There’s never been a more vital time to consider the digital technologies that can boost resilience and bolster the recovery of airports worldwide.

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The unprecedented spread of COVID-19 globally is demanding drastic actions across the airport industry. Due to the pandemic, there have been official travel bans, visa cancellations, an increasing number of flight cancellations, aircraft groundings, border closures resulting in traffic decline, fewer flights, lower load factors, revenue loss proportionate to traffic loss and a decline in unit revenues. Airports are even incurring additional operational expenses for extra cleaning and sanitization and to enable touchless/frictionless travel. Due to all this, some airports/airport terminals have practically closed their commercial operations. However, many airports remain open for cargo operations to maintain continuity of the air cargo business that is essential for many households, communities and industries.

An economic analysis by Airports Council International (ACI) World has found that, at a global level, the COVID-19 pandemic is predicted to wipe out two-fifths (38.1%) of passenger traffic (i.e., equivalent to 3.6 billion passengers) and almost half of revenues for airports in 2020. Revenue channels are paralyzed by the unprecedented drop in aviation and commercial activity. While the industry was expected to generate about $172 billion, it is now predicted it could lose about 45% or more than $76 billion by the end of this year. Additionally, potential airline, ground handling and other airport-related service provider bankruptcies represent a major risk for airports.

The airport industry is extremely asset-intensive; airports are subject to high fixed costs, which are difficult to adjust in such a time of crisis. Airports continue to meet their capital expenses (almost one third of total airport costs) and other contractual obligations as far as possible. At a minimum, airports are reducing variable costs by closing areas of infrastructure, postponing capital expenditures and addressing staffing costs. The direct pressure on airport operating expenditure is still unbearable to maintain with current airport staffing levels. According to ACI World Director General Angela Gittens: “A drastic decline of such magnitude for the global airport industry represents an existential threat.”

Safeguarding operations and recovery forecast

The airport industry and bodies such as ACI are pushing for a swift, effective and equitable economic policy response from governments to protect essential operations, millions of jobs and give the industry the greatest chance to weather the storm and recover quickly. Safeguarding continuity of airport operations when the current health crisis gets resolved is of common interest to both the air transport ecosystem and the wider economy. ACI has made many global policy proposals for the protection of airport revenues, temporary global suspension of the 80/20 slot rule, waiver on airport concession fee payments, tax relief for the aviation sector, government assistance (grants and subsidies), etc. The recovery timeline is expected to differ significantly based on the regions and countries within them, largely because of the variation in government responses and support levels. According to ACI, despite these industry and airport actions, recovery may take 12-18 months or more to reach pre-crisis traffic levels. The airport industry is not expected to record pre-COVID-19 traffic volumes again before the end of 2021.

There aren’t many silver linings to what the industry is currently experiencing. But if there is something the industry can learn, it is that a slowdown presents an opportunity for improving cost efficiencies, productivity, automation and digitization, streamlining operations, lowering risk via improved reliability to prepare for when the demand does come back. Although airports will face short-term losses, they must bolster recoveries with renewed digital investments and continue to forge ahead with measures that will boost resilience in the long term.

Critical issues to address

  • Reduced contact and queue time: The amount of time spent at the airport will be critical to reducing the possibility of infections and pandemics in the future. Proximity sensing, contactless, frictionless, agent-free, non-human intervention systems for the reduction in human interaction touchpoints, implementation of social distancing norms and automated check-in and boarding are critical in this respect. Airports must explore initiatives for autonomous, hands-free passenger and cargo processing throughout the journey and even other airport operations. Off-airport support, check-in processes from places such as shopping malls, hotels, etc. would decentralize the airport check-in process and help reduce the anxiety of passengers. It is essential to support interactions and conversations via airport mobile apps. Airport mobile applications can be further enhanced to provide wait-time tracking, notify boarding calls and zones, queuing, etc. to optimize queues and ensure a safe distance between groups/passengers around check-ins, boarding gates, bathrooms, stalls, security, etc.
  • Health screening, immunity passports, health certificates: These are likely to become the new normal as governments impose specific limitations for inbound and outbound passengers. Multiple solutions to support these requirements must be sought by the airports and its stakeholders.
  • Expand capacity self-service options: Focus on enabling passenger self-service via web, mobile, social media, kiosk, email, smartphone apps and interactive voice response (IVR) services. Utilize chatbots and voice bots as digital channels for addressing FAQs to offload call volumes from service agents and make customer service representatives available to handle more complex issues, drive FAQs related to operations and data services, etc.
  • Redeem data: Offer Data as a Service (DaaS) to customers and create new ways for data to be utilized and monetized. For example, passenger volume data can be shared with retailers to create relevant offers and promotions. Airports must view data as a strategic asset not only for internal decision support, but for generating revenue or providing other desired values to thrive in the digital economy. Utilizing massive amounts of operational, situational and passenger data offers powerful opportunities to the airport industry because of the ability to extract value from it and share that data to drive operational efficiencies.
  • Generating new revenue streams: Airports must continue looking for strategies and creative ways to generate new revenues, for example building omni-channel support for passengers to buy duty-free goods from multiple stores before they travel, making a single payment and collecting their purchases at boarding. Other cases to explore include—feeding airport information such as baggage belt, gate information and check-in times to an airline’s smartphone apps for a fee and other paid optional services (staff car parking services, storage services) to its customers such as retail shops, airlines, ground handlers and more.

Technology-driven strategies to consider

  • Revitalize and accelerate digital transformation initiatives to recover lost time, lower the cost of customer service and de-risk traditional business models. Concentrate on self-funded, agile journeys instead of big bang transformations. Focus on rapid digitization and digital experiences that include improving the passenger flows for real-time flow monitoring and control, indoor mapping and geolocation solutions, facial recognition/biometric for a seamless and contactless passenger journey.
  • Adopt cloud-based digital infrastructure as it can propel airports to be future-ready using Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), cloud-based products and solutions, implement new distributed cloud and multi-cloud services for business agility.
  • Leverage new-age hyper-automation platforms and enhance the ecosystem to reduce costs and human intervention while improving efficiencies.
  • Leverage big data and digital business intelligence and analytics for creating a single source of truth, enterprise-wide data strategy, scenario-based operations planning, data-driven real-time analytics, building a single view of end-customers for enhanced personalization, etc. This can enhance fidelity, accuracy, observations and allow for cost improvements in service. Such enhancements can also provide visibility and insights into the airport supply chain, operations and customers. They can rapidly tailor operations/services in response to sudden changes in demand and ensure savings in airport operations. Predictive analytics will address key demand and operational issues of airports and maintain a continuous flow of aircraft and passengers while avoiding bottlenecks/queues, both landside and airside.
  • Leverage advanced technologies for faster passenger identification and processing, better situational awareness and resource management, optimal resource utilization and automation to predict future scenarios and better course of action. For instance, IoT sensors and video analytics offer the ability to monitor the workforce, fleet locations and conditions in real time to perform inspections without risking personnel and while keeping in touch with what is happening on the ground. This can be utilized for measuring waste bin levels, occupancy of check-in desks, table availability, water levels, taxi queues, trolley queues, etc. Advanced technologies will help improve operational efficiency, reduce costs, control asset damage, reduce damage claims and meet regulatory requirements.

Other essential areas of importance

  • Cybersecurity will play a pivotal role as the rapidly increasing adoption of digital through all kinds of channels makes it a target for cyber criminals, rogue states and the number of threats is growing fast.
  • Digital workplaces to provide a cohesive remote working infrastructure for non-customer-facing staff (such as contact centers, IT teams, corporate groups) using virtualization, cloud and collaboration tools.
  • 5G network enablement will improve network response times and capacity, provide greater edge density, lower latency and higher throughput. 5G has the potential to unlock a wide range of new capabilities and reliably connect everything around the airport to a network many times faster than those it replaces. Cloud and edge computing should be combined into complementary elements of a distributed cloud model along with this.

Enhancing the passenger experience

  • Publishing wait times and occupancy status to inform passengers: It is essential for airports to monitor over-crowding in the premises of the airport facilities and ensure real-time communication of crowding status, queue status and wait times over mobile and airport portals to help passengers make informed decisions and minimize risks. Based on occupancy, passenger density and capacity volumes at various areas, passengers need to be advised when lines are of a safe size to enter the area, which queue to join or avoid, as well as any other changes.
  • Manage airport sanitization: Passengers want reassurance that airport facilities are clean and taking all health and safety measures. Maintaining high standards of hygiene and sanitation at airports is of paramount importance in that respect. Airports should keep passengers informed about the rigorous cleaning checks, such as when the surfaces in various airport zones were last sanitized. To that end, a platform must be keenly pursued to manage and report the sanitization activities (including over signages, portal, mobile and more). It helps provide information and enables management of various sanitization activities at facilities such as curbside, terminals, washrooms, security, travellators, lifts, food and beverage areas, etc.
  • Vouchers with discounted offers for improving cash flow: For cash generation and creating liquidity, airport voucher issuance (i.e., cash coupons) through the airport website and a mobile app can be explored, offering credit to customers for future purchases. The solution must also cater to other airport voucher management aspects such as collections, redemption, refund, settlements, recon and expiry as well.
  • Smart boarding: A boarding process optimization solution to reduce queues and avoid the rush towards the gate when boarding begins. Display the boarding sequence on the digital screen and passengers are required to board only when their seat numbers are displayed/called. The benefits include avoiding queue build-up at the gate, jet bridge, aircraft aisle and ensuring social distancing during the boarding process.
  • Mobile ordering: For airport restaurants, food and beverage shops, duty-free retail shops, lounges and delivery services that allow passengers to order via QR code, access menus, etc.
  • Smart apps for passenger wayfinding: Providing directions within the airport over a mobile phone.

Building resilience

The current COVID-19 pandemic is adversely impacting and changing how airports and the airport industry do business. During these challenging times, while moving swiftly is paramount, there is also the risk of wasteful spending or loss of revenue due to gaps in productivity, poor process optimization or subpar customer experiences. Purpose-driven alignment around airport strategies and initiatives are the key. By focusing and smartly prioritizing some of the strategies proposed above, airports and the airport industry should stand a better chance at recovering relatively well from the crisis, driving the possibility of future growth and building resilience. These transformation initiatives will provide opportunities to reduce costs, bring better speed and agility, cost efficiencies and innovate to remain ahead of the curve and be prepared to thrive before, during and after the next pandemic or economic downturn.

Conclusion

Hexaware is committed to working closely with the airport community to overcome the challenges in adopting these transformation initiatives and implementing innovative solutions based on its core principles of ‘Automate EverythingTM’, ‘Cloudify EverythingTM’ and ‘Transform Customer ExperiencesTM’. Hexaware’s new-age service offerings include an intelligent smart automation re-platforming product ‘AmazeTM’ for cloud transformation, modern delivery services, autonomous digital assurance services, unified communication and self-service COCO platform, predictive analytics for asset maintenance, etc. all of which will surely help in driving airport transformation.

Read this compelling case study of how Hexaware helped a leading airline migrate its legacy data center enabling an ALWAYS- ON connected infrastructure for operational excellence. 

References: (1) aci.aero (Airports Council International), (2) Futuretravelexperience.com

Picture Credit | iStock

 

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