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Technology alone won’t save air travel

As the aviation sector gets to grips with restarting operations and services, attention will soon turn to defining what the new normal will be for air travel.

This will mean understanding what restrictions and behaviours will thankfully disappear and which are here to stay requiring a reconfiguration of the passenger experience for the longer-term.

Technology is likely to play a significant role in helping to reconfigure by offering low touch solutions and greater automation across the passenger journey. However, simply installing these technologies is not going to be enough. Deploying them effectively will require a clear vision for the end-to-end passenger journey and a plan for the new capabilities needed.

Here, we outline the ways that designing a reconfigured passenger experience can de-risk investment in technology at a time when decisions need to be made quickly, and move you from restarting to reconfiguring your service and operations:

  • Rethink how to deliver self-service and offer greater service variety
  • Make the experience better for front-line staff too
  • Embrace new commercial models

Rethink how to deliver self-service and offer greater service variety

Encouraging the majority of passengers to regularly use self-service solutions like check-in and bag drop has long been the direction of travel for most airlines and airports. But since the pandemic many of the current self-serve solutions now present a risk of potential contamination and are likely to be underused by passengers as a result.

Before investing in new self-serve solutions, a good start point would be to re-think how the digital experience for check-in, ticketing, booking changes and seat selection, bag drop and security may need to change in order to make passengers more willing and able to self-serve throughout. In the shorter-term, finding ways to help passengers to avoid touching shared touchscreens in favour of using their own smart phone would be a good early step.

Explore moving more of core processes outside of the airport

As well as self-serve, moving some passenger processes outside of the airport and designing the experience to encourage passengers to use them will result in less congestion at the airport itself.

Offering passengers greater variety such as baggage pick-up from home or off-site locations where passengers can drop their bags and check-in before they fly, can be part of the mix of services that will change the ways more passengers choose to travel.

Prepare the groundwork for data enabled services and operations

Within the airport itself, we’re likely to see a shift from technologies that support broad security surveillance to those that enable more targeted monitoring of passengers. This will mean linking individual passports with biometric profiles and using AI to support security and operational teams as they keep airports safe.

Capturing biometric data continues to raise issues of privacy, which won’t be easy to overcome. As the nature of the threat has shifted again, the pandemic may prove to be a tipping point in the trade-off between privacy and safety.

The lack of a global standard for the end-to-end biometric journey has resulted in limited and non-standardised implementation across the sector. This has made it difficult for the operators and manufacturers to scale-up solutions. For example, Changi Airport in Singapore and Etihad Airways in the UAE have been quick to embrace automated tracking technologies, while US airports and airlines seem currently seem more reluctant to embrace biometrics as fully.

Despite this, airports and airlines need to prepare passengers as automation and biometrics become a core part of how we travel.

The theory being that greater levels of automation will see increased roll-out of better, more personalised check-in and bag drop products, e-gates at immigration, self-boarding gates and automated cleaning.

Reconfiguring operations and services to manage the virus (and future viruses) for the long-term demands a creative look at what these technologies can and could offer.

In the first instance this will mean designing services that encourage and allow more passengers to opt-in to register for biometric services to make their journey contact-less.

Designing a great opt-in service will mean ensuring that sign-up to it is simple and can be conducted remotely. It’ll also require designing the service flow once it’s being used so the information guides passengers through each step quickly and intuitively and ensures passenger error is kept to a minimum.

Make the experience better for front-line staff too

Recovery will not only be reliant on reconfiguring the passenger experience. The experience will need to be reconfigured for your frontline staff too.

You’ll need to think differently about the experience your staff have of working and identify the type of support they need day-to-day. Understanding this will better help define how technology can be used to help staff deliver the service and stay safe. As airports and airlines reconfigure, we see the need to design the following to ensure technology plays the role it needs to in the recovery:

Standardise service quality across airport partners

Passengers now and for the foreseeable future will be more sensitive while travelling and may have to deal with heightened levels of disruption and uncertainty. Those for whom air travel is already stressful, such as those travelling with small children, the elderly and those with a disability, will need more support and reassurance than ever before. They will look to anybody in the airport in uniform to help, regardless of their role.

As a passenger travelling pre-Covid there would often be a mismatch between the levels of service you would receive throughout your journey. Co-operation and collaboration across entities will need to be better than it has been before and will need to balance the operational requirements with the softer factors of customer service to ensure passengers are kept safe but also informed and that their practical and emotional needs can be looked after whilst they are travelling.

Improved collaboration should mean that training resources are pooled so all front-line staff can receive consistent training and ongoing coaching and a greater level of standardisation on the quality measures of service across all airport and airline touchpoints.

Designing training so it’s more bite-sized, omni-present and digital

Developing a shared approach to service training and service standards will provide a solid foundation to support the recovery effort. Pre-Covid, service training had begun to move from solely classroom based to being more digital and dynamic and this shift has been accelerated by the pandemic.

With the front-line having to work in a much more fluid environment, digital training solutions that offer the opportunity to slice training into bite-sized but more regular sessions, that can be delivered directly to staff’s personal devices or be completed remotely, are going to be more effective.

Designing and developing a new approach to delivering training content will help ensure staff feel more supported, better connected to the company and their teams and more engaged in creating a proud culture of service.

Design more useful ways to put operational data in the hands of the front-line

As well as digital training solutions, the development of dynamic digital service tools will enable staff to serve customers in the most effective way and have access to the latest information when they need it.

The opportunity will be to specify and then develop a digital product geared towards helping the service professionals working on the frontline. It should draw from the ‘on-the-day’ operational data but filter it through a well-considered user interface and data should be served up in a way that is useful and useable for supporting day-to-day service enquiries.

Digital product development should also extend to offering more comprehensive ways for passengers to help themselves . This should include a series of responsive digital tools such as live chat or chat bots, virtual help desks and location-based guides all from the safety of the passengers own device.

Embrace new commercial models

The impact on airport retail has been significant and it seems increasingly clear that airports need to embrace and explore different commercial models and offers to make them more fit-for-purpose and resilient.

Whereas the emphasis in the restart phase was on trialling physical retail and food and beverage offers, the reconfigure phase should convince many to make a bigger investment in digital retail propositions to supplement more traditional duty-free models of retail.

Establishing a digital retail offer

Like they would do outside of travel, passengers will want to browse products and services in advance of their arrival and pre-order items to ensure their availability. Increasingly passengers may also want to conduct their shopping at the airport or on the flight itself digitally and pick items up at a designated pick-up point en route. This will require a big shift towards establishing a much more integrated retail model that cuts across duty free, airline and airport retailers.

Having an integrated digital retail model alongside physical stores also presents greater opportunity for retailers to be able to offer greater product ranges, more stock and variation and not be limited by their shelf space.

Greater volumes in digital retail will also open up a new level of retail intelligence that will allow for the tailoring of offers and refreshing the mix of retail to reflect passenger demand.

Establishing a digital retail offer also opens up the potential of new revenue streams.

Some airports are already exploring and providing downloadable content. For example, Dubai Airports have already partnered with the media company OSN to provide free access to premium streaming content from Disney+ and HBO.

In conclusion

Technology will play a major role in reconfiguring how we all experience air travel by tackling discreet challenges presented by the pandemic but technology alone won’t be the silver bullet. What’s required is a coherent vision for specifying and deploying the technology underpinned by a clear vision for the reconfigured passenger journey.

This will help to develop the right requirements, de-risk investment, speed up implementation and support you to make a sustained change for the longer-term.

As part of Engine’s ‘Lead out of Lockdown’ webinar series, we will be exploring the changing demands being placed on services and how the customer and employee experience needs to change as organisations look to restart, reconfigure and reimagine for a post-covid world.

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