Business as usual? Why the aviation industry cannot revert to its pre-pandemic ways

After a summer of chaotic scenes in airports and ever-changing travel restrictions, many in the aviation sector are longing for business to return to ‘normal’ and hankering for the pre-pandemic days. Returning to its old ways, however, is the worst thing that the industry could do. By Randel Darby, CEO and Co-Founder at Airportr.

The past 18 months, although extremely challenging, have given rise to a stronger and more resilient industry, one which is at long last futureproofing itself and embracing digital transformation. At a time where airline and airport resources are stretched and consumer confidence in travel is low, now is the time for the industry to double down on that transformation rather than reverting to historic processes and operations.

In choosing a path of digitalisation and innovation, the industry has a prime opportunity to improve its sustainability credentials and make long-term improvements to the passenger experience. If there was ever a time to improve and transform the industry, it’s now.

Accelerating innovation and digitisation

In the wake of the industry’s worst financial year, the aviation ecosystem has been tasked with how to restart operations with increased agility, depleted resources, and significantly less revenue. One need only look at the reports coming out of the UKs airports in recent months to realise that a systemic change is needed within the sector for it to find its feet again. Covid-19 outbreaks within the UK Border Force, influxes of passengers following updates to the traffic light system, and last-minute schedule changes are just some of the recent issues that airlines and airports have had to contend with.

The benefits of innovation and digitisation are clear, but the industry has been notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. Focusing instead on cosmetic improvements such as wider seats, catering, and in-flight entertainment, the sector has arguably been too short-sighted in its approach to improving passenger experience. Whilst the appetite to digitise and innovate may have been there, it had been stunted and delayed by the mammoth task of addressing legacy infrastructure and regulations. Fast-forward to 2021 and digitisation is no longer an exciting project to one-day explore, but rather a critical process to fully embrace.

The quandry that many airlines are finding themselves in was made all the more apparent when Monika Wiederhold, global lead for safe travel at Amadeus, explained that “The current need to hand-verify health documents while maintaining social distance means that some of our airline customers need around 90% of their check-in staff to process just 30% of passengers”. Operating at this level is simply not viable long-term.

These issues have accelerated the uptake of digital technologies and fast-tracked innovation across the industry. As summarised by the IATA in its post-Covid-19 vision for travel, there is a “…need for a flexible approach and resilience. In turn, this brings an urgency to put available technology to use, to provide this flexibility and unlock the full benefits which are achieved with global coordination rather than isolated approaches.”

This acceleration of digital innovation has manifested itself across the whole aviation industry ecosystem. Up until 18 months ago, the use of biometrics in airports, for example, was in its infancy but with the need to digitally verify identities tied to test results or health passports, and contactless methods now critical to inhibiting the transmission of Covid, biometric technology has gone mainstream.

What airlines and airports are understanding, too, is that these short-term solutions have long-term benefits to the passenger experience. The recent biometrics trial at Istanbul Airport, which was initially introduced to encourage passengers to touch as few surfaces as possible on their journey throughout the airport, also led to a 30% reduction in passenger boarding times.

Improving the passenger experience in terminals has been at the forefront of digital initiatives like the pre-ordering of products and services in airports without needing to queue or enter the retailer. Airlines, like those within the Lufthansa Group, have launched self-service baggage tracers, allowing passengers to file a missing bag report in moments by submitting their flight, baggage and passenger details a handful of steps using their smartphone.

Airlines are having to invest more in conversational and self-service technology, to enable them to talk to passengers in a human-like way but with automation. This requirement has been driven by the unprecedented scale of disruption and subsequent interactions they have had to manage with their customers. Additionally, they have had to introduce more automated workflows around recovery – for example when there are cancellations or disruption. Communication in real-time, issuance of vouchers and refunds to customers is now more instantaneous. This has changed the passenger experience for the good. No longer do you simply get a text from the airline to say your flight is cancelled, with no reasoning, and then have to spend hours on the phone to get a refund processed.

A sustainable future is within our reach

What is exciting about this digital revolution in the air transport industry, is that there is still so much more to be explored, however it is happening at a real pace. Concepts which once seemed futuristic and unattainable are now becoming a reality. By making technology the bedrock of operations, airlines, airports, and the various organisations that make up the ecosystem, are unlocking a world of opportunity.

For instance, several airports are planning infrastructure for the future whereby terminals have significantly less check-in points and baggage processing. To enable this streamlined vision of the future airport, we can expect to see more and more airports working towards off-site, advanced processing. Effectively this would enable airports to reduce their real estate and contribute to net zero strategies.

The off-site processing of bags will also help mitigate the emissions associated with air travel. One of the industry’s most stringent, tangible, and immediate sustainability targets is to change the way passengers get to the airport, by encouraging public transport usage. This involves changing consumer behaviour and building trust in the reliable alternatives to make it achievable. For instance, most major UK airports are introducing vehicle drop-off fees to deter vehicle usage, however as long as passengers are laden with baggage, the use of public transport will only ever go so far. By leveraging technology, airlines and airports can process passengers separately from their baggage, allowing them to travel light to the airport and seamlessly through the terminals.

Digital technologies are therefore serving not only to make the passenger experience positive and Covid-safe in the short-term but also laying the foundations for the industry to streamline operations, stay agile, and meet its sustainability targets. The reopening of international travel may have had its teething problems, but the future certainly looks bright for air transport.

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