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Six tech trends to transform air travel in 2021


2020 will go down in the history books as the air transport industry’s most turbulent year, with massive fluxes in passenger volumes globally due to the COVID-19 pandemicRunways emulating plane graveyards served as a visceral reminder of the vulnerable economics of the air transport industry.

  

  

After showing some positive signs over the northern hemisphere summer months, global passenger traffic at the end of November 2020 slumped back down to 48% year-on-year from 2019, according to SITA data. So regaining passenger confidence has become a critical factor for airlines to weather the ongoing economic storm. 

 

Reasons to be hopeful

No territory is left unscathed by the impact of COVID-19 and many western countries are buckling into their second wave response protocols with lockdowns reinstated in the UK, Europe, and parts of the US. 

 

Despite a bleak 2020 holiday season for air travel, there are reasons to be hopeful for 2021. Fringe and emerging technologies that were side-lined during the previous decade of industry growth are now being examined with fervent scrutiny to evaluate their efficacy in solving crucial COVID-19 challenges. 

 

For example, Health ETAs (Electronic Travel Authority), where electronic verification of a passenger’s health status is required upon entry to a country, looks set to be commonplace by next year. Their usage will become standardized as new COVID-19 vaccines are made available in 2021.

 

Accelerated digitization

Increasing passenger safety, boosting passenger confidence, and making airport and airline operations significantly more efficient, adaptable, and intelligent is the new blueprint for survival, and eventually growth. Significant steps in these areas have already been taken.

 

Despite being synonymous with stalled economies and canceled events, 2020 was a year of accelerated technology adoption across the air transport industry. 

 

From head-mounted thermal scanning devices to technology-supported social distancing measures, new technologies have seeped into our airports and changed the passenger experience. That pace of innovation adoption sets a scene for rapid industry transformation over the next few years and will force a historically slow-moving industry into action. 

 

David Lavorel, CEO of SITA AT AIRPORTS AND BORDERSplots a new course for aviation’s recovery in 2021 and predicts a smarter, safer, and more sustainable travel industry fit for people and planet. Here are the six technology trends set to underpin this metamorphosis. 

 

 

1. Advanced Self Service and Biometrics 

The digitally optimized traveler experience makes use of facial recognition and touchless technologies, embedded in various self-service devices. 

 

SITA has already implemented Smart Path self-service biometric and mobile technology and automated the outbound passenger journey at several airports, including Beijing and Miami. These deliver a ‘walk-through’ airport experience, where passengers can simply use their face as their boarding pass and walk from the taxi to the plane in a fluid and seamless fashion.

 

Once airbornepassengers are increasingly being offered services via Wi-Fi or 4G networks to avoid any non-personal touchpoints (such as seat-back inflight entertainment screens) and respect social distancing – thereby boosting confidence.

 

 

2. SDN Innovation and Evolving Airport Operations in Response to COVID-19

Passenger flow management technologies such as SITA Airport Management provide real-time passenger monitoring and actionable insights, for airports to understand and manage passenger movement throughout the airport. It will become a necessity to pro-actively manage crowd density and social distancing during daily operations, as well as longer-term planning.

 

Innovation in software defined networks (SDN) is also enabling more resilient and agile airport operations that can respond to the changing demands of travel during and post-pandemic.

 

For example, SITA’s SDN portfolio allows multiple airlines, ground handlers, and other tenants to access the same virtualized infrastructure in the cloud, delivering more scalable and agile connectivity.

 

 

3. Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning 

The Internet of Things (IoT) has held great promise for some time but the convergence of 5G, maturing Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs, and the ubiquity of sensors embedded into cheaper hardware is bringing this vision to life. The IoT creates a network of data-producing devices and assets that converse and increase efficiency across the airportExamples of technologies that harness IoT and AI to solve business problems are robotics and autonomous vehicles, Computer Vision, language, virtual agents, and Machine Learning

 

While helping to address immediate needs like sanitization, social distancing, and the automation of customer support processes, the combination of these technologies potentially signposts a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where, beyond airports, the physical world around us becomes connected and intelligent. 

 

4. Development of a Digital Identity for Air Travel 

In the coming years, we expect that the development of digital identity will replace the traditional passport. One approach is a Digital Travel Credential (DTC)currently being explored and progressed by key industry bodies like ICAO. 

 

Another potential solution is self-sovereign identity, a form of digital identity giving travelers control over how their personal data is shared and used. It adds a layer of security and flexibility, allowing the identity holder to reveal only the data required for any given transaction or interaction.

 

The benefits of using self-sovereign identity include lower financial transaction costs, protecting people’s personal information, limiting opportunity for cybercrime, and simplifying identity challenges in various fields, including travel, healthcare, banking, IoTand voter fraud.

 

 

5. Vaccination Visas, Health ETAs, and Advanced Passenger Processing  

Health ETAs allow governments to receive the information they need to help reduce the risk of infection from travel and tourism. Travelers are required to provide information on their health status – potentially including PCR test results that indicate the presence of COVID-19 antigens  and are informed of that assessment’s outcome in advance of travel. This will give travelers confidence before they start that they will be allowed to complete their journey. 

 

Advance Passenger Processing (APP) brings the ability to assess the risk, including health risks, and allow or deny travel at check-in. When coupled with the implementation of a Health ETA service, it enables real-time checks to be performed to confirm that each traveler has completed the required health checks and is eligible to travel.  

 

 

6. Blockchain for Aviation Industry-Wide Savings

It is almost as though the blockchain was invented for the air transport industry. Blockchain is about sharing information safely among different industry players. It is about providing one truth at a given point, that can be used to facilitate workflow and the exchange of data. 

 

PwC estimates that the use of blockchain could increase aerospace industry revenue by as much as 4% or $40 billion while cutting Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) costs globally by around 5% or $3.5 billion. Savings will be derived from secure document storage, ensuring confidentiality and data privacy, improved insights on repair time and inventory, automated workflows, and more efficient record reconciliation.

 

In 2020, Blockchain was successfully used in a SITA Blockchain Alliance MRO Proof of Concept to record and track two separate strands of information for each aircraft part: a digital thread and a digital passport. The digital thread provided the real-time status, chain of custody, and back-to-birth track and trace of the aircraft part over time. The digital passport – like a human passport – provided the indisputable identity of a part and contains other vital data such as certification of airworthiness to prove ownership. 

 

From a passenger perspective, customs processes are another area where blockchain can solve challenges. Airports, airlines, and governments can share baggage content information to pre-clear bags at arrival, hence avoiding the need to recheck bags in transit. 

 

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Published: 11 January 2021


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