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How Tech is Shaping the ‘New Normal’ For Airlines Industry

By Maneesh Jaikrishna

The COVID-19 pandemic has not just affected human lives but has taken a heavy toll on economies across the world. With a complete nationwide lockdown for about two months, businesses have also suffered huge losses. The aviation industry continues to be one of the most adversely impacted. It is only now that airlines in India have taken to the skies again providing some minimal relief to the industry. However, the damage to this sector will be long and complex and recovery will change the way we travel. 

At this point, no one can predict what the future may bring. But we are beginning to develop scenarios about what shape the ‘new normal’ might take. In order to mitigate the effects, the aviation industry must transform the passenger experience to increase traveler safety, re-establish trust while balancing economic pressures from reduced customer demand. To successfully walk this tightrope and navigate a return to the skies for viable volumes of passengers, our airports and airlines need to assimilate new information from the government and health officials, adapt operations immediately and automate processes permanently.

One of the most striking revelations that emerged from the crisis is the role and importance of technology. Industry leaders believe that technology will be fundamental in helping airlines and airports become compliant with new and fast-changing regulations and to restore the passenger’s confidence in flying. New preventive measures aimed at limiting risk at airports and onboard will require new approaches to passenger management. Indian airports that were reticent to adopting certain technologies are now transitioning towards it.

Digital technologies and automation will be critical in ensuring a smooth, efficient and safe flow of passengers while keeping in mind social distancing-friendly passenger experience. Now more than ever, the industry needs to work towards the vision of an entirely mobile-enabled journey. This will keep passengers informed and moving, making the journey increasingly ‘touchless’ with self-service technologies at every step right up to the biometric boarding system at the gate. Contactless, self-service technologies at every step will facilitate passenger flow, cutting queues while ensuring a social distancing-friendly passenger experience. 

New kinds of digital identity will facilitate this smooth, touchless journey. This will allow passengers to breeze through the airport using digital IDs stored on their phone verified with facial recognition. Passengers will expect this to be both simple and safe.

There are predominantly three key areas that are expected to require maximum technological intervention in order to compliment the short-term hygiene measures such as the use of masks and gloves and ensure a smooth and safe experience for passengers.

Social distancing

The use of real-time monitoring technologies along with predictive analytics can ensure proactive planning, appropriate distancing between passengers at key points across the airport. Through technology, the journey will become increasingly ‘touchless’. Automation will be of paramount importance. Contactless, self-service technologies at every step will facilitate passenger flow, cutting queues while ensuring a social distancing-friendly passenger experience. Even the options of extending airport boundaries can also be considered where key steps such as check-in and bag drop are managed using the passenger’s mobile phone before they arrive at the terminal.

Hygiene and sanitation

It is imperative to reduce the risk of infection by avoiding contact at key touchpoints. With a combination of biometric and mobile solutions, passengers will no longer have to touch a kiosk or surface and be able to manage their journeys from their phones. 

With biometric technology and next generation touchpoints throughout the journey, agents can use their airline’s applications on a mobile device anywhere, freeing them from a fixed location or station used by multiple parties that may be in close proximity. Similarly, passengers can operate process points such as kiosks, using their own mobile devices, without the need to touch screens on the airport’s physical infrastructure.  This will provide greater efficiency and improved passenger satisfaction with the welcome benefit of enhanced safety for passengers and employees alike.

Health or thermal checks

As countries around the globe begin to ease restrictions on air travel and movement in general, authorities will be mindful of preventing a resurgence of cases. Integrating health or thermal checks at key touchpoints such as check-in kiosks will be important to identify or assist high-risk symptomatic passengers. As a result, the government would require an information-driven approach based on real-time data and responsiveness to handle rapidly changing situations. Passengers, in turn, will increasingly demand easy-to-use solutions that provide the right information, for them to plan their travel. 

In order to meet the challenges of this ‘new normal’, the air transport industry will need to radically change the way it operates. The government can work with technology experts to adopt these technologies swiftly in order to mitigate the risk of resurgence. We witness an array of opportunities to collaborate with technology and innovation to turn the situation around and use it to our advantage. This will not only make our airlines and airports more adaptable to change in the future but also instill confidence in passengers and make travel more safe, streamlined, and sustainable.

(The author is Vice President Indian Subcontinent, Dubai, Eastern & Southern Africa, SITA and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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