERG designed and implemented a virtual interview survey to better understand three key dimensions relevant to learning from the COVID-19 experience: airports’ preparedness for communicable disease outbreaks, lessons learned from their COVID-19 response, and recommendations for improving airport response to disease outbreaks. We interviewed representatives from 127 commercial service airports and dozens of public health authorities. Their input provided extensive insight into how airports of different sizes and geographic locations responded to the pandemic. The airport representatives addressed airport communicable disease response plans, engagement with public health authorities and airport tenants, COVID-19 transmission incidents, cleaning and disinfection technologies, and policies and protocols regarding masks, hygiene, social distancing, screening, testing, and contact tracing. We then documented these insights in a report (Airport Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic) that describes airports’ experiences, challenges, and successes during their COVID-19 response, as well as valuable lessons learned on how commercial service airports can simultaneously sustain air travel, reduce disease transmission among their workers, and ensure passenger safety during future disease outbreaks.