The coronavirus pandemic is more than just a rough patch of turbulence for the airline industry. The number of passengers—and profits—have both been impacted in 2020. IATA predicts the industry will lose $84 billion this year, while Statista suggests it has already lost $314 billion since January. What’s true right now is that the losses related to COVID-19 are still incalculable.
Face masks, leaving seats empty on flights, socially distanced boarding areas, temperature-checking areas, and other measures are some of the ways airlines are coping with COVID-19 right now.
The industry knows, however, that the only way to overcome the COVID financial storm is to go straight through it, and that is encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and innovation. If there is one silver lining to ongoing financial strain it’s that the industry, notoriously slow with change implementation, is moving faster than ever to adopt new technologies and new ways of doing things. Just that shift in perspective, even if done out of desperation or necessity, can inspire positive, future-forward change.
Technology for a More Sanitary Journey
Adopting in-cabin technologies that improve cleanliness and reduce germs is in everyone’s interest right now.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recently released new guidelines for how HEPA air filtration systems should be managed going forward, including how to position them in the case of a sick passenger.
Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and United Airlines have announced plans to use ultraviolet (UV) light to disinfect cabins. According to JetBlue’s press release announcing its investment in UV lights, it said, “In clinical studies, ultraviolet light has been found to be capable of significantly reducing certain viruses and bacteria when properly applied at prescribed levels.”
Technologies developed for use in other industries can also be adapted for use onboard. Take, for example, Panasonic’s nanoe™ technology, which suppresses odors and inhibits bacteria, viruses, and allergens using nano-sized electrostatic atomized water particles. Currently used in consumer products like coat hangers, air conditioners, and hair dryers, this technology could find new purpose in the aircraft environment.
Connectivity Essential to Touchless Cabins
Considering how dangerous and potentially fatal COVID-19 is, passengers are right to be wary of the cabin surfaces they touch. Airlines also want to lower the risk of germ transmission by upping their sanitation efforts and providing smart alternatives. As a result, the touchless cabin is becoming the norm.
“We all know health and wellness is going to be paramount on board,” Norm Haughton, Director of IFEC Product and Analytics at Air Canada, told Aviation Today. “How can we reimagine products onboard to help with that? I think connectivity is going to play a role there.”
This moment is redefining the airline industry, bringing it into the high-tech world in new, exciting before. It seems like every week there is a new entrepreneur or startup coming up with the next COVID-fighting measure or technology. There are, of course, some things to be wary of. Without the direction of experts in the field, the industry risks investing in solutions that make big promises, without delivering big results. So while this is a moment for experimentation, it still requires strategic planning—especially when budgets are so tight.
One likely bet is that passengers’ personal electronic devices (PEDs) and inflight connectivity will be lynchpins for recovery. PEDs will help passengers overcome concerns about accessing inflight entertainment and WiFi, but they may have power beyond IFE. Passengers may be reluctant to touch food and beverage packages, use cash or physical credit cards to make payments, press the buttons in the lavatories, and even turn their overhead lights and fans on and off.
“How can we reimagine products onboard to help with that? I think connectivity is going to play a role there.”Norm Haughton,
Director of IFEC Product and Analytics at Air Canada told Aviation Today.
With these new uses and investments, airlines may find the timing right to embrace an omnichannel approach to their IFE offerings, incorporating PEDs as integrated digital endpoints.
Many of these elements can be transformed using mobile technology, connectivity, motion sensors, and other innovations that are already readily available. For instance, Mediterranean LCC and Ryanair subsidiary airline Malta Air recently said it would rely more heavily on touchless features throughout the passenger journey. This includes self check-in and cashless near-field communication (NFC) payments for inflight purchases.
Attracting Passengers Back to the Skies
In a recent report about the rise of sanitized travel in a post-corona world, airline consultants SimpliFlying offer up tactics that airlines can use to boost ancillary revenue. First, they predict that the demand for all-inclusive insurance products will rise, as passengers will become more worried about COVID-related delays, missed flights, or lost baggage.
In that same vein, airlines may find new lines of business in offering more robust insurance products throughout the path to purchase.
As we know, though, airplanes are just a part of the flying experience. Airports also need to implement major changes to become safer for travelers. At Dallas–Forth Worth in Texas (DFW), American Airlines is partnering with the airport authority to roll out touchless self check-in luggage this summer. The airport—now the busiest in the world—is relying on other innovations to reduce possible transmission points, as well. Not only will toilets and sinks at DFW be touchless, but sensors will automatically detect when bathroom supplies are low and alert workers to minimize the time they spend in virus-friendly environments like airport bathrooms.
The goal of measures like insurance and touchless restrooms is to ease sanitation concerns at all points of the passenger journey and regain customers who are hesitant to fly. As Reuters reports, airports are also taking advantage the lull in travel to upgrade boarding and border-processing technologies, like biometrics and facial recognition for arrivals and departures.
Airlines need a combination of technology, business innovation, and patience to ride out the pandemic. Enhanced sanitation measures and the touchless cabin are great starts and need to be communicated effectively to the public. Together, different players in the industry will rebuild air travel to be more resilient than ever.