MIAMI – 2020 has been a rough year for the aviation industry, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the most severe drop in travel demand since the 9/11 attacks.
There isn’t much in the industry that hasn’t been forced to change in order to adapt to these new circumstances. From airlines to airports to even flight training schools, everyone in aviation is feeling the effects.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is the busiest airport in the world, based on pre-pandemic passenger numbers, and serves as the global headquarters for Delta Air Lines (DL). It also happens to be my home base airport.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Mayers, who serves as the Director of Customer Experience for ATL. We spoke about how the airport first reacted to the stark decrease in demand at the initial onset of the virus, what new safety measures they have implemented to combat the spread of coronavirus, and how the ATL team plans to move forward in order to get operations back to running at the capacity they were before the pandemic.
Below is a transcript of the interview. The bolded text is my questions, and the following text is Mr. Mayers responses.
Hi Mr. Mayers, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me. I want to talk a little bit about the initial reactions of the ATL team when you first realized that this pandemic was going to cause some serious issues. Obviously, no one saw something like this coming, especially after Atlanta’s resident giant Delta Air Lines had just come out of 2019 with record breaking numbers, so I’m curious as to what that thought process was.
So as an airport, we actually do a whole lot of what we call “tabletop exercises” where we rehearse how we would respond to all kinds of things. We take situations such as SARS or Ebola and use those as examples for exercises where we figure out what we would do.
So, if the question is, ‘were we prepared?’, then yes, we always are because we rehearse it over and over. We have members from the CDC in Atlanta in the room with us, and we go from there.
So once everyone sort of came to terms with the fact that this was really going to be a substantial impact on the airport environment, what were the first things that went on the to do list in terms of increasing the airport’s health and safety levels?
So, with the onset of COVID, we just started to implement all the things we had rehearsed. The first part of which being that you have to understand what’s happening. We knew we had a disease that was spread through the air, so what do we do to protect life and limb of others? How do we achieve our goal of lessening the transmission rates here at the airport?
First off, we need PPE, we need to brief our stakeholders, we need to ask all of our contractors to come up with a plan of action as to how they are going to protect the public and their employees. We need to figure out how all the information is going to flow to everyone from an organizational perspective.
We also determined that we needed to do social distancing signs, and we already clean a lot here, but we need to clean more frequently, things like that. We have all these templates for everything, be it an active shooter in the building, a bomb, or a disease, so we just implement those tools that we have already.
Was there any sort of stumble moving from these tabletop exercise rehearsals to actually having to implement these protocols in real life, or was it a pretty seamless transition? I have traveled out of ATL several times during the pandemic and personally, I think everyone on the ATL team has been doing an excellent job sticking to the new way of operation.
Everything cannot be covered in one of these tabletop exercises of course, because there are so many nuances out there that are specific to the situation and the moment. Those are the things that can be the most frustrating to try to understand what’s happening.
So for instance, we have federal, state, and local government, we have the FAA that we answer to, we have TSA, we have the airlines that we partner with, we have all these moving parts in the organization, and trying to get everyone on the same page can be a challenge.
There are also airport pressure groups that want regulated, streamlined rules, that may just not be possible right out of the gate. One great thing is the Airports Council International that is part of the conversation as well, and they try to get best practices set up across the board. So really the biggest challenge was just figuring out how all the moving parts would affect the organization.
It sounds like you definitely had a very large support network through all of this. You mentioned airline partners, and obviously Delta’s presence here is a very large one, so did they play a role in helping get the airport ready for this?
The backstory here is important to the question, so let’s talk about that first. Most airports in the United States are owned/operated by the localities, and then within that ecosystem the general management of the airport has agreements with our airline partners, the rental car companies, the concessions providers, etc. There are also some departments that the airport retains, like security; we work with CBP, we work with TSA, and so forth.
So, while those entities are here on a contractual basis, and pay to be here, they are still obligated to conform to the laws of the cities they are in, as well as the FAA. There are certain things that we have to do that involve them, like the exercises I was talking about before, they are a part of all that.
We can turn to partners like Delta and say, ‘okay, what are you going to do for your space and your people? What are rules that you have?’. But whatever Delta is doing is just for Delta. Other partners may have completely different modes of operation.
So, we can facilitate what the partners want to do, but the airport ecosystem is complicated and that’s why understanding the role that each entity plays is so important.
So physically, ATL is of course a very big airport. What was it like scaling back such a large infrastructure to work with a much smaller level of demand than normal? I know that some of the concourses were temporarily closed, so what all goes into something like that?
The majority of the gates here at the airport are specific to airlines. That is part of what they lease from us, so most of the decisions on that sort of thing were up to the respective airlines.
If they normally use the concourse, and determine that the level of demand no longer constitutes using that concourse, they can choose to not do business from that terminal and consolidate into one area.
That type of consolidation really is pretty easy, and it is equally as easy to open back up. The biggest effect of scaling back was actually on our concessions partners. They pay the airport what is called a minimum annual guarantee, sort of like rent, and then they share revenue with the airport. So, when you have all these places shut down, the airport is losing out on revenue.
Moving forward, when things start to pick back up to levels more like what were seen before the start of the pandemic (hopefully sooner rather than later), what is the airport’s plan to ramp back up operations to accommodate the increase in travel demand? You said it was a fairly easy process, so is that something you have been practicing for as well? Or is that process more one day at a time?
That again goes back to simply who controls what. We are the franchisor; they are the franchisee. We haven’t taken anything away from anybody, so the decision about when to open things back up is theirs. We can’t force anyone to reopen, because they pay us, not the other way around.
I know this may seem like a weird question, but do you guys on the airport leadership team view anything that has been brought about through all this as positive changes that will be sticking around as permanent practices once the pandemic is over?
Maybe not so much permanent changes, but everything being slowed down has given us the opportunity to get some much needed maintenance and construction done on our facilities, as well as refresh and upgrade them. That has been the biggest positive thing for us.
Through all the different data collection that we do, we have actually seen an increase in our customer satisfaction ratings. Now it’s just a matter of making a plan to maintain that.
Is there anything else in terms of airport operations or any sort of changes/improvements you would like people to know about?
We just opened the new south security checkpoint for TSA Precheck and Clear travelers, which features new top tier screening equipment that no other airport in the United States has. The new checkpoint will help us process folks faster and improve the value of the data collection we are able to use for further airport improvements.
We are also improving wait times at all our checkpoints, and we have heat mapping technology to measure the lines. That information is taken and interpreted into an estimated wait time, which is then published online. And, there is of course the big investments we have made lately into new cleaning technology throughout the airport.
Well thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with me, I really appreciate it. Where can people find information and stay up to date about what is going on at ATL? Any particular websites or social media channels?
They can go to ATL.com and our whole playbook is on there for public viewing. Also, the airport management staff is very accessible and that information is on the website as well.
* portions of this transcript have been edited for clarity
Featured image: The Atrium, a large common area that serves as a pre-security food court, shopping area, and waiting area at ATL has had all of the seating removed to better enable social distancing. Photo: Author