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Awaiting departure, 6 feet away: How will airport holdrooms adjust?

September 08, 2020

Smart options for seating space and scalable solutions for commercial offerings will make our return to travel a more relaxing and positive experience

By Cecilia Einarson and Nancy Stern

Prior to the pandemic, the typical travel experience from screening to gate included stops at concessions, busy airline lounges, amenities, casual seating, and holdroom seating as you await your departure. Boarding announcements rallied passengers to stand in queues for on-board seating zones that flowed into crowded public corridors. Today, our lives have been altered by masks, hand washing/sanitizers, and social distancing. How will airports pivot to the “new normal” without major infrastructure costs while creating confidence in travel?

We do not know how long the full return to nonessential travel will take but it’s slowly happening. The value of a comfortable and pleasant travel experience is now even more important than pre-COVID, and passengers will demand a healthy, safe, and clean airport. Check-in and screening processes are changing to meet these expectations. Let’s look at what happens after passenger screening and prior to take–off. 

Flexible seating in holdrooms provides options for boarding passengers in designated areas. Seattle Tacoma International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Vitra)

How will dwell time be spent and how will passengers board flights?

As we transition into the early stages of a return to travel, aircraft load factors will be minimal and slowly build back to early 2020 levels (or pre-COVD levels). We looked a variety of scenarios to see how gate seating would be impacted by the number of passengers per flight and the need for social distancing.

The “right size” holdrooms will depend on passenger volumes, terminal layouts, and commercial offerings with airports needing to rethink seating configuration to meet the criteria for social distancing. Many will not have the ability to remove seats and will install a variety of methods to block out seats to meet a 2 meter (6 feet) spacing. Our first scenario assumes a 50% aircraft load factor which equates to requiring 128 seats in the holdroom with a reasonable ability to maintain social distancing.

What can airports expect when the number of passengers exceeds the available seating with social distancing? To get a visual understanding we used this model to explore the impact on seating from pre-COVID through scenarios of growth with the return to travel.

Using a typical wide body gate, our animation model shows the seating capacity and boarding flows pre-COVID and as travel begins to return.

Typical holdrooms include seating, standing areas, agent gate counter, boarding queue, circulation, technology, and amenities. Scenarios based on IATA average of seating capacity of aircraft expected. Credits: Animation in PlaneSimple Airport Planning Tool created by Stantec designers Alyssa Hass, Adam Ramsay, and Alvaro Fernandez de Mesa.

Social distancing will change how gate seating will be utilized but boarding procedures will also be impacted. It’s likely that boarding “zones” will be even more critical to moving passengers onto the aircraft. Loading from the back row forward helps to maintain social distancing and passenger confidence. Knowing this process, passengers can assess when they need to arrive at their gate and possibly where to sit in the holdroom. 

Passengers with restricted mobility and families may not board first and may need designated areas within the holdrooms, allowing more flexibility so those boarding first can sit near the gate. Holdrooms may also need options for standing areas at existing gates.

As passenger loads increase and social distancing remains intact, the level of service for available holdroom seating will need to adjust. Not all passengers boarding a flight will find a seat at their boarding gate. As our model shows, as the number of passengers increase per flight fewer seats will be available. Airports will need to rethink established expectations with the new reality of how holdrooms will operate.

Digital information wall with interactive video, activated by boarding pass scanner. Boston Logan International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Art of Context © 2020 all rights reserved.)

Who gets a seat at the gate? What can I explore while I wait? What to expect?

To manage the loss of seating at gates due to social distancing, airports can consider many alternatives to enhance the passenger experience. A variety of amenities and the commercial offerings can help offset holdroom capacity issues while increasing much needed commercial revenue. Now more than ever, travelers will need options beyond sitting at the gate including expanded shopping experience and additional restaurants, bars, and food court offerings.

In addition to shopping and dining, airports have other options to enhance the pre-boarding experience:

  • Increase Flight Information Display locations
  • Visual paging
  • Real-time boarding information and airport mobile apps
  • Signage showing walking distances to and from holdrooms
  • Pop-up retail options close to gates to provide an alternative to gate seating
  • Concierge and reserved space in holdrooms—possibly revenue generating
  • Robotic assistance for touchless delivery; preordering, online ordering, pick up areas, etc.
  • Entertainment zones with music and screening areas for documentaries/movies/travel
The “right size” holdrooms will depend on passenger volumes, terminal layouts, and commercial offerings.

What about the experience of retail, food, and beverage?

Commercial concessions will need to adapt to the growing number of passengers who are unable to find a seat in the holdrooms. As shown in our model, the tipping point where airports will require adjacent retail, food, and beverage (F&B) to be open when the capacity of a holdroom reaches 50% of an aircraft capacity. Airports and concession tenants should work together for early planning to access passengers needs at the right moment of the return to travel. The right quantity of concessions will deliver an effective and enhanced shopping experience. As an early start, a key focus will be travel essential (e.g., news and gifts) stores and quick serve restaurants. We also expect “grab & go” offerings, including in full-service restaurant environments, will become part of the culture of airports. 

New seating opportunities will show up in spaces with views to concession areas. Rome-Fiumicino International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Stern)

What new experiences can we expect in and around holdrooms?

Airports will need to keep passengers more informed to reduce stress by providing real-time signage, visual paging for clear navigation from and to holdrooms, touchless technology, and value-added services. Airports will need to create engaging experiences to meet passenger needs and expectations. Some examples are providing family areas near gates, concierge services and reserved spaces, robotic assistance for touchless delivery of preordered food and retail, and adapting underutilized areas for new seating, quiet spaces, workspace, etc.

As airports look to provide a comfortable and pleasant experience for travelers, they will need to adapt holdrooms, open space, and concession areas that install a feeling of safety, health, and value.

Air travel will pick up again and the airport experience in holdrooms will feel different. Smart options for seating space and scalable solutions for commercial and F&B offerings triggered at the right capacity will make our return to travel a more relaxing and positive experience.

About the Authors

Cecilia Einarson is a Stantec senior principal and Airport Terminals Sector Leader based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Nancy Stern is the In-House Architect for the Vancouver International Airport.

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