London Heathrow Airport bosses have said it themselves - the travel industry’s return to normal remains years away.
Testing, vaccination mandates and swiftly changing regulations from governments around the world are in fact likely to become the new normal for airlines and international travelers alike.
But with the appetite for international travel building and a summer booking boom on the horizon, how can airlines ensure business resilience no matter what the governments may require at short notice? How can their operational recovery in the coming months and years be both scalable and COVID-secure?
Technology holds the key, and the most important takeaway for the airline industry is this - stop innovating, and start executing.
The sector has already seen more than $200 billion in airline losses globally, and failing to implement technologies that ensure business resilience now will only result in bigger operational deficits and even greater dents to traveler confidence.
COVID-19 has accelerated the travel industry’s overdue need to digitally transform and modernize its passenger management processes - the great news is that the technology required to support this for the industry already exists and is being deployed by leading airlines.
It just isn’t being fully utilized - yet.
Manual passenger processing is hindering recovery
The most significant challenge facing the airline industry today is the conflict between the increasing complexity of government requirements, and the decreasing space inside airports to process passengers in line with these (fast changing) requirements.
Everyday, airlines must not only process and verify their passengers ’passports and visas, but also their vaccination status, results of COVID-19 tests, and the necessary government mandated paperwork that differs from destination to destination (such as passenger locator forms).
Whilst most airlines have trialled digital solutions, third party apps, or asked passengers to self-upload some of these documents in advance, only a small percentage choose to complete these checks - with the vast majority turning up at airport check-in desks with paper printouts.
The result is rising staff costs, exceptionally long passenger queues, repeated manual checks by airline staff to correct human errors, waiting times at airports, delays, denied boardings, and even heavy government fines for improperly documented passengers.
Airports simply do not have the real estate to enable individual manual document checking - with five hour-long queues and the need for multiple customer help desks - especially when applied at scale. IATA predicts that 3.4 billion people will board a flight in 2022, and whilst the number might seem positive for travel’s recovery, the reality is that more people simply means more printouts, longer queues and more delays.
Manual processing of travelers before departure by airline staff, at this kind of scale, only increases the chances of human error too (hence the need for multiple touchpoints to check the same documents).
Recovery will ultimately be ham-strung by the capacity of both airlines and airports to help passengers actually board their flights - with knock-on effects on turnaround times for aircraft, crew rotation schedules and (expensive) extra time for docked planes.
Cutting loose of legacy processes
The seamless transition through the airport and onto a flight is entirely dependent on the airline systems which manage passenger data - but airline processes are steeped in legacy tech and thus difficult to improve or transform. COVID-19 has accelerated the need to fix the limitations of these legacy systems - and as a result has posed a significant challenge to airlines' entire operating models.
Passenger management, servicing and data systems must all be joined up in the backend and tackled for inefficiencies.
Using digital intelligence is one way in which airlines can stop pushing the burden of documentation onto both passengers and check-in agents, and cut loose of their disjointed manual, paper-based processes forever.
Digital intelligence is essentially another way of describing a passenger’s accurate and verified data (such as vaccination or visa status) which has not only been digitized but also connected to their international ICAO-standard travel document - their passport - well before their arrival at the airport.
This data is therefore connected to a traveler throughout their end-to-end journey.
No matter the system that passenger data might have to pass through, digital intelligence ensures that, by using the passport as the entry point, all other documents needed for travel are connected. An airline doesn’t need to ask their passengers over and over again for the same information, as all systems are able to match up the passport with any accompanying documents.
Biometrics and facial recognition technology also have a role to play in speeding up passenger processes at airports. In order to move into seamless, biometrically-enabled travel, facial recognition tech and the use of biometrics must be underpinned by highintegrity biographic passport data and digital intelligence - so that travel organisations businesses and airlines can actually establish that a passenger is who they say they are, before applying biometric templates or matching to (re)identify them.
Together, biometrics and digital intelligence can connect the biological body of the passenger to their biographic data set. But without accurate biographic data, biometrics are meaningless.
Faster responses to changing regulations
With international travel rules changing hundreds - even thousands - of times a day, technology can also be deployed to increase the speed with which airlines and other travel businesses respond and react to those changes.
The existing rules sources for air travel are not automated - with staff and passengers alike checking multiple government websites to confirm new changes. There is technology not only to digitize, but also apply these up-to-date rules to accurate data from multiple sources (a government-source passport for example), enabling airlines to unlock instant online check-in.
Tech can also support travel businesses to better communicate fast-changing rules to travelers, while helping them complete an individual dynamic checklist in order to meet all of the requirements from the comfort of their own home, removing the risk of lastminute in-airport issues.
A travel (r)evolution?
Let’s imagine a travel experience completely divorced from today’s. With integrated tech solutions supporting passenger processing - even before they step foot in the airport - there’d be no need to show up three or four hours before a flight. Nor would travelers need to worry about the risk of improper documentation resulting in denied boarding and money lost.
In this new travel experience, airports will have zero space dedicated to anxiety-provoking documentation checks, boring queues and stressful check-in. Instead, every single square foot of the airport’s limited real estate space will be dedicated to maximum enjoyment and monetization of the passenger experience, supported by a whole host of implemented tech.
Everything from VR and AR in retail, to mobile apps and omnichannel shopping, and even the metaverse, has a role to play in the airport of the future. Rivalling the very best entertainment centres, arcades and shopping malls, airports will be spaces that centre the magic and enjoyment of travel.
A passenger might choose to still arrive at the airport hours before a flight, but only to enjoy the food, shopping and entertainment on offer - which is exactly what airports and airlines want more of - ancillary revenue!
Buckle up for the long term
Whether its tighter visa controls, a new health crisis or an emerging COVID-19 variant, airlines must be ready to facilitate any new and amended regulatory requirements, at short notice, for all destinations and passengers.
The airline and travel industry desperately requires the infrastructure and technology in order to be prepared to manage any future regulatory changes introduced by governments at a moment’s notice.
Their businesses are, by default, global. Implementing tech both in backend airline processes, and within the airport to enhance passenger experience, is the only way to ensure resilience and recovery amidst an uncertain future for the aviation industry.