The spread of COVID-19 has put the travel industry in unprecedented financial distress, yet this is not the first time the industry has been challenged by a pandemic.
In the words of many politicians, scientists and business leaders, the world entered "uncharted territory" with the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of infections and deaths by the virus, the global economy is heading towards a recession, with analysts forecasting a 3.0% reduction in global GDP.
Of the industries that are most impacted by COVID-19’s spread, travel, tourism and hospitality is undoubtedly one of the most affected.
According to IATA’s revised forecast, airline passenger revenues are expected to fall by $314 billion in 2020, resulting in a liquidity crisis for most airlines.
As per the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation (CAPA), half of the world’s approximately 800 airlines could be bankrupt by the end of May. This will obviously extend to other travel, aviation and hospitality companies such as airports, ground handlers, hotels, holiday home companies and travel agencies.
Just in the first phase of the outbreak, travel stocks evaporated more than $332 billion between February and March 2020.
Yet, this is not the first time a pandemic has impacted the travel industry. SARS, MERS and Zika have all significantly hurt the industry over the past two decades.
For example, at the height of the SARS outbreak (May 2003), volumes of Asia-Pacific airlines were 35% lower than their pre-crisis levels. Confidence in both leisure and business travel was shaken, resulting in $6 billion in revenue loss for Asia-Pacific airlines.
So the question becomes, could the travel industry have been better prepared to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 so that its major players could have avoided fighting for survival the way they are today?
The way the travel process is designed plays a key role in its vulnerability
If you look at the current travel departure process, in almost all cases, it mainly consists of the following steps:
Looking at the above process, it is no surprise that with any infection spread, not necessarily a pandemic, travel will be severely restricted or even halted.
As travelers queue, especially around peak hours, the risk of community spread is heightened.
More importantly, the short time frame between arrival at the airport and departure leaves little time for authorities to conduct any reasonable measures, apart from basic thermal scanning, to detect and isolate infected passengers
Hence the first and correct reaction by governments is to restrict travel in order to reduce queues and stop exporting a disease from one country to another.
In the early stages of COVID-19, authorities in some airports (e.g., Beijing) requested that departing passengers arrive to the airport eight hours early in order to be checked, while arriving passengers were put in a two-week house quarantine.
These steps are not only very costly and difficult to implement, but are also so restrictive that governments are often hesitant in implementing them, resulting in further spread of the disease. (Check the figure below: "year-on-year change of weekly flight frequency of global airlines.")
With COVID-19, the number of cases rose so overwhelmingly that these measures became unfeasible in most countries, and consequently, air travel was reduced significantly or stopped.
Regions facing the highest share of business travel suspensions due to the coronavirus pandemic as of March 2020:
Year-on-year change of weekly flight frequency of global airlines from January 6 to March 23, 2020, by country:
It's worth noting that air travel restrictions began six weeks after the disease initially surfaced, in China and the drop in volumes was drastic. This is a scenario we need to strive to avoid.
What if there is a better way?
With the above issues in the traditional travel process, one can wonder:
- What if the existing travel process can be challenged and revolutionized to address its critical shortages?
- What if passengers can be screened early, even before arriving at the airport?
- What if airport operations become fully decentralized so that queues are avoided even during peak hours?
These measures can play a huge role in making the industry more resilient during a pandemic crisis and can also bring about massive and sustainable operational and commercial benefits.
The continuous innovation in mobile, analytics and biometric technologies can help make this superior alternative a reality.
Imagine the below scenario:
- You are traveling from Dubai to Beijing and request home check-in 12 hours before your flight.
- The airline system has your full travel and personal history securely stored. Prior to checking you in, the system detects that based on your physical locations over the previous few days, there is a heightened risk of having been infected by a recent disease.
- You are proactively advised to go to one of the remote and mobile check-in terminals that is equipped with a medical check-up facility.
- You head to a terminal - the closest to your residence - drop off your bags, get checked in, get tested and spend few hours in an isolated room while waiting for the test results.
- The isolated room is actually a duty-free and entertainment portal that gives access to the airport's duty-free online platform and other online entertainment services such as TV streaming.
- If medically fit, you receive immigration clearance using biometric scanning, pass through a non-intrusive mobile security scanner and board a bonded smart bus that drops you off at a dedicated point, airside.
- You have cleared immigration and have passed all security checks and can board your flight without needing to stop anywhere in your seamless journey.
- In the meantime your bags and duty-free items are loaded onto your plane.
By leveraging the latest technologies and rethinking the travel process we can eliminate many weaknesses in travel that make the industry susceptible to the spread of disease.
By implementing the scenario above, we effectively enabled the following:
- Implement early processing of passengers, allowing enough time to take precautionary measures to isolate the sick few from the healthy majority.
- Use predictive analytics to identify those at risk and concentrate containment efforts on them.
- Reduce interaction time, as well as crowds, at the airport. This will help protect the health of passengers and also that of employees working at the airport.
- Meet health standards while maintaining an excellent passenger experience (no queues, no stress).
- Meet security and immigration requirements.
This will not only make travel safer during a pandemic, but will also play a crucial role in reducing the global spread of said pandemic. It would consequently play a huge role in protecting the global economy, and the role airlines play in it.
Hence, we do believe that now is the time to start actively redesigning travel processes to realize this outlined vision.
In fact, we are already late in realizing this vision. The market has been asking for this innovation for many years.
For example, more than 50% of respondents to IATA's Global Passenger Survey in 2016 were requesting to drop off their bags and complete their check-in procedures, off-airport.
Passengers also continue to request changes in immigration and security procedures, which are primary sources of queues and passenger stress at airports.
* In part 2 of this analysis, we examine in detail the technologies that can be deployed within the airport experience.
About the author...
Omar Abou Faraj is CEO of Dubz
, a division of Dnata. Samer Sobh (chief operating officer), Mustafa Maghraby (chief commercial officer) and Amine Oubrahim (growth specialist) also contributed to the article.