Interoperable technology: A revolutionary vision for aviation

True, ground-up innovation in the airline industry has been stunted for many reasons. It is a complex system with thousands of interconnected parties all depending on each other to deliver a critical service. There are factors that are holding the industry hostage to creating a seamless journey such as legacy and complex infrastructure, regulatory complexity, short-termism, risk aversion and lack of investment and collaboration.  

To build resilience across the ecosystem, innovation and disruption require new ways of thinking about old problems. Change simply cannot happen overnight, or without the engagement, creativity and willingness of the partners and regulators that oversee them.  

To improve is to change

Take one part of the ecosystem: baggage processing. The way we check in and collect our baggage has not evolved in 50+ years. Travellers still experience the same baggage bottlenecks in their journey today as they did in the last 50 years. Think about it – despite all the investment in airline apps, online check-in, and many others – check-in and arrivals halls are effectively holding pens for people and bags. Identification of baggage is slow, manual, and totally dependent on paper tags. Underinvestment in tracking and data only reinforce the ever-increasing feeling of anxiety that customers have sending their baggage into the ‘black hole’ of airport baggage systems. 

Border controls are another element of the customer journey that remain a bottleneck, and under-exploit the opportunities presented by modern technology. When we get off a plane today, we go through effectively the same process you would have done in 1970. We queue to show our passports. We look at screens to tell us where our bags will (hopefully) emerge from. We fight for a spot close to the belt, where we wait patiently – eagerly scanning through hundreds of bags to try and find our own. Then we load them high on a trolley, try to find a pen to scribble on our immigration and Customs forms, and make our way to the next queue to ‘get the nod’ from the Border agent. 

This is the impractical and often stressful journey we’ve come to expect because we’ve never known anything different. However, this does not have to be the journey of the future. 

The future reimagined

The IATA Nexxt vision sets out an industry goal to ensure the transport of passengers, baggage & cargo benefits from the latest technology developments to improve customer experience, reliability and efficiency. Whilst technologies such as biometrics, personalisation and smarter baggage management have the potential to make a significant difference to the way we travel by air, the impact of these technologies will only ever go so far whilst they’re operating in isolation. 

There is an opportunity across the industry for players to come together and adopt foundational building blocks to transform a very fragmented ecosystem of technologies into an interoperable smart system that communicates and shares information with each other. 

Harnessing real-time data

For example, initiatives like OneID on its own can unlock not only simple changes, such as not having to scan passports as you move through the airport, but also more fundamental changes such as shifting passenger and baggage processing away from the airport terminals. These can instead be done in advance of travel, resulting in more passengers reaching the airport ‘ready to fly’. If you pair this with other innovations which digitise legacy baggage handling, customs declarations, security screening and passenger and baggage tracking, data flows can be integrated to create a completely new travel experience that is both transformational for the traveller, and more efficient, affordable and profitable for the industry. 

To accelerate the adoption of these technologies, the industry needs common standards so that passengers and operators can benefit from them more broadly. For instance, with the customers’ consent, data could be shared between the smart baggage management platform, customs and border agencies. Not only will this enable customers bags to be digitally ‘pre-cleared’ by customs before they land, it allows the authorities to do risk profiling ahead of time. This helps them manage staffing requirements at border control points, and reduces congestion – all as a result of fast and proactive clearance of ‘green path’ passengers. With common standards, dynamic processes like these could be scaled across all agencies, airports, airlines, ground handlers, technology partners, etc so they can benefit from real-time data. The impact would be transformational for both the passenger experience, and the efficiency of airports and regulatory agencies. 

Mobilising industry-wide change

The industry is often so worried about breaking already fragile operations, that they are hesitant to change or take measured risks for the benefit of the passenger and their processes. Airlines and airports are so focussed on getting the daily critical service delivered on-time, safely and within regulatory remits that most of their efforts and resources are poured into them.  

But change is happening. Technologies and partners that are working to strip out the pain-points for customers, whilst helping to make the authorities more efficient are already showcasing how their tech can drive change. BagsID in the United States for instance have developed a baggage biometrics solution, giving passengers and authorities the ability to identify a bag purely on using an image and not a traditional bag tag.  

If you took that technology and combined it with an eDeclaration and arrivals solutions, there is potential to provide even more comprehensive, real-time data-sets to border agencies. Bag imagery and biometric passenger/bag match would speed up recognition and segregation of baggage on arrival for processing by Customs – and even help with claims of lost baggage. 

In Toronto, the airport worked with Air Canada and Copenhagen Optimization to run trials which integrated flight, load and bag data. These were collected in a tool in advance of flights arriving and used to dynamically plan allocations of baggage carousels to flights. As a result of this Proof of Concept, the project showed a 30% reduction in wasted reclaim space, and therefore an equivalent potential capacity increase for the airport. 

In Switzerland, passengers travelling into Zurich or Geneva airports can bypass the airport’s often congested baggage carousels and proceed straight to the exit – with their bags delivered to their final destination a few hours later using Airportr’s arrivals service. What was previously a manual process has now been digitised, allowing the passenger to move faster through the airport if they consent to a value exchange of sharing their data in return for avoiding ‘sheep pens’ and waiting times at baggage carousels. 

Whilst technologies like these have the potential to make a significant difference to the way we travel, the impact of these technologies will only ever go so far whilst they’re operating in isolation. The impact of creating a dynamic process that uses real-time data would be transformational for both the passenger experience, and the efficiency of airports and regulatory agencies. 

Rise of the machines.

Ahsan Zafeer • 26th November 2022

Ahsan Zafeer covers topics related to tech and digital marketing and tweets @AhsanZafeer. Here he explains people’s fears as to why machines are taking over their jobs.