The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to many sectors, but air travel is one that has certainly suffered so far – and the industry won’t be in the clear for some yet. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the forced closures that grounded the majority of flights for nearly three months during lockdown. Passenger numbers slumped by 95% and total airport revenues fell by 90% throughout Q2 – the equivalent of nearly £30bn lost.
Recent months have seen signs of resumed air traffic activity. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to get airports back to the position of strength they were in prior to spring 2020 – a process that will be slow and could take up to five years.
As the aviation industry plans to rebuild, there is a real opportunity to reshape how it works. From logistics to pricing, as transformation is fast-tracked, technology provides the industry with workable answers to very difficult questions. Key to success will be the underlying infrastructure that allows this technology to perform, including connectivity and network design.
By their nature, airports are complex, multi-faceted environments that bring lots of people into contact with each other in a relatively enclosed space. As such, COVID-19 has required airports to reconfigure how they operate in hundreds of different ways. Smartphone tickets and check-in, for example, soon became mandatory as sharing of paper versions became unthinkable. As a result, a recent study suggested that the average number of touches required during an airport visit has been reduced by at least 60%.
Arguably, this would have happened eventually anyway, as we slowly transitioned to a paperless society. What probably wouldn’t have evolved quite as quickly is the use of multi-modal biometrics and automation to remove contact and friction in the boarding process and reduce bottle necking. Or in-terminal temperature checking technologies that ensure that passengers aren’t infected before boarding – something that could be applied to other common traveller illnesses such as dengue fever in the near future.
Using technologies like these mean airports can save time, eliminate the need for crowding around boarding and security areas, and protect staff by ensuring that they don’t have to get close to thousands of passengers a day. And while some of the innovations we’re seeing in airports are non-technological, or not digitally connected (such as adapting the layout of planes and airports to better accommodate social distancing) many are. Meaning they’ll be reliant on a strong network infrastructure to support them.
Foundations for the future
Tomorrow’s airport will likely rely on technology for everything from digital ‘remote’ towers, monitoring travellers around their estate and checking in, to helping visitors buy their duty-free items and pay for a pre-flight drink. In practice, that means potentially thousands of different devices accessing airport networks every single day including customers’ phones, IoT sensors that track movement and the computers and systems owned by airlines. So it’s more crucial than ever that airports have access to high bandwidth, reliable connectivity to support all of this.
Many airports are already thinking ahead on how to accommodate new ways of operating, such as introducing technologies like SD-WAN to help them understand network performance, spot where capacity is needed and react accordingly with revised network design. And migration of core systems to the cloud will continue, as airports look for flexible, scalable ways to manage various technology demands.
Transformation through technology
In many ways, airports are like micro cities, busy with people and alive with technology. As commercial activities resume and customers return, it’s essential that businesses in the aviation industry tackle the lingering challenges of the pandemic with progressive thinking, like their urban counterparts. The challenges of 2020 will certainly leave scars, but as some in the air travel industry are already proving, technology can solve many of the challenges at play, ensuring a smooth post-COVID take off for the sector is firmly in place.
Of course, that technology will only function to full effect if supported by the right connectivity foundations. Accordingly, smart network design and investment in advanced connectivity infrastructure has never mattered more. With these on side, airports will be well placed to transform for a post-pandemic future, keep passengers safe and happy, and become efficient, profitable places once again.