After a summer of chaotic scenes in the UKs airports and travel industry, many in the aviation sector are longing for business to return to ‘normal’. But returning to its old ways is the worst thing that the industry could do.

Although extremely challenging, the past 18 months have given rise to a stronger and more resilient industry, one which is at long last embracing digital transformation. At a time where airline and airport resources are stretched, now is the time for the industry to double down on that transformation rather than reverting to historic processes and operations. 

In the wake of the industry’s worst financial year, the aviation network has been tasked with how to restart operations with increased agility, depleted resources, and significantly less revenue. One need only look at the reports coming out of the UKs airports in recent months to realise that a systematic change is needed. 

With the industry historically focusing on cosmetic improvements such as wider seats, catering, and in-flight entertainment, the sector has arguably been too short-sighted in its approach to improving passenger experience. Whilst the appetite to digitise and innovate may have been there, it had been stunted and delayed by the colossal task of addressing legacy infrastructure and regulations. Fast-forward to today and digitisation is no longer an exciting project to one-day explore, but rather a crucial process to fully incorporate. 

The quandary that many airlines are finding themselves in was made all the more apparent when Monika Wiederhold, global lead for safe travel at Amadeus, explained that “The current need to hand-verify health documents while maintaining social distance means that some of our airline customers need around 90% of their check-in staff to process just 30% of passengers”. 

Such issues have accelerated the uptake of digital technologies and fast-tracked innovation. As summarised by IATA in its post-Covid-19 vision for travel, there is a “…need for a flexible approach and resilience. In turn, this brings an urgency to put available technology to use, to provide this flexibility and unlock the full benefits which are achieved with global coordination rather than isolated approaches.”

This acceleration of digital innovation has established itself across the whole aviation industry ecosystem. Prior to the pandemic, the use of biometrics in airports, for example, was in its infancy but with the need to digitally verify identities tied to test results or health passports, and contactless methods now critical to preventing the transmission of Covid, biometric technology has gone mainstream. 

What airlines and airports are also understanding, is that these short-term solutions have long-term benefits to the passenger experience. For instance, the recent biometrics trial at Istanbul Airport, which was initially introduced to encourage passengers to touch as few surfaces as possible on their journey through the airport, also led to a 30% reduction in passenger boarding times. Digital initiatives like the pre-ordering of products and services in airports without needing to queue or enter the retailer have been at the forefront of improving the passenger experience. 

The requirement for airlines to converse with passengers in a human-like way through automation has been driven by the unprecedented scale of disruption and subsequent interactions they have had to manage with their customers. Moreover, they have had to introduce more automated workflows around recovery – for example when there are cancellations or disruption. Communication in real-time and issuance of vouchers and refunds is now more instantaneous. No longer do you simply get a text from the airline to say your flight is cancelled, with no reasoning, and then have to spend hours on the phone to get a refund processed.

With so much still to explore, the digital revolution in the air transport industry is in its infancy. Concepts which once seemed futuristic and unattainable are now becoming a reality. By making technology the foundation of operations, airlines, airports, and the various organisations that make up the ecosystem, are unlocking a world of opportunity.

Several airports are planning infrastructure for the future whereby terminals have significantly less check-in and baggage processing points. To enable this vision of the future airport, we can expect to see more and more airports working towards off-site, advanced processing. Effectively enabling airports to reduce their real estate and contribute to net zero strategies.

One of the industry’s most tangible and immediate sustainability targets is to change the way passengers get to the airport, by encouraging public transport usage. This involves changing consumer behaviour and building trust in the reliable alternatives. Most major UK airports are introducing vehicle drop-off fees to deter vehicle usage, however as long as passengers are laden with baggage, the use of public transport will only ever go so far. By leveraging technology, airlines and airports can process passengers separately from their baggage, allowing them to travel light to the airport and seamlessly through the terminals.

Digital technologies are serving not only to make the passenger experience positive and Covid-safe in the short-term but also laying the foundations for the industry to streamline operations, stay agile, and meet its sustainability targets.