Written by Declan Austin, Senior Solutions Manager, Materna IPS
The devastating impact on passenger numbers could not have been predicted, even by those with the most pessimistic views on the future of aviation and the influence of factors such as economics, fuel prices, new business communication practices, or ‘anti aviation’ green travel trends.
What is widely recognized in our industry and beyond is that processes and procedures will need to change to support the new ‘norms’ of social distancing, minimizing contact with other people and public surfaces.
A lot has been documented on what may happen on-board the aircraft from both a practical point of view and from an economic perspective concerning the new health crisis, but as we all know the journey begins and ends at the airport.
Across the aviation industry, there has been a push to transform the passenger journey to create simplified and secure passenger processes. This would help to ensure the airport passenger journey is easier, quicker, simpler and more secure.
Undeniably, one of the key drivers of this was accommodating the double digit growth at airports within the travelling industry over the past five to 10 years.
Airports and airlines have worked together on this. Last month, ACI and IATA jointly issued a paper laying out a pathway for restarting the aviation industry – Safely Restarting Aviation – ACI and IATA Joint Approach. Airlines and airports have cooperated to build a roadmap for resuming operations which reassures the travelling public that health and safety remain the overall priorities.
The joint strategy proposes a layered approach of measures across the entire passenger journey to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 at airports and onboard aircraft, and to prevent aviation becoming a meaningful source of international re-infection.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, passenger traffic has plummeted– no longer are we trying to accommodate a significant increase number of people in the same place, on the contrary we are trying to accommodate a much smaller number of people moving through public areas with a new perspective.
The work undertaken by industry colleagues in the digital technology sector should not be underestimated when looking for solutions which help move forward both airports and airlines. Ticketless travel is a technology that is now taken for granted – when was the last time someone had to hold an airline ticket in their hand, or even have it as a PDF on their phone, tablet or laptop?
Online check-in has become the standard. The numbers vary with low-cost carriers nudging the 100% compliance level, but a considerable number of legacy carriers are operating at a very acceptable compliance level and their usage levels continue to grow.
While working for a major low cost carrier, bag drop was seen as one of the last important ‘nuts to crack’.
Improving the airport experience with a good automated solution means that passengers are no longer being penalized for their efforts by checking-in in advance of their journey.
Something as simple as self- bag drop transformed a big portion of the check-in process. After implementing self-bag drop at London Gatwick Airport, queue times were reduced from nearly an hour a peak to under 15 minutes.
Many are asking themselves, passengers and stakeholders alike, what the future of aviation looks like in a post COVID world?
With a simple user interface to facilitate speed and ease of use, self-bag drops have minimal passenger interaction. They do, however, still require a touch screen to be used to confirm passenger details, accept dangerous goods regulations, and to confirm receipt of the bag with a tag correctly affixed.
In implementing social distancing measures and avoiding touching surfaces, can touchscreens be removed or improved? Every day I have the opportunity to speak with customers of airports and airlines as we peek over the parapet of potentially restarting operations, and not surprisingly, this question comes up regularly. It is one we had to solve, and we did.
As a Solutions Manager working with product designers and software experts, we normally design, define and deliver new products and solutions in line with industry trends, airport strategic plans and in many cases the normal project lifecycle of RFI, RFP and Proposal submission.
These processes can take weeks or months. These however are not ordinary times and normal timelines have to be vastly exceeded. Delay is not an option during times of crisis.
Passengers are seeking reassurance when travelling regularly and this will be ever more important in the wake of COVID-19.
Initially the team looked at the obvious changes that could be made – like gesture sensors and voice control. All these solutions were not only far from elegant, but also have requirements for hardware changes and re-certification and don’t really add to the overall passenger experience – at best they will slow it down, at worse they will confuse the passenger delaying the experience.
The philosophy was to change as little as possible and keep the passenger experience almost the same. This was achieved by replicating the touch experience on the passengers very own Smartphone.
For passengers, the airport experience is modified slightly by scanning a barcode on the self-bag drop kiosk and then following instructions displayed on their phone screen instead of relying on a touchscreen, resulting in a cleaner and more reassuring experience.
For the airport, the continued use of self-service devices continues and no additional costs or time-consuming hardware modifications are required.
These developments and digital adaptations are just the beginning of how digital technology will provide more autonomy for passengers while simultaneously creating a seamless travel experience.
More features can potentially be added to passenger phones, making contactless travel possible during a time of crisis.
The future of travel depends on the development of these technologies which support the response to today’s crisis and lay the foundation for tomorrows growing industry.
Declan Austin is a Senior Solutions Manager at Materna IPS, a world leading provider of Passenger Self Service Solutions. Prior to Materna, Declan has had a 25 years aviation IT career including working in Airport Systems for Low Cost Carrier easyJet, leisure airline Airtours and Ground Handler Servisair/GlobeGround.