Air travel has been massively impacted and disrupted in the past six months. Until Covid-19 hit, the biggest challenge facing airport operators and airlines was how to cope with an ever-increasing demand for air travel and the limited infrastructure to support it. Now, they are scrambling for survival as the industry has been turned on its head and looking to cut costs and develop new means of handling and processing passengers. Could biometrics hold the key to the future of air travel?
First, the bad news
Here are a few points demonstrating how steep a cliff the industry has fallen off:
- At the height of the pandemic and lockdowns in various countries, passenger volumes were down over 90% and in August were still ~80% down on the same time last year in the peak summer months
- As a result, the Airports Council International (ACI) stated that airports globally will see an expected drop in income of $104.5 billion in 2020 with passenger volumes revised down from 9.4 to 3.8 billion (a 59.6% decline)
- Heathrow Airport alone estimates that Covid-19 has cost it £1 billion since March
- Gatwick Airport, London, announced in its 1H20 results that passenger numbers were down 66% for the first 6 months of the year, with revenues declining 61.3% effecting a loss of £321 million
It doesn’t stop there. Whilst flight volumes are increasing, passenger numbers are lagging. The bulk of an airport’s operating costs are related to airport movements whilst their revenues come from passenger spend, which further increases price pressure on airports.
- Accordingly, Gatwick has cut CAPEX by £157 million this year and plans cuts of £196 million for 2021 with OPEX reduced by £100 million – but this is by compromising and consolidating air traffic into a single terminal, over 70% of staff furloughed and large scale redundancies are planned
Whilst the numbers are (slowly) ticking upwards, our expectation is that passenger volumes will have only recovered to near 2019 numbers by 2023-24, so it is important for airports and airlines to find new, more efficient ways to operate their businesses and recover at least some of their lost revenues.
New Partnerships, Processes and Strategies to Ensure Survival and Plan for the Future
Airports and airlines are looking to implement solutions to enhance “safety” (or the perception of it) and encourage passengers back to fill the flights that are taking place. There are various approaches and technologies that can help them do this. We initially looked at the adoption of biometrics and digital identity in airports three years ago and there has been an increasing number of pilots and trials in the time since. COVID-19 will only accelerate adoption of eGates and self-service kiosks with airports keen to reduce costs and increase efficiency with more automation so that they can prioritise their resources to where needed given the huge drop-off in passenger volumes.
Additionally, new business models and partnerships are being explored by sector specialists so that airports, airlines and traditional suppliers can work together more closely. There is also a move away from the bespoke solutions typically demanded in aviation to more COTS approaches and more use of the public cloud to knit all the various systems together and reduce costs, improve delivery times, etc.
Further, the sector is looking to reassure travellers by reducing human interactions and minimising necessary contact. The added advantage is that these solutions also (typically) reduce OPEX and increase efficiency, plus give more control and increase digital footprint, which gives more data on users and can help drive further advances with analytics and track and trace (if necessary and acceptable).
There is even a potential silver lining, once the immediate concerns have been addressed. Whilst numbers are depressed, airports and airlines are able to restructure their businesses and operational processes, form new partnerships, adopt new business models and plan how they will not only recover but build back better. If they are able to garner industry and government support, new standards and processes, based upon smartphones, biometrics and digital identity, can be designed and implemented to give the customer more choice and flexibility without the restrictions of traditional inspections.
Want to have your bag-tags automatically printed when you enter the airport? And to create a biometric token when you get to the airport so you can seamlessly make your way through all passenger checkpoints and board your plane without having to repeatedly show your passport and boarding pass? How about checking-in to your flight when checking out of your hotel? Give permission for the airline to share your digital identity with your destination country for quicker passage through customs and border control? Well, soon we may be able to do just that.
Note: P.A.ID Strategies and Valour Consultancy have combined their respective areas of expertise in biometrics, identity, security and aviation to develop a new market research report entitled “The Seamless Passenger Journey in Smart Airports”. The report will assess the potential for biometrics, digital identity and smart solutions for self-service, automation and traveller processing to improve the passenger experience, increase efficiency and build revenue streams for airports and airlines as they initially cope with the disruption resulting from COVID-19 and plan their strategies to recover and build back better.