“Covid-19 will only have a short-term impact on investment in passenger service innovation”. So said 62% of approximately 500 respondents to a 2020 FlightPlan survey.
A lifetime has passed since then, and the way we travel, where we travel to, and how we travel has changed in unimaginable ways, and at unbelievable speed.
Aviation: a Mixed Recovery
The days of 4.5 billion passengers are struggling to return. A monthly average of over 300 million seems a curious relic of ancient history. Will those days return? Unlikely in the near future but perhaps over the longer term. Having lived through the last couple of years, the answer to most questions about the future now seem to be caveated with ‘who knows’.
Based on what we do know, an un-uniform recovery of sorts has taken hold. Today’s reality hews remarkably closely to predictions made almost 18 months ago (Inmarsat / ICF). Domestic travel is returning to health faster than international travel; low-cost carriers are recovering more quickly than full service carriers. The rate of recovery also varies by regions and flight type.
Aviation professionals in 2020 expected Asia to make a full recovery by June 2021 with North America and Europe lagging by another year. Instead North America has seen the fastest recovery, while Asia / Pacific has seen the slowest, as measured by total seat capacity. Business travel was expected to pick up faster than leisure while hub and spoke routes were expected to maintain their dominance. The reality is different.
Virtual meetings and events, the potential for cost savings, the need to run greener businesses has kept corporate travel numbers low.
Meanwhile, the hub-and-spoke model had already been under pressure due to traffic congestion at mega hubs and changing aircraft technology. Post-pandemic, safety and environmental concerns have increased demand for point-to-point travel. Airlines traditionally associated with hub-and-spoke models, such as Gulf Air are, if not quite moving away from it, certainly launching more point-to-point routes.
Digital Transformation – A Panacea?
What can the aviation industry do to speed up travel’s recovery process? By speeding up digital transformation of the industry. By looking at every single process – safety, security, catering, baggage claims, immigration, boarding – and developing digital, contactless, efficient and therefore, fast, solutions for managing them. Airlines and airports have accelerated digital transformation plans, implementing new technology from thermal scanners and biometric check-ins to automated border controls and e-gates at warp speed. They are investing in cloud-based platforms, smart technologies and personalized passenger services such as wayfinding and real-time updates.
In 2020, Inmarsat Aviation President Philip Balaam suggested the aviation industry’s recovery would “depend on a more effective, a more creative and a more digital approach.” Industry players who choose “a strategic, agile and technology-led approach … bounce back more quickly, and stronger.”
Towards Sustainable Aviation
The crises has accelerated digital and connectivity trends that had already begun to emerge pre-pandemicwith technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, biometrics, rapidly being integrated across the aviation industry value chain. Infrastructure spending on maintenance, upgrade, expansion and modernization of airports is expected to reach US$2.4Trillion over the next 20 years, according to Airports Council International including US$151Billion in the Middle East.
It is imperative that industry leaders, regulators and governments take this crises as an opportunity to put in place guidance and incentives, increase investments in green technology and work together, to create a safer, more efficient, sustainable aviation industry.