Two years of pent-up desire to get away are fueling the recovery of international travel volumes, with many airlines at - or close to - pre-pandemic levels of traffic.
However, for many travel sector stakeholders, especially airlines and airports, the surge in bookings has put them firmly on the back foot due to reductions in their organizations brought on by the pandemic.
In the United Kingdom, for example, we have witnessed a highly disrupted summer of last-minute cancellations that has created scenes of chaos at several major airports.
Indeed, as we head towards the festive holiday season, the aviation industry continues to suffer from acute labor shortages across front and back of house roles. Inefficiency of legacy technology and operational systems coupled with severe financial debt mean passengers are losing confidence in their chosen airline and feeling more anxious about international air travel.
So much so, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport recently penned a joint letter insisting that airlines improve communication with passengers in advance of air travel, before they arrive at the airport - at which point, it’s too late to fix any documentation issues.
Among the advice offered to carriers was to provide passengers with "tips and preparation for travel such as the air travel checklist." Some airlines and travel sector businesses have already recognized this need to sharpen their passenger management and have created partial document processing solutions along with new communication protocols.
But more is needed quickly to assure passengers that there will be no nasty surprises at the airport and to build their confidence to fly. A new type of technology framework is required; one that can serve every airline, regardless of a passenger’s age, mobile device, point of origin and destination and tech savviness.
A fragmented industry: The problem of vendor lock
In truth, the travel industry is currently a long way off getting to a point where each traveler can be served an individual, personalized checklist of what documents they need for travel and have these documents verified and matched with up-to-date travel rules.
So far, efforts to create document processing solutions - and to match documents to travel requirements - have been conducted in silos, and as a one-off: you provide the same documents time and time again for each journey you take. Working alone, various actors have created an overall system of fragmented components and technology platforms that do not universally work for every passenger, nor can they persist or share data for future flights.
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The issue, which is also known as vendor lock, is akin to the frustrations users see with Google's Android vs Apple's iOS operating systems, in that they do not serve a universal audience. They benefit the Android or Apple user but add friction and layers for everybody else.
Within the aviation industry, there are existing loyalties between airlines and vendors resulting in solutions being built that benefit the vendor as opposed to focusing on the passenger (who will use different airlines). An obvious example is the issue of a frequent flyer, or a connecting passenger’s journey which involves multiple airlines. The experience is likely to be inconsistent at best, with various documentation systems and processes to follow or adhere to in order to navigate between flights and through airports.
With various airlines operating on top of different tech stacks that refuse to "talk" to each other, or to any other airline tech which is part of the passenger’s journey, there is an inconsistency within legacy technology that currently sits at a system level within aviation.
This is made more challenging by the fact these solutions are fragmented, standalone platforms that were not built with interoperability in mind, let alone putting the passenger first.
Ubiquitous solutions for operational savings
Many established IT suppliers in aviation steadfastly believe their systems are the best, and can’t - or won’t - consider the idea of cross-industry partnerships. They do not operate like modern-day technological innovators – their goal is not to rock the boat, but to grow their existing profit base within siloed development paths and locked-in customers.
Instead, airlines must improve passenger experience, making it painless, without any nasty surprises and as simple as going to an ATM to take out funds from any bank - the platforms used by any airline should be equally as ubiquitous.
Our recent survey of air travelers highlights the fact that this is what passengers want. An overwhelming majority (91%) of respondents believe airlines can do more to encourage people to fly – including a full "document check service," managing complex travel rules more on behalf of the passenger and guaranteeing that a passenger won’t be denied boarding.
Specifically, regarding documentation, 84% said airlines should take more responsibility to ensure travel documentation is in order, with almost six in 10 (58%) going as far to suggest that airlines should provide a full document check service prior to their arriving at departure airport - in order to reassure the passengers that no issues with documentation will occur on departure.
Tellingly, customers are willing to pay for it, with 76% stating they would part with up to £10 more per ticket for a regulatory and travel document check service.
In pushing for ubiquitous solutions, airlines can differentiate themselves from their competitors, encourage passengers to fly, and in turn help to futureproof the industry as airlines need to deliver more than ever, with less resources than ever available post-COVID.
Too much disruption kills disruption?
It is vital to keep in mind that innovation during COVID (in the form of apps, QR codes, scanners in airport, etc.) brought more process and disruption into the airport than it took out. Thus, any new technological implementation must ideally be invisible - and refrain from impacting the behavioral routines of passengers and aviation staff. If technology is invisible to both passengers and staff, it will inevitably be more successful.
The failure to catch on of IATA’s Travel Pass, which had all the hallmarks of a universal system, highlights the importance of this. The solution, a mobile application that helped travelers to store and manage their verified certifications for COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, was developed with the entire industry in mind. It was built for interoperability, with 250-plus airlines in IATA asked to support it.
While it was a great beacon of innovation - IATA led the way to show something had to be done - it failed to be adopted by governments, only had a 2% adoption rate by passengers and was eventually dropped by the airlines who tried to insist passengers adopt the new app. Border Force did not want to disrupt staff, and the app added too much new behavior and friction for airline staff and passengers alike.
For the few that did try it, the IATA App was a steep learning curve for both passengers and airline staff. As a result, there was a wide and divergent range of responses depending on the individual’s tech proficiency and access to smart technology - not to mention their desire to complete dozens of steps to create their profiles.
Meanwhile, airlines had to train new people, implement the new Travel Pass process, as well as pay for more airport real estate where needed.
While from a technical perspective the IATA Travel Pass represented a potentially ubiquitous solution, ultimately its disruption of individual passenger behavior and airline’s check in processes were too great to be adopted successfully. It does, however, represent the kind of thinking that will be needed to overcome the problem of vendor lock and technology silos in the aviation sector.
As we head deeper into the winter travel season and gear up for a busy 2023, the time is right to stop burdening passengers and airline staff, and forcing them to make up for the limitations of fragmented airline systems. It’s time to reimagine aviation tech for good.