Preparation by airports for a potential pandemic like COVID-19 should focus on two primary missions: 1) maintaining strong business continuity through continuity of operations plans, and 2) ensuring human resources and other policies are identified to support sick or quarantined staff. The complexity of airports means meeting these missions requires coordination, buy-in, and common goals among a variety of stakeholders. We have spent nearly 40 years collectively in the field of emergency management critical infrastructure industries, with a specific focus on airports. Based on that experience, we have identified five critical steps airports should be taking right now to prepare to deal with disruption to their business operations from COVID-19:
1. REVIEW PLANS
Continuity planning is foundational to addressing a pandemic. All airports should already have existing continuity, pandemic and other related plans drafted. However, for those that do not, it is critical to develop them immediately. Airports and airlines need to use those plans to identify how to continue their essential business functions when operating with limited staff, when more employees are working remotely than normal, or when supply chains are interrupted – either up or downstream.
Successfully managing human resources is a top priority in planning for issues surrounding illness and quarantine. Airports need to consider which functions are temporarily unnecessary, which functions can be conducted through automation, and which require human contact with potentially exposed areas or customers. A secondary consideration is how to manage workers who may not have sick or vacation benefits available, yet may at some point face a choice about whether to come to work sick. Airports also need to address any overtime pay policies for salaried employees working emergency events or union issues with new working environments.
Once essential functions are identified, airports will need to determine the services necessary to support the functions. Impacts to suppliers and contractors should be evaluated as well. This evaluation occurs by identifying how many resources are on hand (whether personnel or materials), how long before that resource is depleted, and the time it will take to restore that resource to normal operating capacity or levels.
COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate about how it infects. Airports need to update all orders of succession and delegations of authority in the event senior management are affected and unavailable. This effort should include identifying, at minimum, three personnel for each executive and leadership position. A critical distinction to bear in mind is that orders of succession determine who can act on the behalf of another person, while delegations of authority only permit specific authorities (such as spending authorities).
2. PRACTICE IMPLEMENTATION
For those airports with plans in place, now is the time to conduct drills and exercises to test and stress. The goal isn’t to rubber stamp existing plans. It’s to identify important gaps and unmet needs and then work through solutions to address them. There are a wide range of available tabletop emergency continuity planning tests airports can facilitate to test their existing plans. There is also an entire community of emergency management professionals who can assist in airport efforts to help achieve a successful result.
3. TEST SYSTEMS
Remote work is one of the most common and effective solutions to business operations during a pandemic. However, working from home is highly dependent on technological capabilities. Therefore, one of the most critical planning pieces airports can be doing at this time is testing such systems.
A simple drill may be to have employees send an email to stress the networks to see what happens when a significant number of workers try to access the server at the same time. Home telephone and internet services are important to test in addition to ensuring that data is backed up and accessible to staff working remotely. Finally, it is vital to gauge whether existing cloud service providers have their own plans for disruptions and staffing plans to respond to interruptions.
Testing these systems can identify service problems in employees’ homes that could prevent them from participating in virtual meetings and conference calls. These can reveal limiting factors or unmet needs that could be rectified with some simple solutions identified through a collaborative planning process amongst airport stakeholders and partners. This feedback loop on testing is a critical element to successful business continuity and continuity of operations planning.
4. ORGANIZE COMMUNICATIONS
If employees will be working remotely, airport operators must be able to communicate with them quickly and effectively. This requires knowing exactly how to reach each employee and confirming that the system in place to communicate with them works as intended. The first step to organizing employee communications is to update emergency contact information for all staff and make sure teams understand how they will be contacted.
Once a thorough update and review has been completed, it’s time to test the airport’s emergency notification systems to ensure staff can receive information. That process should closely scrutinize gaps in correct contact information and any challenges that arise in pushing information out. How about pulling information in? Don’t forget to check on the wellbeing of employees regularly and have an established portal for reporting changes or getting help, such as an employee assistance program.
5. PREPARE MESSAGING
The decision to activate continuity plans can have important impacts on airport staff, business, and public image. Activating continuity plans should have a specific procedure with well identified and communicated authorities. Once continuity plans are in place, it is critical to communicate this activity to staff, contractors, regulators, and business partners, not only upon activation, but at regular intervals. Airports can create the templates for those communications in advance and develop a well-defined structure for updates to stakeholders, including government partners, Boards of Directors, airlines, vendors and others.
No matter how advanced an airport’s plans are, it is never too late to get started updating them. Ensuring these five key areas are reviewed, discussed, and planned for can make a big difference in lessening COVID-19’s impact on airports and their employees as well as enhancing the success of long-term recovery.
For more information, visit our COVID-19 webpage.
Stephanie Murphy and Ashlee Delventhal are respectively Assistant Vice President, and Director of Preparedness, Resiliency and Emergency Management for Tidal Basin, LLC. Stephanie previously served as Emergency Manager for Washington Dulles International and Washington Reagan National Airports and Ashlee previously served as Assistant Director of Emergency Management at Denver International Airport.