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Rebooting the aviation sector
Digital technology and data has a huge role to play in the aviation sector's recovery and resilience planning caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
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Technology’s role in rebooting aviation

The aviation industry was not prepared for the impact of COVID-19. Much greater use of data and digital technologies must be part of the industry’s recovery and resilience planning – so that it can play its proper part in managing the risks of transmission and resurgences of coronavirus, and of potential future pandemic diseases. Only by doing so will travellers regain the confidence to fly.

Over the last few years, the travel experience has been improved significantly by technology, which has also helped airports and airlines to realise their objectives. COVID-19 has brought passengers’ experience (and their desire to fly) into sharp focus and led business leaders to radically re-appraise the industry’s strategic goals. We expect technology plans to be reviewed and revisions implemented at pace to assist rapid adaptation to the very different market conditions of the near- and medium-term future.

Key questions for airport leaders are how to build public confidence in flying and build up passenger numbers, while targeting capital investments more effectively and efficiently at a time when revenues are down and cash is short. We believe that the industry will move through three key recovery phases, and that digital strategies and solutions should be carefully aligned with each.

1. Restore– getting aircraft back in the air

The first stage is to reconfigure operations applying the principles of infrastructure epidemiology to restore passengers’ confidence in flying. Infrastructure epidemiology applies a range of non-pharmaceutical interventions to manage the risk of disease transmission.

Restoring government confidence is crucial too. This is paramount, as people are looking to governments to provide leadership as we enter a phased transition out of strict lockdown measures. If aviation leaders can show a data-based approach to customer safety, governments will feel more confident advising citizens that infection risk during their journey has been reduced.

Understanding existing technology and data, and ensuring they inform decision making is critical during this phase. It is almost certain that existing data is under-utilised, meaning that each airport’s tried-and-tested digital systems can deliver new value in restoring business. Digital systems may need to be adapted or refocused to support a new operating model. They should also be reviewed to see whether they can generate new data streams to support decision-making and passenger information that will strengthen infection control and build confidence.

Identifying vital physical touchpoints in the passenger journey and understanding how we can take advantage of existing technology to replace these will contribute to reducing the risk of cross-contamination. Passengers, airport operators and other stakeholders can then work together to minimise risk, from the moment a flight is booked to arrival at the departure gate and disembarking at the destination.

The use of mobile technology already allows us to undertake a number of activities before commencing our journey, and this information needs to be further enhanced to make sure customers can confidently plan their journey into and through facilities.

With ticket sales and revenues severely depressed, airports can ill afford to lose non-aeronautical revenues. Replacing traditional retail with digital alternatives avoids potential contamination and transmission through items handled by multiple shoppers, while maintaining this vital revenue stream.

2. Reshape – an efficient new normal

Beyond the short-term restart, the industry has to adapt to overcome this crisis and remain a sustainable business.

Health monitoring technologies such as thermal screening and health passports will become essential to airport operations. Making a contactless journey possible is important for both passengers and staff; selecting the right automation technologies will enable operational and cost efficiencies across the business.

Data is among the most valuable assets any company has. The information that can be made available to all levels of the business needs to be understood so it can be used to drive dynamic business decisions to enable prompt decisions based on trusted information. Sensors and surveillance will improve operators’ ability to monitor the use of assets to plan and deliver a robust hygiene and maintenance regime.

Improved use of data can also make a wider impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of asset management, helping owners and operators understand how individual assets and processes are performing, and what condition they are in. Operators should be thinking about what data they need to make better operational and investment decisions.

3. React – primed for future pandemic prevention

One of the most important lessons from COVID-19 is the need for preparedness, so the aviation industry can react to future pandemics in a manner that doesn’t include the closure of passenger flights and airports. Much in the same way that airports are prepared for a terror threat with heightened security, airports should in future be ‘health aware’ – harvesting information about population health as well as monitoring for health anomalies within the airport environment.

Operators need to develop robust and resilient responses to health threats, which includes adding thermal screening points, allocating space for social distancing and removing touchpoints now. Digital solutions, such as virtual queuing, can assist this physical adaptation, which works hand-in-hand with previously implemented digitally-enabled measures.

Collaboration and data-sharing

In many spheres of life, COVID-19 has accelerated the uptake of digital technology. As the aviation industry works to get planes and passengers back into the air, digital solutions have a key role to play and could promote digital transformation, with the industry creating and using better data to enable better decisions, delivering better outcomes.

Throughout each of the three recovery phases, data-sharing between airports, airlines, other transport operators, government and wider stakeholders is essential. Data in combination with various digital technologies will be core to the aviation industry’s adaptation to a challenging and fluid operating environment. The investment in such techniques is likely to bring long-term value, as enhanced end-to-end information on the passenger journey can hold the key to improved operation efficiencies. Digital strategies have a key role in helping operational teams to deliver customer excellence and commercial teams to achieve revenue growth. All founded on a safe and secure, contactless customer journey.

Lee Ebbutt

Technical principal, Aviation

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