Navigating a new way forward for safe air travel at SFO

Noble Horvath

Ivar Satero, Airport Director at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), speaks to International Airport Review about the ways in which the airport is adapting to the unprecedented challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, and how it is not letting the health crisis stunt its growth and development. Who did […]

Ivar Satero, Airport Director at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), speaks to International Airport Review about the ways in which the airport is adapting to the unprecedented challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, and how it is not letting the health crisis stunt its growth and development.

Who did SFO consult in the decision making regarding which safety protocols to introduce to the airport?

We rely on the expertise of health professionals to guide our efforts at SFO. We work closely with our federal partner, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), along with local health agencies to ensure that we’re implementing the very best measures to protect our passengers and employees.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the following measures have been implemented at SFO:

  • Universal facial mask requirement in all airport facilities (first in the U.S.)
  • Creation of stations in each terminal to distribute face masks at no cost
  • Launch of the ‘TravelWell Ambassadors’ programme to help passengers to comply with mask requirements
  • Installation of over 15,000 physical distancing markers at airline ticket counters, security checkpoints, seating areas and baggage claim areas
  • Deployment of hundreds of hand sanitisers in all terminals
  • Installation of hundreds of clear protective barriers at information booths, security checkpoints and gate podiums
  • Launch of touchless technology programmes, including ‘Simplified Arrivals’, which uses biometric facial comparison technology to allow for a faster, more touchless arrival for international travellers
  • Deployment of ultraviolet disinfection technology in air conditioning systems and high-touch areas, such as escalator handrails 
  • Expanded cleaning and disinfection efforts, using federally approved products and no-touch spraying systems
  • Launch of onsite rapid COVID-19 testing capabilities (first U.S. airport to achieve this).

How did you introduce these new measures without disrupting airport operations and the passenger experience?

In most cases, the measures above were implemented without disruption, due to the reduced passenger activity levels resulting from the pandemic. We also closed one concourse in our international terminal for five months, which allowed for the accelerated implementation of both the measures above and other routine maintenance efforts.

Navigating a new way forward for safe air travel at SFO

To what extent are passengers adhering to the new measures?

We regularly audit passenger compliance with physical distancing and facial mask requirements, and we are seeing an adherence that exceeds 95 per cent.

During this down time in regard to flights departing from and arriving at SFO, are there any ongoing considerations on the topic of modernising the flight paths?

Although this is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we have taken advantage of the reduced flight activity to accelerate runway maintenance projects. This month, we will perform a refurbishment of one of the busiest areas of our runway system, a project that was originally planned for 2022. By doing this work now, we will dramatically reduce the potential for flight delays and cancellations. We’re also taking this opportunity to move forward with the deployment of a new Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS), which is a new landing system that uses GPS to give pilots greater precision than current Instrument Landing Systems. This technology may allow for improvements in the noise experienced by cities around SFO by allowing aircraft to fly higher, or further offshore, before landing at SFO.

SFO AirportDo you believe rapid testing is a better choice over travel corridors?

Rapid testing is clearly emerging as an important step in recovering air travel, by opening corridors between markets such as the UK and U.S. There will likely be other measures that follow, including a health certification process when a vaccine is approved. These forthcoming measures must work together with the many steps we’ve already taken to provide confidence and certainty to travellers regarding their own health, and the health of other travellers.

How has the U.S. government assisted SFO and other U.S. airports during COVID-19? What else could have been done in the recovery period?

The U.S. government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which allows eligible airports to get reimbursed for financial shortfalls resulting from the pandemic. SFO expects to receive about $254 million in reimbursements from this legislation and has already started receiving such reimbursements.

We are also hopeful that another round of government funding will be available to U.S. airports. We also hope that the government recognises the critical role that air travel plays in economic recovery and supports concepts like ‘air bridges’, bilateral agreements that establish safe corridors for travel that help restore confidence for passengers.

SFO AirportHow will SFO continue to keep the passenger experience a priority when the needs of the future passenger are not determined?

Our Core Values guide all of the actions of our airport, and ‘Care’ is a key value for SFO, adopted in 2019, prior to the pandemic, to align our organisation with focusing on the needs of our passengers and providing an exceptional experience. This is serving us well at this incredibly challenging time. Creating a programme like our ‘TravelWell Ambassadors’ is an acknowledgement that travel is changing, and we need to be ready to support our passengers through this change as the ‘new normal’ of air travel comes into focus. 

How has COVID-19 changed SFO’s vision of the future?

This isn’t the first time that events have reshaped the nature of our business, and many of the initiatives – like the expanded use of biometrics for touchless travel – were already in progress before the pandemic. Now, of course, they take on a newfound importance. Our vision, as it has always been, is to be an airport that helps to lead the transformation of our business, always with the intention of offering our travellers the safest, healthiest and most enjoyable airport experience possible.

Ivar Satero SFOIvar Satero was appointed as Airport Director of San Francisco International Airport on 21 July 2016. Ivar began his career with the airport in 1994, managing projects of the airport’s $3 billion Master Plan Expansion Program. He served as the Project Manager for transit projects, including the AirTrain System and the Airport BART Station. From 2003 to 2014, Ivar served as Deputy Airport Director for the Design & Construction Division, overseeing the implementation of the airport’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The major initiatives of the airport’s $7.2 billion CIP include the Terminal 1 Redevelopment Program, Terminal 3 West Renovation, Baggage Handling System Modernisation, AirTrain Extension to Long-Term Parking, a 2nd Long Term Parking facility and the Airport Grand Hyatt Hotel. In April 2014, Ivar was appointed Chief Operating Officer, overseeing Planning, Design & Construction, Operations & Security, Information Technology & Telecommunications and Facilities Maintenance, as well as other various operating divisions at SFO. Ivar currently serves on the Board of the San Francisco Travel Association and on the Executive Committee of the Bay Area Council. Ivar is the current Chair of the Gateway Airports Council. He is also President of the Board of the International Partnering Institute. Ivar has a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from San Jose State University and an MBA in Finance from San Francisco State University. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in the State of California. He also holds a private pilot’s license. 

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