Digital-first organizations at the heart of aviation’s recovery

Lee Ebbutt by Lee Ebbutt | Jul 22, 2021

The aviation sector has suffered greatly during the pandemic and its challenges are far from over. Despite the impressive progress made on vaccines and improved hospital treatments, news feeds continue to be dominated by the threat of new variants spread around the world by international transport.

Digital innovation has brought about  transformational change in aviation in recent decades, and it is now the key factor in airport recovery. The digital maturity of the sector will help aviation to re-establish itself and flourish again.

Reshaping an efficient post-COVID sector

In restoring operations and getting aircraft and passengers back in the air, it is vital that airport decision-makers carefully consider any further investments made. The market for digital solutions will continue to offer airports the latest trends, but in order to be efficient airports should consider carefully what information and technology they already have in place to monitor and improve the customer journey and how their current assets are performing.

Passenger numbers are likely to take some time to recover; they are not predicted to reach pre-pandemic statistics before 2024. New digital sources of non-aeronautical revenues will be a significant opportunity to support airports to operate profitably.

As the industry continues to reshape, implementing a contactless journey will become a more urgent priority for many airport operators, to build back confidence in travelling. In some contexts – where e-gates are used for the scanning of passports and boarding cards, for example – this use of technology may replace some traditionally staffed roles. There are likely to be opportunities to redeploy these colleagues into customer experience roles, however, supporting those who lack confidence in the digitized solutions or in other aspects of post-pandemic travel.

This focus on using technology and data to improve customer experience while reducing the costs of operation relies on a strong digital strategy and organizational culture of digital-first. New digital channels will be essential to the industry in driving non-aeronautical revenues, and the smart use of data will help identify areas in which to grow business.  

As the recovery continues to develop, the sector also needs to provide resilience to key elements of the airport system, including being able to respond quickly to future pandemics. In the same way that security protocols control and respond to physical threats, technology has a key role to play in identifying, quantifying, and managing transmission risk in  facilities.

As major transport hubs receiving passengers from many other forms of transport, airports could also use digital information to help build passenger confidence in their overall journey – for example, by providing information on connecting train services or on when to travel to avoid crowds.

How digitally mature is your airport business?

As the sector moves through the phases below, the operational and financial success of airports will become increasingly dependent on the digital maturity of the organization.

Consider the people, processes, technology, and data in your organization as a whole. How would you rate your digital maturity?

1. Operating blind

The measurement of performance and customer experience in your airport facility is purely down to eyes and ears within each department. Decisions about demand and capacity are made independently by each process point, based on the anecdotal historical experience of staff in each area.

E.g. “When flights from Dubai and London both arrive at once, I’ve noticed that we often get problems in baggage reclaim so we should probably expand capacity this afternoon”.

2. Data in pockets

Investment has been made in digital solutions to manage discrete bottlenecks throughout the passenger journey. Each area is siloed and the information gathered is only used by those responsible for that particular process point. The data has one owner and few beyond them rely on it.

E.g. “I can see that security lines are longer than usual. I imagine that will mean the duty-free and lounges will be busy in an hour. Someone should call them”.

3. Emerging picture

The airport’s leadership are beginning to use digital to oversee and manage operations. Future demand is analyzed and operational choices are made based on this data, alongside real-time information gathered throughout the facility.

E.g. “In our terminal one facility meeting on Monday, we saw that today will be our peak. My dashboard is telling me elevator three is out of use as well, so we’re re-routing half the flights to another terminal to prevent a bottleneck”.

4. Data-driven organization

Digital makes a key contribution to any decision involving passenger safety, facility decision-making, capital investment, customer experience, sustainability, and commercial opportunities. Customers rely on real-time information to change their travel behaviour, and staff at all levels instinctively use shared data to predict and respond to demand and mitigate future risks of disruption.

E.g. “We’re considering increasing our stand capacity, but are using digital solutions to consider whether we could delay this capital spend. Our operational and flight data from the last few years will help, and we’re trialling how using technologies such as IoT and AI will help optimise aircraft turnrounds. We feel the potential is high to reduce the need for physical expansion, but the data will support that decision.”

Even pre-COVID, these were complex issues. When digital maturity is the goal, digital stops being a series of one-off investment choices and more of a cultural and organizational journey.

In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that airports make this journey and integrate digital insights into their day-to-day decision-making.

Airport Digital Transformation Handbook, Second Edition 2021
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Lee Ebbutt

Lee Ebbutt

Global Digital and Innovation Leader, Mott MacDonald
Lee is a Transformational Digital Leader with over 25 years’ experience of leading, operating, planning and delivering complex digital transformation strategies and programmes globally. Lee has been actively involved in developing ACI’s Digital Transformation Handbook, and continues to support leading global airports such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, London Heathrow and Singapore Changi on industry best practice related to Digital Transformation and Digital Programmes. He has extensive experience leading and advising digital organizations to deliver and maximize competitive advantage through technology and cultural change. Lee is a member of the ACI World IT Standing Committee, where he previously served as a representative for Oman and now represents Mott MacDonald as a world business partner.
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