The aviation industry has been under a magnifying glass because of the global transmission of COVID-19. Swift response, actionable change, and wide-spread implementation has been expected from airports. Passenger volumes are at record lows and airports must now make every effort to secure both business and leisure travellers’ confidence again. But what exactly are the right changes to make? While innovation and technology providers are continuing to provide solutions for industry stakeholders, airports and airlines now must discern in what and how to invest given the abundance of solutions racing to market. But are airports and airlines making sustainable efforts and investments that will last beyond the current crisis or are they focusing on the quick resolve?
The aviation industry is no stranger to crises and change. Most notably in recent years, the impacts of the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 paved the way for more thorough global and nationwide security screening requirements, creating agencies that continue to operate today. The SARS outbreak deeply affected passenger volumes in East Asia and Canada between 2002 and 2003 and created passenger concern for the health and safety of air travel across the globe. Technology implementations in response to the virus were short lived after the outbreak was diminished.
Today, discussion of best practices for prevention of spread of COVID-19 in the aviation sector range from short-term implementations to long-term major capital projects. Navigating the future impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the travel industry can feel a bit like looking into a crystal ball. While action is most certainly appropriate in the immediate future to ensure a safe travel environment, airports and airlines must think critically as to what methods are sustainable for defense against future crises. For the immediate restart of business, documentation on guidance and best practices are available. Understanding the budgetary constraints currently experienced by airports and airlines, it is crucial that their investments in response to the current pandemic be resilient enough to not only protect against the next biological threat, but to also continue to uphold operational efficiency for the future. But what does the future of travel look like?
ACI and IATA’s NEXTT initiative (New Experience Travel Technologies) aims to create a shared vision for the future travel experience. The NEXTT initiative identifies key concepts in the baggage, cargo, passenger and aircraft journey that will increase operational efficiency by leveraging new and emerging technology. These concepts include the promotion of off-airport activities, advanced processing, and interactive decision making. Within these concepts, NEXTT encourages airports and airlines to invest in these technologies and ideals to establish resilient processes that will deliver them to the shared understanding of what the future of air travel should be. While no one could have predicted the impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the question is now, are the proposed concepts still relevant in the post-pandemic state and beyond? The answer is a resounding yes. By design, the various implementations that support off-airport activities, advanced processing, and interactive decision-making increase efficiency and reduce touchpoints by digitalizing the travel journey. Establishing off-airport baggage drop locations, for example, not only increases the efficiency at the airlines’ counters, but passengers who choose to drop off their luggage at designated off-airport locations will reduce the amount of passengers clustered in the terminal. This supports the objective of minimizing the time needed to be spent pre-security and negates the need for infrastructural changes of the airport terminal. Additionally, airports and airlines that move toward complete digitalization of the passenger and cargo journeys will allow for operational consistency and reduced touchpoints. This concept is currently leading the way in the cargo industry. Not only has the cargo industry seen the effectiveness of digitalized document and manifest exchange, it has reduced the reliance of paper exchange of these types of credentials which again reduces touchpoints.
Airports and airlines must use a critical eye when determining what technologies and systems to deploy in response to the COVID-19 virus. Technologies and products that singularly address concerns of transmission and do not also advance other operational efficiencies should be analyzed for their relevance often. When considering integrating a new solution, the ability of the product or system to adapt for future change should be of high value. What will the concerns of the airports and airlines be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? Again, the aviation industry has experienced, overcome, and adapted from previous threats before, and this pandemic will surely be no different. While greater consideration for passenger and employee health will likely remain in some capacity, operational efficiency should not carry less weight of significance as airport and airlines navigate the recovery period of the pandemic. The aviation industry must not lose sight of the shared vision of the future of travel because of the immediate concerns of the pandemic. Both the immediate response and the long-term investments of airports and airlines should, as much as possible, work in harmony to achieve sustainable and resilient operational efficiency.