Alessandro Chimera, Director of Digitalisation Strategy, TIBCO, explores how the aviation industry will evolve in a post-pandemic society and the role technology has to play in this.
Human beings love to travel, journey and explore. It’s in our nature. Whether we need to travel for work and professional reasons as part of a job, for holidays and vacations, or simply for the very act of going on a journey with no set destination in mind, humans are usually on the move.
But of course, things have changed. The hugely disruptive global events of 2020 caused the world to engage in national lockdowns, travel bans and the ongoing management of a variety of travel corridors and restrictions, all of which have adversely impacted the international travel market.
So, how does the travel industry continue its post-pandemic recovery? How will our journeys continue to change in the near and immediate future? And how can technology help us to build a new way for the industry itself to operate efficiently, productively and, above all, safely?
A new ticket to ride
First, it’s important to remember that the travel industry has never stopped working to innovate on a year-over-year basis. Throughout every annual season, this is a business that is constantly looking for new ways to innovate and provide new products and services for an increasingly demanding customer base.
From baggage tracking services that deliver lost luggage updates to a smartphone and BYOD initiatives that allow passengers to access the entire inflight entertainment system on their own devices, to services that track passenger preferences accurately, the travel trade is a constant channel for technology innovation and implementation.
The past 12 to 18 months have of course seen the travel business forced to reinvent some of its core processes. Flights had to be rescheduled and re-managed into formats that were never previously considered. Travel firms have in many cases had to act like banks to reimburse passengers and travel agencies; the whole operational dynamic has shifted and we have yet to find the new point of equilibrium.
Although this journey is not over yet, what we can say for certain is that the number one priority is to respect and comply with different health and safety measures imposed by different countries. The industry is still disrupted with significantly decreased passenger traffic, but in the last months, airlines and airports have started to adapt using new procedures and technology to make the travel journey as safe and smooth as possible.
Cornerstones of the new travel normal
If there are four cornerstones that help to describe the ‘new normal’ for the travel business, then they are: health-first and fly-safe principals; the move to ‘contactless journeys’; the use of optimisation everywhere and the growth of seamless mobility as a service. These cornerstones are not mere guidelines, these are the business imperatives that every airport, airline and let’s say air corridor has to adopt with immediacy. So, let’s take each one of these areas in turn.
Health first, fly safe
Much like a trip to the supermarket, safe airline travel starts with sanitised hand wipes, a journey from home and a healthy respect for social distancing. But this is clearly a more ‘involved’ journey and all stakeholders and parties concerned will need to maximise information sharing if the process is to be smooth, safe and secure.
The use of API (Application Programming Interface) technologies forms the connective glue that enables connected industry partners and internal airport/airline systems to talk to each other. By creating a channel and conduit for a data service, application or entire operating system to exchange data freely but securely with another, APIs build the connective tissue that forms the new operational fabric of air travel.
These technologies pave the way for businesses to build increasingly smart contact tracing systems; with the second generation of these application services ultimately capable of exchanging biosafety information between departing and arrival countries.
This same technology fabric can be used to enforce social distancing in airports where excessive passenger accumulation builds up; sometimes tracked via smartphone connections to airport WiFi and sometimes tracked via heat and motion-sensitive body sensor cameras. This is the kind of technology integration and exchange that will keep us safe.
Illustrating this point is Aeroporti di Roma (AdR), the operator of Rome’s two airports, whose data-driven operations became even more vital during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the airport shifts focus to making it one of the safest places to be, it still keeps customer needs for seamless and hassle-free travel in mind. Specifically, AdR employs sensors – once used to maximise the capacity, or conversely reduce congestion – of certain areas to monitor social distancing, and thermal scanners in helmets, so staff can walk around the airport and check temperatures.
There is a compound effect advantage here as well, i.e. if we know what areas of an airport have been most heavily populated, travelled through and ‘touched’ (in both the virtual and physical sense), then we can direct cleaning services more effectively to target areas where it is needed most.
The contactless journey
Although it still sounds futuristic in some parts, the contactless journey has already started. We can scan our boarding passes using our smartphone and we can pay for goods and services at the airport using contactless banking. However, the contactless journey 2.0 goes further; this is a parking-to-boarding experience where the passenger does not necessarily touch anything at all. Placing your carry-on luggage in a security scanner is about as tactile as it will get.
Important parts of the contactless journey are enabled by technologies like ‘wayfinding’ in airports for a better passenger experience. This provides passengers with an Augmented Reality (AR) view of the airport on their smartphone so they can ‘wayfind their way’ through terminal zones that they may be unfamiliar with. Connecting people to wayfinder route data is done via APIs, without which the final link to the individual is not made.
Future innovations here see airports starting to implement security scanners capable of detecting the safety of liquids carried in more than 100ml sized bottles and new work at the travel authority level. IATA is looking at options to give guidelines to airlines about a passenger’s personal health status scores (if a person will agree to the information share).
Some airports have moved from processing 150,000 passengers per day to 15,000 passengers per day. In order to drop by a magnitude of x10 effectively, they need to know which terminals to close, which gates to keep open for which flights depending on different schedules… and which staff need to be at which gate at any given time and still deliver the same quality of service to their customers.
It is not possible to take the previous state of operations and apply it to a smaller template; it does not map. Airlines and airports have had to look at a complete reprioritisation process and translate that to new on-the-ground operational structures to cover personnel allocation as well as flight and boarding allocation.
As information is exchanged via cloud-based networks via API connection between internal systems, mobile devices and external partner databases, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied to perform reprioritisation actions more accurately. As the datasets grow and the accuracy of the model increases, the effectiveness of the AI itself also increases.
Part of the drive towards optimisation everywhere in airports takes a lead from the industrial manufacturing sector. We can use the Digital Twin concept to design and simulate major changes to the airport. Nobody wants to start undertaking major civil engineering work if the end results aren’t suitable or workable. It is far more efficient to prototype concepts using Digital Twins and then move forward on a more informed basis.
Let’s also consider a totally seamless Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) process as part of the new airport travel experience. Closely allied to the contactless journey process, passengers will not necessarily be taking their own cars to the airport, travelling through car parks, elevators and, engaging with ticket machines and more.
By ‘borrowing’ a cleaned MaaS transport vehicle and simply dropping it off at a designation point, the vehicle can then be prepared for its next passenger journey, the occupants of which will also use it on a temporary only basis.
We should also consider ground transport for individuals with mobility challenges from this area. If a passenger is elderly or affected by reduced mobility, then they may need a power chair to use at the airport. They may also need to use it to board the plane and travel onward. These differences in passenger requirements should not hold back travel plans for anybody, and we can use data to make sure the correct provisioning happens in the right place at the right time.
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Overall then, we need APIs for contactless experiences as we travel towards the future seamless journey. We need APIs for contactless experiences; we need analytics with AI/ML capabilities for operational predictions; we need real-time processing to enable decision at speed and to be reactive and proactive as travel restrictions can change daily, both now and in the future.
We need low-code/no-code cloud-based platforms to integrate APIs and create new digital airport services in what is a rapid time window of development because these changes need to happen quickly and safely. Now, settle back; please fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.
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