Runway to Recovery During COVID-19: Aviation Accessibility Through An Equity Lens
Transportation plays a fundamental role in quality of life, social equity, and economic vitality. The aviation system does this by connecting individuals to large-scale domestic and global trade and tourism opportunities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the landscape of air transportation: McKinsey and the Wall Street Journal report billions in financial losses for the aviation industry, demand shocks especially for business trips, thousands of flight cancellations, and labor shortages facing airlines and airports. As we move from crisis to recovery, airlines seek to rebuild their services and operations while airports look to incentivize airlines to improve service in certain regions. The recent passage of the 2021 federal infrastructure bill allocates $25 billion for aviation infrastructure with a prioritization on projects that improve accessibility to the aviation system for historically disadvantaged populations. With these newly defined planning objectives, focused spending on projects that improve aviation accessibility could prove beneficial to diverse travelers, truly redefining how vulnerable populations are able to travel by air. Federal stakeholders should leverage the transition from the pandemic to develop aviation systems under a paradigm of accessibility.
Prior to and during the pandemic, airport development has largely focused on planning around mobility, rather than accessibility, often using on-time performance as an indicator for efficiency. Delay, arrival, and departure statistics have been widely used to capture aviation system performance from an airline or airport perspective; extensive scholarship to analyze delay management programs highlights this as a policy objective. When faced with worsening on-time performance due to congestion, airports expand capacity and build additional infrastructure like runways and terminal space that degrade quality of service and worsen existing congestion issues. Not only that, but this delay-based planning process also exacerbates inequity in airfare and deepens environmental externalities that disproportionately affect neighboring, low-income communities. Thus, planning practices for aviation infrastructure development have led to inequitable outcomes, expanding air services for the least constrained travelers rather than improving accessibility for disadvantaged populations.
Developing an Equity-based Accessibility Method
To more equitably plan for airport development and air services for lower income populations, we need to both center equity and accessibility as a core planning metric and redefine accessibility to reflect the constraints or restrictions that individuals face in accessing air travel. A planning tool that centers equity and accessibility would weigh aviation system design variables and individual traveler characteristics into a single accessibility assessment. Based on the work of Wachs and Kumagai, the metric should satisfy the following objectives:
- Balance supply of travel opportunities with a demand-side, “impedance” measure that accounts for transportation barriers due to airfare, travel time, reliability, and airport access
- Define “cohorts” based on socioeconomic variables to capture benefits and disbenefits of the impacts of air travel for different populations
- Output an accessibility “score” that captures the tradeoffs across transportation characteristics, individual traveler variables, and supply
- Allow comparison of these scores across different locations as well as scenario analysis to quantify how service improvements may impact accessibility
- Utilize publicly available data sources of an open-source nature
Ultimately, this type of accessibility model must be developed methodologically by researchers and be implemented practically to the benefit of a variety of stakeholders, including both federal agencies and local communities.
Recommendations on Building an Equity-Based Planning Tool
Funding allocated toward improving ground accessibility for disadvantaged populations should go towards building and implementing an equity-based accessibility planning tool. The FAA’s Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) funds research programs in collaboration with various stakeholders with a focus on implementing practical resources that airport operations can utilize. Increasing funding for projects related to developing an equity-based aviation accessibility planning tool would help promote the usage of this tool in practice. A possible federal program that we could learn from is the Essential Air Service, which aims to increase rural access by incentivizing airlines to increase services for smaller communities.
While previous policy decisions point to an understanding that quantifying and measuring aviation accessibility is important, a consensus around defining accessibility in the planning community should be achieved from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives. For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the enumeration of social, economic, and environmental impacts with a focus on different populations before any large-scale federal action, but rather than assessing these impacts comprehensively, outcomes are simply disclosed.
As accessibility is not shaped by a standard, accepted definition and practice, initiatives that seek to expand accessibility are often subject to political intervention due to the lack of technical clarity in reports: the expansion of London Heathrow’s third runway is an example of such a mobility-focused investment. Developing a clear and consistent framework around accessibility in the context of aviation, drawing from established theoretical criteria from the urban planning community, is critical in supporting equity-focused investments to achieve a sustainable path to recovery from the pandemic.
Additionally, we can further inform strategic decision-making through cross-agency collaboration and engagement with community stakeholders when considering a potential investment. Examples of community engagement include qualitatively surveying various populations of interest, outreach to community leaders of advocacy organizations, and engagement with urban and regional planning authorities.
With the aviation industry significantly altered with the Covid-19 pandemic, now is the time to create and implement new aviation systems planning processes. As we enter a critical recovery period, we have a unique opportunity to re-prioritize planning paradigms around equitable access and build new aviation infrastructure that reflects these priorities.
The author would like to acknowledge Dr. Megan Ryerson for feedback and suggestions on previous drafts, as well as her continued support and mentorship.