The Covid-19 pandemic is a historic challenge for aviation. In 2020, SITA data showed a 44% reduction in flight volumes, year-on-year, due to the pandemic. This month, IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, said, “passenger demand is back to 1998 levels—a 66% fall from pre-crisis levels. In terms of passenger revenue, we ended 2020 at 1993 levels.” IATA has forecast the airline industry’s full-year loss for 2020 at $118 billion.
This pandemic is the sort of black swan event that forces a deep review of operational processes to address the current threat and prevent a similar impact from any future pandemics to restore international connectivity by air and to rebuild confidence in air travel.
From the beginning, the aviation industry has done what it does best in a crisis: it has come together to share insights, information, and solutions and used this time of isolation for innovation.
Technology steps up
One of the long-term changes emerging is the accelerated adoption of technologies already in the pipeline, which could address the need for contactless travel and biometric passenger identification.
SITA’s 2020 Air Transport IT Insights revealed accelerated investment in automated passenger processing, focusing on touchless and mobile services.
“The severe slowdown in 2020 forced the air transport industry to focus on driving new cost efficiencies,” said David Lavorel, CEO SITA AT AIRPORTS & BORDERS, during a briefing on the report. “Adding to the pressure, airlines and airports had to rapidly incorporate new health measures such as touchless passenger processing and the handling of new health information and protocols, including PCR testing in many destinations. These efforts have been made in a market that continues to face rapid changes in air travel regulations that make operational planning volatile and last minute. To solve these challenges, the industry has turned to technology and, in many cases, reprioritized where they invested in 2020. The good news is that airlines and airports were able to capitalize on existing trends to automation and have made significant strides in implementing new solutions that will bring new improvements for the passenger now and into the future.”
A completely touchless check-in process is “now the main priority for airports and airlines to help protect passengers and staff, improve the passenger experience, and drive efficiency,” SITA states.
Biometric technology is the focus of airport investment.
- 64% of airports aim to roll out self-boarding gates using biometric & ID documentation by 2023
- 82% of airlines plan to double investment for self-boarding using biometric & ID documentation by 2023
SITA predicts, “All essential customer services will become contactless from booking to arrival, including automated lounge access and mobile delayed baggage reporting.”
Free to Fly
Consumers have expressed a strong desire to get back in the air. IATA’s recent consumer survey shows:
- 57% of travelers are ready to fly within a few months of the pandemic being contained.
- 72% want to travel to see family and friends as soon as possible (improved from 63% in September 2020)
- 81% believe that they will be more likely to travel once they are vaccinated
- 84% said they will not travel if there is a chance of quarantine at destination (largely unchanged from 83% in September 2020)
- 56% believe that they will postpone travel until the economy stabilizes (improved from 65% in September 2020)
In terms of government-imposed travel restrictions, consumers feel:
- 88% believe that when opening borders, the right balance must be struck between managing COVID-19 risks and getting the economy going again
- 85% believe that governments should set COVID-19 targets (such as testing capacity or vaccine distribution) to reopen borders
- 84% believe that COVID-19 will not disappear, and we need to manage its risks while living and traveling normally
- 68% agreed that their quality of life has suffered with travel restrictions
- 49% believe that air travel restrictions have gone too far
Again technology might present a solution with digital health credentials encouraging a reopening of closed borders. This month, IATA announced a successful first trial of the new IATA Travel Pass on a Singapore Airlines flight to London’s Heathrow.
“The successful implementation of IATA Travel Pass in this trial with Singapore Airlines passengers demonstrates that technology can securely, conveniently, and efficiently help travelers and governments to manage travel health credentials,” said IATA’s Alexandre de Juniac. “The significance of this to re-starting international aviation cannot be overstated.”
JoAnn Tan, Acting Senior Vice President, Marketing Planning, Singapore Airlines, added: “Digital health credentials will be essential as borders reopen and travel restrictions get progressively lifted worldwide. The successful implementation of the IATA Travel Pass reflects Singapore Airlines’ goal of using secure digital solutions to verify health credentials, and support a safe and seamless travel experience for our customers.”
Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President Airport, Passenger, Cargo, Security, said: “Airlines understand that their ground operations will grind to a halt if they have to manage COVID-19 travel requirements—test results or vaccine certifications—with paper documentation. The same is true for border authorities. The UK is ahead of other governments in mapping a way to re-starting international travel at scale. This real-life proof of concept should give all governments confidence that industry has a workable digital solution that will ease the pressure of incorporating health certificate checks into the travel process, including at borders. This trial is an opportunity for us to work with the UK government to demonstrate that the solution works and to share the results with others as we build a robust and efficient system that will help the world get moving again.”
During the World Aviation Festival, on April 19, IATA’s Nick Careen will join a cadre of industry experts for an in-depth discussion of biosafety measures, digital health pass technology rollouts, and ongoing collaboration between airlines and governments to reopen the skies.
Flying Healthy and Strong
Besides adapting to new passenger processing, airlines also have to reimagine their passenger experience and reconsider their fleets to adapt to market conditions.
Industry veteran and Jetliner Cabins author Jennifer Coutts Clay has invested her down-time during the pandemic to research the various Flying Healthy passenger innovations over the past year. Coutts Clay has published two comprehensive Case Studies through the Jetliner Cabins: Evolution and Innovation e-book app. She has also made these Case Studies available pro bono through her website and shared her views on the future of cabin experience with the Runway Girl Network.
“It’s likely that we’re going to have to have stricter protocols for the use of mass plastic gloves, sanitization wipes, sanitization stations. Onboard, there will be less movement around the aircraft. Passengers will be sitting in their seats longer during the flight than in previous years,” Coutts Clay says. “[P]assengers are no longer permitted to congregate in the aisles while waiting to use the lavatories, communal cocktail bars are closed, and casual gatherings in galley areas are banned. The quality of seat comfort and the standards of IFE and communications satisfaction have become even more important than they were before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
These experiential factors will no-doubt impact how airlines update their fleets going-forward. We’ve seen the retiring of wide-body aircraft in favor of narrowbody aircraft for longer journeys. This shift also invites innovation, with developments for narrowbody business class cabins that airline interiors suppliers and designers have embraced.
But what will full-service, design-focused airline brands, like Air France KLM, make of this brave new world of air travel?
On Monday, April 19, during the World Aviation Festival CEO Keynote Interview, Bloomberg’s Guy Johnson will talk to Ben Smith, CEO, Air France KLM Group, about the process of modernizing the fleet during a pandemic, AFK’s recovery plans, and an outlook for the Group towards H2 2021.