As we look to establish what a post COVID-19 aviation sector might be like, it’s difficult to get past the human cost and statistics, particularly sat working from the confines of our homes.
Over 40 major airlines have grounded their fleets and most have suspended over 90% of their flights. Moreover, some of the most financially secure airlines, including the likes of British Airways have stated they are in a “fight for survival” despite having both a robust balance sheet and strong backing from parent company IAG. Lufthansa is permanently reducing the size of its fleet and shuttering one of its low-cost carriers. SAS also announced yesterday it expects demand to take years to recover and are reducing the size of its workforce by 5,000 staff to respond to market conditions.
Furthermore, the current lack of testing data from the globally infected population makes it nigh on impossible to evaluate how long the crisis might continue and how long we might remain unable to travel for.
Aviation is fundamental to the support and growth of local and global economies and an essential part of our world as travellers. So, what changes could the aviation industry make to support recovery and how do these fit in with long term goals?
1. Restoring traveller confidence in air travel
In the short term we can realistically expect countries to keep their borders closed, so domestic travel will initially return, followed later by international flights.
Travellers will undoubtedly be nervous, so responsibility will fall to airports to reassure anxious travellers that they are taking every precaution to safeguard their health and safety. The industry will need to respond - additional health screening facilities, washrooms, cleaning facilities will all require at least temporary modification to existing airport facilities. The possibility of further complications or a second wave of the virus means that airports need the flexibility and space to accommodate these facilities for a longer period than any of us would like.
Technology will need to be quick to respond to the challenges and suppliers are already looking at touchless triage at self-check in facilities. This would automatically suspend travel if the customers vital signs displayed potential symptoms and would reduce the risk of transmission before the individual came into contact with other passengers or staff.
The challenge for most airports remains the availability of self-check in booths and an ability to retrofit new technology to existing hardware.
2. Accelerating the creation of a seamless passenger journey
Not a new concept to the aviation industry, but this pandemic could accelerate the development of biometrics and statistical analysis of physical and behavioral traits to automate traveller recognition.
Processes which avoid physical contact and natural choke points where travellers queue through security and border control, would vastly improve passenger experience and reduce future potential for transmitting disease.
Equally the replacement of travel documentation with facial recognition simplifies the normal processes of check in, bag drop, border control, security clearance and boarding. Again, this would dramatically reduce wait times, queuing and improve experience and lessen the potential for an infected individual to contaminate others.
Whilst technology is developing to make this a reality it requires significant investment and trialing before we will see widespread uptake. At a time when budgets will be stretched to breaking point it seems third party investment would be essential to support cash strapped airports, who in the short term would struggle to justify cost-benefit returns.
3. Maximising the value of predictive maintenance regimes
The obvious opportunities for most airports during a quieter period are for maintenance and repair of core infrastructure. In a time where managing cash flow will be critical, it’s essential that focus is placed on ensuring that these works deliver long term performance, safety and importantly OPEX savings.
Avoiding reactive maintenance to protect cash flow for most airports is critical. The ability to accurately predict maintenance requirements will help support their long-term financial planning and ultimately capture and quantify savings.
Tailored predictive maintenance can deliver savings in excess of 30% on annual maintenance costs, which will support and safeguard airports’ challenged budgets when needed most. Opportunities still exist to modernise and develop maintenance programmes and also take lessons learned from other sectors e.g. utilities, which have embraced these strategies for many years and reaped the benefits.
4. Accelerating the journey to net zero
Aircraft are frequently singled out for accounting for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Aircraft manufacturers are working on lighter, more fuel-efficient fleets with alternative fuels, but airports themselves also have a part to play in moving towards net zero carbon. In late 2019, 200 members of ACI Europe, the trade association for European airports, committed to produce net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Others like Swedavia have gone further with commitments to meet this goal as soon as 2020 for the Stockholm Arlanda Hub. The current hiatus of aviation activity offers an opportunity to consider how the COVID-19 crisis could expedite a zero-carbon airport.
Initiatives to drive this journey must be integrated across the terminal, airfield and broader infrastructure of an airport. This needs to consider how airports can encourage the use of low carbon planes, for example offering lower landing fees to these aircraft. Other considerations are reduced taxiway times, access to low carbon or zero carbon energy sources for on-stand power and low carbon fuels for heating / cooling of terminals.
All these initiatives need to be framed within an overarching strategy and linked to data driven solutions and roadmaps, which consider an airports activity from surface transportation to the operation and ongoing development of the asset.
Aviation is a critical industry and one which drives economic activity, but moreover broadens us as individuals. Measures that reassure travellers that their health is not at risk once travel is permitted, can be framed to align with the industries long term aspirations of safety, seamlessness, improved financial and carbon performance. But we will need to be wise to manage these in the broader context of current investment. The industry will recover, but it will take time, and is incumbent upon us as professionals not to lose sight of long-term goals to improve the industry despite tough times.