Airlines are under pressure to make document processing faster, seamless and error-free even as COVID-19 regulations make the exercise more complex
The focus must be on greater operational efficiency – fewer human touchpoints and more of automated, touchless processes
Artificial intelligence, hyperautomation, intelligent automation and advanced analytics will be key technologies for airlines in the evolving normal
Increased documentation, fast-changing COVID-19 protocols across countries and the need for infection control measures at airports are overwhelming airline staff, and exposing carriers to greater operational risks.
In comparison to the pre-pandemic state, airports now require 50 percent more space at check-in counters, up to 10 minutes additional time for each departing passenger and five to 20 minutes additional time for each arriving passenger.1 There are also new complexities in documentation such as validating vaccine certifications and COVID-19 test results, and ensuring that passengers meet the latest requirements in transit and at the destination city / country.
Failure to comply is costing airlines not just increased operational risks, but hefty fines from regulators as well. In 2021, more than 600 fines were issued to carriers in just three months for incorrect COVID-19 paperwork.2 Regulators in several countries have banned airlines that have flouted COVID-19 protocols. Fake COVID-19 certificates are another cause for concern.3 Not to mention, all these increased measures have significantly raised airline overhead costs.
It’s time for airlines to retool their systems, and move away from people-driven tasks for greater operational efficiency and compliance, especially across customer-facing processes. This includes enabling quick turnaround time at check-in and boarding counters; efficient baggage flow to reduce congestion; and seamless and error-free documentation at disembarkation to ensure zero surprises.
The road to recovery is projected to be slow and bumpy — air traffic is expected to reach pre-pandemic levels only by 2024.4 But airlines should do more to ensure operations on the ground are ready to tackle the challenges head-on.
The new blueprint for airline operational efficiency mandates investment in advanced analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), hyperautomation and intelligent automation. Automated, touchless passenger and cargo processes, and self-serve systems eliminate redundant processes, reduce human touchpoints, lower overhead costs and improve compliance.
AI and predictive analytics help in improving forecasting and managing passenger traffic and flow at airports. Intelligent automation enables flexible booking and cancellation policies to improve customer confidence.5 As uncertainties prevail and passenger volumes fall, airlines should also try to retain customers through innovative loyalty programs.
Traditionally, the airline industry has lagged behind other sectors when it comes to digital investments. The technology spend by airlines before the pandemic was only around five percent of their revenue, compared to six percent for the retail industry and 10 percent for financial services.6
However, in recent times, this is changing as the industry is making concerted efforts to invest in crucial technologies. Let’s take a look at some key technologies that airlines should prioritize for the evolving normal.
AI and Advanced Analytics
AI and advanced analytics can help glean insights from airline operational data that can be used to track movement patterns and peak wait times. They can also improve queue management and reduce physical contact, and effectively schedule airline staff across different functions and touchpoints. By accurately forecasting staffing needs, airlines can avoid unnecessary costs and quickly mobilize staff. AI tools can help in identifying fake medical certificates and safety violations, thereby removing blind spots and improving compliance. Intelligent solutions, leveraging AI and analytics, for document processing can make operations more customer-centric and improve the passenger experience.
Facial recognition technologies make the check-in, security and immigration processes easier, faster and touchless as passengers do not need physical ID proof and boarding passes for verification. It eliminates the hassle of multiple physical checks at airports, and is less intrusive, secure and hygienic than the fingerprint scan. By 2023, nearly 64 percent of airports are aiming to roll out self-boarding gates using biometrics.7
Internet of Things Sensors
Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can detect passengers with high temperatures at crowded terminals and display their details in real-time on a screen. They can help quickly isolate and track sick passengers, and improve containment efforts. Certain sensors such as the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors, proximity sensors and 3D stereoscopic sensors are effective in detecting movement and measuring distances. They help in enforcing physical distancing and reducing the risk of overcrowding.
Airports are deploying robots for check-in, luggage clearance, cleaning, conducting security protocols, and even answering passenger queries about departure gates and flight timings. By 2030, robots are expected to replace all manual check-in processes.8
Mobile applications with several features can become the first level of contact for air passengers. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Pass is one such application that provides passengers information about COVID-19 tests and vaccine requirements, and other measures mandated by different countries. Passengers can also share their results and certifications through the application. Several airlines are launching similar pilots that are poised to make the documentation process smooth and seamless.
Domain-led hyperautomation9 platforms help in automating crucial and complex processes with intelligent integration of multiple technologies such as AI, ML and Natural Language Processing (NLP). They can drive intelligent document processing and scalability in airline processes, thereby increasing operational agility in uncertain times.
To adapt to an evolving normal, airlines need these technologies to complement human effort. Automated, intelligent and touchless solutions will enable airlines to re-define operational excellence and bounce back on the road to recovery.
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