Guest Post: Air travel at pivotal moment in drive for long-term change

Guest Post: Air travel at pivotal moment in drive for long-term change

Randel Darby, founder and chief executive of Airportr, says the technology exists to address pain points for travellers but operators must get over their fear of breaking fragile operations 

Summer 2022 saw travel chaos like none other – bags piled high in arrivals halls, queues for check in and security miles long, people unaware of what processes they needed to follow to comply with government-imposed travel restrictions. 

Things were generally unpleasant for all who travelled. It’s obvious no one wants a repeat of this.

In its recent Global Passenger Survey, aviation body Iata stated the most concerning priority for air travellers is the simplification and convenience of airport processes. 

Their survey uncovered that passengers are yearning for change to improve their travel experiences, and as such are willing to accept new processes and technologies. 

Change, however, is not that straight forward – there are factors holding the industry hostage to creating the frictionless journey passengers are so eager for. 

Legacy and complex infrastructure, regulatory complexity, short-termism, risk aversion, and lack of investment and collaboration all hold the sector back. The list is long. 

That said, it is the needs and demands like those highlighted in the Iata survey, that create the momentum for change and drive decisions on the allocation of resources, funds and, most importantly, the impetus to break down all these barriers and push forward.

In with the new

To truly build resilience across the ecosystem, innovation and disruption require new ways of thinking about old problems. 

When you look at baggage processing, for example, the way we check in and collect our baggage has not evolved all that much in fifty-plus years. 

It continues to create bottlenecks to customer experiences that could otherwise be simplified and become far more convenient for the passenger. 

And still today, with many processes, identification of baggage is slow, manual, and totally dependent on paper tags. 

This underinvestment in tracking and data only reinforce the ever-increasing feeling of anxiety that customers have sending their baggage into the ‘black hole’ of airport baggage systems.

Border controls are another element of the customer journey that under-exploit the opportunities presented by modern technology. 

Currently, when we get off a plane, we go through the same physical process you would have in 1970. 

We queue to show our passports and fill in paper landing cards. We look at screens to tell us where our bags will appear. 

We fight for a spot close to the belt, eagerly scanning hundreds of bags to find our own. Then we load them high on a trolley, before walking through an archway to make our declaration on goods entering a country.

This is the inefficient, uninventive and often stressful journey we’ve come to expect when travelling. It is not the journey of the future. 

Shifting consumer behaviour

The COVID-19 pandemic upended life. It changed the way we process and think about so many different elements of our lives, including the way we travel. 

Although most government-imposed restrictions have now been lifted, passengers very quickly adopted the new technologies brought in to facilitate international travel during this tumultuous time. 

According to data from the Iata survey, more passengers are now willing to take advantage of technology and re-think processes to improve the convenience of their airport experience and manage their baggage. 

Foty four per cent identified check-in as their top pick for off-airport processing and 67% said they would be interested in at-home pick-up and delivery. 

In addition, 80% said they would be more likely to check a bag if they could monitor it throughout their journey. 

When you then compare this with the demand we experienced for our doorstep baggage check-in service during summer 2022 – which reached 250% of 2019 levels – you can see these evolving trends clearly materialising in increased underlying demand for these types of services.

In addition, 75% of those surveyed want to use biometric data instead of passports and boarding passes, and 93% said they were interested in a special program for trusted travellers to expedite security screening. 

Initiatives like Iata’s OneID can unlock simple and fundamental changes for customers by standardising data capture and flows between parties. 

In the short-term, this might mean not having to scan passports as you move through the airport. 

But if paired with other innovations which digitise legacy baggage handling, such as checking-in bags at home, electronic customs declarations, security screening and baggage tracking, this can create a completely new travel experience that is both transformational for the passenger, and more efficient, affordable and profitable for the industry.

In the words of Nick Careen Iata senior vice president for operations, safety and security “the technology exists to support this ideal experience”.  However, they will only ever go so far while they are operating in isolation.

Mobilising global industry-wide change

The industry is often so worried about breaking already fragile operations, that they are hesitant to change. 

Airlines and airports are so focussed on getting the daily critical service delivered on-time, safely and within regulatory remits that most of their efforts and resources are poured into them. 

The difficulties associated with the post-COVID recovery period, only exacerbated this short-termism, which comes at a cost of long-term gain.

But change is happening. Technologies and partners that are working to strip out the pain-points for customers, while helping to make the authorities more efficient, are already showcasing how their tech can drive change. 

BagsID in the Netherlands, for instance, has developed what it calls ‘baggage biometrics’ , giving passengers, operators and authorities the ability to identify a bag purely using an image rather than a traditional bag tag. 

In Toronto, the airport worked with Air Canada and Copenhagen Optimization to run trials which integrated flight, load and bag data. 

These data-sets were collected in a tool in advance of flights arriving and were used to dynamically plan allocations of baggage carousels to flights. 

This process today is surprisingly manual. As a result of this proof of concept run by the FTE Baggage Innovation Working Group, the project showed a significant reduction in wasted reclaim space and energy consumption, resulting in an equivalent potential capacity increase for the airport.

In Switzerland, passengers travelling into Zurich or Geneva airports can bypass the airport’s often congested baggage carousels and proceed straight to the exit - with their bags delivered to their final destination a few hours later using Airportr’s arrivals service. 

What was previously a manual process has now been digitised, allowing the passenger to move faster through the airport if they consent to a value exchange of sharing their data in return for avoiding what became known as airport holding pens’ and waiting times at baggage carousels.

If you combined these technologies, there is the potential to provide even more comprehensive, advance, and real-time data-sets to border agencies on arriving passengers and bags. 

Bag imagery and biometric passenger/bag match would speed up recognition of baggage on arrival for segregated clearance by Customs and onward delivery, whilst helping with claims of lost baggage which often end up ‘untagged’. 

Overall, fewer bags would need to be delivered to a reducing number of optimised reclaims in the airport arrivals hall.

Bringing together a global network of partners

No one wants to find themselves in another peak travel season of chaos like summer 2022 – recruitment drives and short-term fixes are underway, however, long-term fundamental changes are needed to improve resilience across a global network of partners in the air transport supply chain. 

The need for action has never been more critical, to win back damaged passenger confidence. 

We’re at a pivotal time for travel. We have a unique opportunity to come together, build and integrate the foundations needed to transform our fragmented ecosystem of technologies into an interoperable, smart system. 

A system that works together to transform the customer experience, as well as the efficiency of the airports, airlines, ground handlers and government agencies – the entire ecosystem.