Travel and COVID-19: Inside the deserted, 'zombie' airports of the travel apocalypse

They are the living dead of aviation. "Zombie airports" spread around the world, from Mexico to Spain and Germany to Cyprus, that failed to take off and were abandoned with the only visible sign of flight being the tumbleweeds bouncing  in the air down deserted runways and through empty terminals. Never did the operators of mega-airports such as Heathrow, Changi and Hong Kong ever expect to join such company.

Even through their collective conditions aren't quite terminal – or at least not yet – the impact of the global pandemic has rendered such behemoths giant ghost towns and haunting parking lots for grounded aircraft.

"Airports are doing as badly as airlines and there's probably little they can do about it," says Dr Cheng-Lung Wu, associate professor at the University of NSW's School of Aviation. "Fortunately, based on past experience, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, airline capacity has always bounced back and fully recovered but this time it all depends on when travel restrictions are lifted."

Nor will the cause of airports be helped by the fact that international and domestic travel will not recommence simultaneously, leaving a large portion of their facilities underused or more likely unused. Even if Virgin Australia, which entered voluntary administration this week, were to somehow survive it will still need, just like any airline, functioning and financially viable airports, from which to take off and land.

In the meantime, airports around the world have become a photographer's fantasy of plane and passenger-free glass, concrete and asphalt. Fortunately, none match the extreme zombie or ghost airports such as Nicosia International Airport in Cyprus which has remained in ruins since it was bombed by the Turkish in its 1974 invasion.

Then there's Mexico's $US13 billion Texcoco Airport which was scrapped a few years ago after $US5 billion was spent on it while Germany's ignominious Berlin Brandenberg Airport whose painfully protracted opening scheduled for later this year has been delayed for the umpteenth time due to the health dangers posed by the coronavirus to its construction workers.

For one of the world's 10 busiest airports, London's Heathrow has temporarily closed its Terminals  3 and 4 with what flights remain operating from Terminals 2 and 5 while the airport has moved to a single runway operation. Elsewhere, Singapore's Changi Airport, perennially judged the world's best,  has closed Terminal 2 for a period of 18 months, an indication of how long its operators expect air traffic to resume to pre-COVID-19 levels.

In Australia, where there are a total 613 airports including all international and domestic  and private and military facilities, Sydney Airport, with travel bans by the Federal Government now taking full effect, this week reported that its international and domestic passenger traffic had fallen more than 96 per cent and 97 per cent respectively.

Geoffrey Thomas, a leading aviation commentator and editor-in-chief of airlineratings.com says that air traffic and passenger numbers at the existing Sydney Airport could take considerable time to recover.

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"The impact of the coronavirus will be significant on air travel and will clearly slow demand for about 12 months," says Thomas. "I don't expect the airline growth trend, which is typically linked to the health of the economy, to be back to its pre-coronavirus trajectory until late 2021."

Sydney and Melbourne Airports  have in effect been reduced to the status of barely glorified regional airports and the Australian Airports Association recently estimated aeronautical revenue for the country's major airports will collectively fall by more than $500 million this year.

"We know that every part of the industry is feeling the impact of this situation and our airports are working with all of the airlines, retailers and businesses that rely on us and the passengers we serve," said Simon Bourke,  chief executive officer of the Australian Airport Association. "Every passenger who doesn't use the airport is a loss not only to us, but to the retailers in our terminals, the taxi and uber drivers, and other airport businesses"

 Chief executive of Melbourne Airport  Lyell Strambi, describes the pandemic as the worst crisis to hit the facility in 30 years with the decline in travellers not only affecting airlines.

"Of course, the loss in passengers is felt many times over, it's not just one less person flying but also one less person buying a meal or coffee, one less purchasing retail items and one less catching transport. The Virgin situation is potentially another seismic shock to domestic aviation in Australia on top of the demand destruction brought about by COVID-19."  

Elsewhere. Sydney and NSW are faced with the dubious global distinction of building a new $5.3 billion second airport at Badgerys Creek, more than 50 kilometres west of the Sydney CBD while  the main airport its meant to relieve and complement is in near total abeyance.  Melbourne, similarly, plans to build a long overdue rail link to its now dormant main airport which could cost up to $13 billion.

Max Hirsh, a research professor at the University of Hong Kong and chief executive of Urban Experts, is an authority on airports.

He says that airports are planned with a timeline of decades, not years. A second Sydney airport will still be needed as will the rail link to Melbourne Tullamarine facility, with the Victorian capital set to eventually eclipse Sydney as Australia's most populous city

"Even if we experience a recession lasting into the early 2020s, airports will need to increase their capacity if they want to remain competitive," says Hirsh. "That's especially true for growing cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where many people rely on air travel to maintain personal and professional ties, and where other long-distance transport modes aren't an option. It would be pretty difficult to build a high-speed railway to Australia."

But Hirsh concedes that the short-term outlook for airports is challenging with many forced to shut down entire  terminals, or even close completely. Successful airports will use that time to prepare for a much bigger challenge than COVID-19: climate change.

"Compared to their international competitors, Australian airports have a lot of catching up to do. This is a good moment to retrofit airport terminals to make them more energy efficient, and to invest in projects that encourage passengers to go to the airport by train instead of by car. Projects like the Western Sydney airport and the Tullamarine rail link will help prepare Australia for the coming energy transition. They'll also create thousands of jobs. Given the current economic outlook, that's a big plus."

Indeed, with unemployment rising Alan Tudge, the Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure described the new airport, far from being a zombie airport in the making, as "a crucial piece of Australia's aviation future" that will be a world-leading airport for Australians and international visitors.

"[Western Sydney Airport] will provide an economic boost to the entire Western Sydney region," Tudge said. "It will support over 11,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction period and 28,000 full-time jobs within five years of opening, delivering real, long-term benefits to the Western Sydney community. Construction is on track for a 2026 take-off and there is no plan for any of that to change."

See also: World's best airport shutters terminal for 18 months

See also: 'Unprecedented times': Australia's airports scrap parking fees

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