The impact of Covid-19 on the global aviation industry has been severely damaging. Flight schedules have been cut down by up to 80 percent since May as many countries closed their borders to reduce the spread of the virus. 

Despite this global turmoil, since the beginning of August, the industry has been aligning around the need for passenger confidence, technological remedies and collaboration to support the recovery to a ‘new normal’ for air travel. 

As most airlines resume to business, the emerging trends from the pandemic are forging a leaner, safer and smarter air transport industry that is rebuilding trust in passengers, underpinning the next decade of travel. 

According to data published by Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), global flight volumes are undergoing a recovery process, despite plummeting to an historic low in the second quarter. 

“Flight volumes dropped 69 percent year-on-year in June, significantly better than May’s year-on-year drop of 80 percent. On a week-over-week basis, the study for week 28, July 8 to July 14, show an eighth consecutive increase in air traffic. The global air traffic is now operating at 45 percent of its pre-Covid-19 capacity,” a statement seen by Afcacia says. 

During lockdowns, for instance, African airlines lost Sh860 billion to the virus last May, according to the Impact Assessment Analysis Report released by the African Airlines Association (AFRAA). According to SITA, the continent could lose more billions as we approach December, owing to lack of resilience measures to bounce back to business, even as jobs losses continue to ravage the industry globally. 

“Job losses in aviation and related industries could grow to 3.1 million. That is half of Africa’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment. Previous estimate was 2 million,” Maneesh Jaikrishna, Vice President – Indian Subcontinent, Dubai, Eastern & Southern Africa, SITA told Shipping and Logistics. 

SITA is betting on technology to lift air transport from the abyss of financial distress in a situational uncertainty where encouraging passengers to return to the skies remains a challenge for the industry.

 “Technology can help increase confidence and ensure compliance with evolving regulations. However, any hardware and software solutions for passenger processing must be resilient and flexible in order to empower airports to adapt to fluctuating passenger volumes.

“The technology must deliver the experience passengers want, while also improving efficiency and reducing costs for the airport,” says Mr Jaikrishna. 

But to successfully navigate a return to the skies for viable volumes of passengers, airports and airlines will have to assimilate new information from governments and health officials, adapt operations immediately and automate processes permanently. 

As the International Air Transport Association (IATA) echoes AFRAA’s call for government relief measures and bailout of loss making African airlines, SITA says the pandemic is a new industry-defining challenge that will transform operations across the board. 

“Health is the new 9/11, airlines and airports must now adopt new safety measures to keep air travel attractive and viable. Greater emphasis and focus must be placed on passenger experience, efficiency and sustainability.”

With passengers demanding reassurance of safety, focus is fast shifting to automated operations that play an important role in reducing queues and touch points in airports as passenger volumes begin to recover and social distancing becomes increasingly difficult. 

Digital border controls will ensure passenger health and safety.   Kenya Airways chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka, for instance, who says he is giving priority to the health and safety of passengers and crew, will be required to embrace technological changes and create innovative solutions, to make aviation regulatory processes and governance more streamlined and responsive to future crises. 

“As we prepare to operate under exceptional circumstances, we look forward to welcoming more of our guests on board and we remain committed to offering world class services,” Mr Kilavuka says. 

However, according to a new aviation report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), lessons learned from the flexible work and meeting arrangements, accelerated digitalization, and ad-hoc, fast-tracking of proposals should all be incorporated into the aviation regulatory operational processes, if airlines are to emerge stronger in post-Covid-19 period. 

“The air transport industry will need to seize the momentum for a better analysis of the measures and steps taken during the crisis which will serve as foundation for defining a more resilient, sustainable aviation sector in the future,” states the Guidelines for Air Travel through Covid-19 report. 

Travel authorization, bag-drop, check in and more can be facilitated away from the airport to reduce passenger queuing and to enable more social distancing, meaning passengers can arrive checked in and ready to travel. 

Mr Jaikrishna says Health ETAs (Electronic Travel Authorization) can help further speed up the process, especially by using biometrically enabled, secure mobile technology which allows governments to instantly check digital declarations before passengers travel.

“A seamless journey through the airport is crucial to reducing the risk of Covid-19 infection. SITA gives passengers a contactless experience, thanks to biometrics capable of enrolling then recognizing faces with masks on and passengers being able to use their mobile phone as a remote control for travel”. 

“Touchless bag tagging and digital boarding pass stamps at security are just some of the examples of minimizing the need for passengers to touch airport infrastructure or physically contact staff,” he expounds.

SITA now provides health-aware border checks on arrival, linked to pre-checked identity, journey, and health information, saying processing passengers via biometric-enabled gates compared to traditional border checkpoints is faster than ever and completely touchless, and that further reduces the time of exposure in the airport, congestion levels and contact points. 

With technology to record every passenger’s details during a flight, airlines can know passengers arriving from high-risk areas who can then be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days. 

The question of how the aviation industry can thrive in a significantly smaller market with prolonged uncertainty has become critical, but the sector must collectively shift towards sustainable, long-term, future-proof solutions that offer longevity and cost efficiency benefits. 

“For many airports, these are just bolt-on solutions to existing technologies and platforms. Introducing resilient and agile systems that increase efficiencies and can respond to unpredictable fluxes in passenger numbers will become the determining factor for a sustainable future,” Mr Jaikrishna observes.