Project Off The Ground

By Virginia Lee, Director: Media & Communications, ACI EUROPE

The full magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe with speed and shocking force. An escalating health issue in Asia was, within a matter of a few short and bewildering weeks, a near-global lockdown as the world braced. Our industry was of course amongst those feeling the full impact from the start. No-one reading this needs reminding of the images of row upon row of aircraft parked on the tarmac, and deserted terminal buildings.

In Brussels, ACI EUROPE was not only in crisis management mode, reporting on traffic data and representing our issues to the media and stakeholder audiences. We immediately set our minds and actions to restart and recovery. To paraphrase our President Jost Lammers, we could not afford to exit this crisis in the way we entered it. And so project Off The Ground was launched.

Cork Airport has implemented a series of measures across the terminal to protect the health and safety of passengers and staff, as it starts the gradual ramp-up of its operations to cater for more flights and passengers.

Restart, regain, restore

The core objectives of the Off The Ground project were threefold – to look towards the safe and smooth restart of operations, to regain passenger confidence, and to restore air connectivity. Clearly, this was a complex operation given the breadth of issues and the diversity of audiences with whom we needed to engage, and our imperative to influence and inform.

Mapping our outputs, we immediately began to plan for a range of position papers, guidance materials, tools and best practice sharing for our members. These activities, combining intensive policy advocacy with unprecedented communications co-ordination to reach industry, media, decision makers and consumers alike, were quickly underway. The project may have been multi-faceted, but the goals were straightforward: a co-ordinated and aligned EU, and the future viability of the airport industry and aviation as a whole.

Bologna Airport has implemented comprehensive measures to ensure social distancing in the terminal.

Future-proofing outputs: a strategic and comprehensive approach

Moving the project forwards, we followed a twin-track approach: to tackle the immediate crisis and ensure the airport industry’s place in all policy discussions around restart and recovery, but also to look to the longer term. Paving the way not only through restart but to sustained economic health was a must. Yet time was clearly of the essence, and to this end we quickly mobilised the expertise and manpower of our membership via our committees and fora. With a matter of a few short weeks, the recovery plan emerged and a range of guidelines and policy documents were in circulation.

Restart and operational issues, unsurprisingly, initially dominated the agenda. A mapping and assessment of sanitary measures, the commissioning of independent medical advice, and work with ACI WORLD and IATA were immediate priorities alongside establishing a plethora of working groups drawn from our membership. At the same time, communications teams built campaigns and platforms to ensure that the essential work which airports continued to undertake – facilitating relief services, repatriation flights and keeping supply chains moving – were recognised, and airport personnel were celebrated. Operational and business continuity remained a constant, whilst lobbying intensified around the need for any relief measures to be applied equally across all parts of the industry, never favouring one player over another.

Hermes Airports has implemented a number of health and safety measures. Those who enter the airports of Larnaka and Pafos will go through thermal screening, while the wearing of face masks is mandatory.

Today, with the gradual lifting of border restrictions and the restart of services, our Off The Ground project culminates with two landmark documents: our industry’s 10 Commitments to Passengers, Communities and Authorities, and a corresponding 10 Recommendations to National Authorities and the European Institutions. Our Commitments include a pledge to fully implement national health safety guidelines based on the EASA / ECDC COVID-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol, to enhance standards of cleaning and disinfection throughout airport premises, to encourage the use of touchless technology, biometrics and innovative solutions to reduce queues, and to ensure clear and up-to-date communication on health and sanitary measures to passengers. The Recommendations, which underline airports’ critical role in the economic development and the connectivity of their regions and communities, call on National Authorities and European Institutions to support industry’s own commitments and investments with proportionate regulation which must be risk-based and fit for purpose. ACI EUROPE asks policymakers to develop a clear plan to re-build air connectivity and re-invigorate tourism, championing collaboration at national and European levels and ensuring that no supporting measure benefits one actor in the air transport eco-system at the expense of another.

Looking to the future, we’re shortly to launch our Guidelines for a Healthy Passenger Experience at European Airports, which will not only provide a set of tools for all airports as we emerge from this crisis, but also ensure a robust response and recovery in the face of future scenarios. We’re also reaffirming our commitment to a sustainable recovery and the Net Zero 2050 commitment made by our industry – part of a concerted industry determination to ‘Build Back Better’.

You can find out more about all the Off The Ground initiatives, along with a showreel of all the measures put into place by our members as we restart services, by visiting the ACI EUROPE website (

Airport Business spoke with Morgan Foulkes, Deputy Director General of ACI EUROPE, about the Off The Ground project

What made you realise that a project like Off The Ground was needed?

We entered this crisis in a completely un-coordinated way with European countries closing their borders one after the other. Within a matter of weeks, freedom of movement within the Schengen area was gone. This was the worst possible scenario for our industry and unprecedented in modern aviation history. Many airports approached ACI EUROPE asking for coordinated action to address the multiple challenges vis-à-vis their airline customers and regulators. The real wake-up call for me was when a civil servant from a major aviation country in Europe told me “Don’t rely on Member States to re-open or relaunch aviation because it will not happen. You need to come up with an industry plan that we can build upon”. And he added “Put a robust case forward and don’t work in silos, work with the airlines”.

What sets the ACI EUROPE Off The Ground initiative apart, and how would you rate its success so far?

There were multiple initiatives like ours at both European and national level. That’s a good thing, because it focused minds on the need to find a way out of the crisis and on the restart and relaunch phase. What characterises Off The Ground is: it was launched in the very early days of the crisis, and it had a very broad scope covering many different aspects of our industry. The timing allowed us to provide input to decision-makers early on and to influence the process in a meaningful way on topics such as conditions of the restart, facilitation, health and safety, ground handling, State Aid, aviation security, capacity building, and economics.

Were there any surprises in the process? Any unexpected findings?

The most unexpected outcome of the crisis for me was the fact that it re-enforced the dominance of airlines in the airport-airline relationship in such an unprecedented way. This is the result of European governments financial rescue packages being targeted at large airlines coupled with the restructuring and downsizing of airlines. Airlines are now squeezing airports for huge discounts in charges in return for allocating their scarce assets.

What do you think will be the lasting effects of Off The Ground, beyond immediate recovery after the COVID-19 crisis?

The crisis cast new light on topics needing reform, such as slots, liberalisation, State Aid and airline ownership and control, making the need for reform even more acute in these areas. A number of our Off The Ground papers focus on the medium to long term and make strategic recommendations to help airports regain some of the connectivity lost during the crisis. These short recommendations will form the basis of a more developed advocacy to help our members face the challenges, and make the most of the post-COVID European aviation landscape.

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