The impact of Covid-19 on the global aviation industry has been severe to say the least. Flight schedules have been cut down by up to 80 percent since May as many countries closed their borders to reduce the spread of the virus.
The aviation sector is now banking on technology to help turn around the grim situation and give people confidence to fly again in the face of a pandemic whose end remains unpredictable.
Multinational information technology company, Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), says innovation will have a big role in lifting air transport from the prevailing abyss of financial distress.
"Technology can help increase confidence and ensure compliance with evolving regulations. However, any hardware and software solutions for passenger processing must be resilient and flexible in order to empower airports to adapt to fluctuating passenger volumes,” says Maneesh Jaikrishna, SITA’s Vice President - Indian Subcontinent, Dubai, Eastern & Southern Africa.
“ The technology must deliver the experience passengers want, while also improving efficiency and reducing costs for the airport," Mr Jaikrishna says.
To successfully navigate a return to the skies for viable volumes of passengers, airports and airlines will have to assimilate new information from governments and health officials, adapt novel operations immediately and automate processes permanently. All this will mean adopting the latest technology.
SITA says the pandemic is a new industry-defining challenge that will transform aviation operations across the board.
"Health is the new 9/11. Airlines and airports must now adopt new safety measures to keep air travel attractive and viable. Greater emphasis and focus must be placed on passenger experience, efficiency and sustainability," says Mr Jaikrishna.
With passengers demanding reassurance of safety, focus is fast shifting to automated operations that play an important role in reducing queues and touch points in airports as passenger volumes begin to recover and social distancing becomes increasingly difficult. Digital border controls will ensure passenger health and safety.
Kenya Airways chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka, says the airline is giving priority to the health and safety of passengers and crew. This, he notes, means the airline will have to embrace technological changes and create innovative solutions, to make aviation regulatory processes and governance more streamlined and responsive to future crises.
According to a new aviation report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), lessons learned from the flexible work and meeting arrangements, accelerated digitalisation, and ad-hoc, fast-tracking of proposals should all be incorporated into the aviation regulatory operational processes, if airlines are to emerge stronger in post-Covid-19 period.
"The air transport industry will need to seize the momentum for a better analysis of the measures and steps taken during the crisis which will serve as foundation for defining a more resilient, sustainable aviation sector in the future," states the Guidelines for Air Travel through Covid-19 report.
Travel authorisation, bag-drop, check in and more activities can be facilitated away from the airport to reduce passenger queuing and to enable more social distancing, meaning passengers can arrive checked in and ready to travel.
Mr Jaikrishna says Health ETAs (Electronic Travel Authorization) can help further speed up the process, especially by using biometrically-enabled, secure mobile technology which allows governments to instantly check digital declarations before passengers travel. "A seamless journey through the airport is crucial to reducing the risk of Covid-19 infection. SITA gives passengers a contactless experience, thanks to biometrics capable of enrolling then recognising faces with masks on and passengers being able to use their mobile phone as a remote control for travel,” he says.
"Touchless bag tagging and digital boarding pass stamps at security are just some of the examples of minimising the need for passengers to touch airport infrastructure or physically contact staff." he expounds. SITA now provides health-aware border checks on arrival, linked to pre-checked identity, journey, and health information.
Processing passengers via biometric-enabled gates compared to traditional border checkpoints is faster than ever and completely touchless, and that further reduces the time of exposure in the airport, congestion levels and contact points.
With technology to record every passenger's details during a flight, airlines can know passengers arriving from high-risk areas who can then be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days.
Experts say the question of how the aviation industry can thrive in a significantly smaller market with prolonged uncertainty has become critical, but the sector must collectively shift towards sustainable, long-term, future-proof solutions that offer longevity and cost efficiency benefits.
"For many airports, these are just bolt-on solutions to existing technologies and platforms. Introducing resilient and agile systems that increase efficiencies and can respond to unpredictable fluxes in passenger numbers will become the determining factor for a sustainable future," Mr Jaikrishna observes.