Read all about it: SITA’s aviation industry report

SITA has carried out a report highlighting the key areas of focus for the aviation industry this year. Frankie Youd talks to Sergio Colella, Europe president for SITA, about how the pandemic has impacted the shift to digital in aviation.

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With the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting the way that airports and airlines operate, change is inevitable. Many airports across the globe are undergoing a digital shift when it comes to passenger processing and security protocols. 

Towards the end of last year, information technology company SITA provided the aviation industry with a report titled ‘2021 Air Transport IT Insights’, which highlighted a significant increase in spending from airports and airlines on digitalisation technology. The report collected data from more than 180 airport and airline IT decision-makers from 45 countries. 

The research shows that most airlines (84%) and airports (81%) are predicted to spend the same – or more – on digitalisation in 2022 compared to 2021, with areas such as automated passenger processing seeing a significant rise. The report highlights that digitisation and sustainability will be the two top key areas of focus for airlines and airports this year. 

Frankie Youd talks to Sergio Colella, SITA president Europe, to find out more about the technology the company can offer to assist the industry with this digital shift, as well as how the pandemic has impacted the shift.

Sergio Colella, SITA president Europe. Credit: SITA

Frankie Youd: How can SITA assist the airport and airline industry with this digital shift?

Sergio Colella: In the middle of last year, we identified five key areas that the air transport industry needs to tackle to drive recovery from Covid-19. These focus areas align directly with the priorities of airport and airline chief information officers identified in the report: investing in digitalisation and sustainability to support recovery. 

Avoiding long waiting times and lines in the airport as passenger traffic recovers will be one of the key indicators of success in managing health documentation. SITA advocates a touchless airport experience, enabled by mobile and biometric technologies, to help reassure passengers when it comes to safety and create a hassle-free journey. 

Delivering a touchless, mobile experience onboard with the next generation of inflight connectivity and digital applications is key. Previous research shows that more than two-thirds of all passengers opt to use their own device onboard to stay connected or access entertainment.

With the touchless, mobile travel experience onboard the aircraft fast becoming the new industry standard, SITA recommends deploying its fast, uninterrupted connectivity onboard to deliver on this growing trend.

The pandemic has put immense pressure on the finances of airlines and airports.

The pandemic has put immense pressure on the finances of airlines and airports. This is driving a critical need for cost containment and greater agility in operations at the airport as demand fluctuates and increases. There is also a focus on driving new revenue streams from non-aeronautical sources. This has come through clearly in our report and from our own experience with our customer airports and airlines. 

On the cost-saving side, our focus has been on streamlining processes and driving more efficient operations. On the revenue side, we launched SITA’s CrewTab Retail, which enables airline crews to provide better digital services while also saving costs. One customer airline estimates potential savings of up to $20,000 per aircraft, per year, on labour, storage, fuel, and printing. 

Our report shows that by 2024, a full 88% of airlines intend to make use of new information technology and telecommunications helping the airline become more sustainable, such as flight path optimisation to reduce fuel burn. SITA’s connected aircraft technology is delivering safer, more efficient, and more sustainable aircraft operations.

Are there any other areas on the rise when it comes to digitalisation?

In the short term, health certificate verification is a crucial area for digitalisation, to maximise efficiency and reduce wait times and congestion at the airport as passenger traffic increases. 

The report shows that in 2021, staff across 81% of airlines resorted to performing manual verifications of health certificates in paper or scanned format. However, airlines want to automate the process over the next three years, with the majority investing in verification via a mobile app (51%) and nearly half investing in kiosk-enabled health checks (45%). 

Almost half of the major airports surveyed plan to implement mobile app-enabled verification. Almost a third have plans for verification through kiosks by 2024.

Additionally, sustainability is a key long-term concern for both airports and airlines, and airlines are showing significant interest in technologies like flight path optimisation and digitalisation of other cockpit processes to promote efficiency. 

On the airport side, in addition to prioritising policies and controls to reduce printing and promote energy savings, more than half of airports are investing in smart building technology and automation by 2024 to support their sustainability goals.

In your opinion, would we be seeing similar trends if the Covid-19 pandemic had not happened? 

Prior to the pandemic, there was an existing trend towards digitalisation, and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. 

Had the pandemic not occurred and catalysed a focus on making the passenger journey as low-touch and seamless as possible for health and safety reasons, we might have seen slightly slower adoption of technologies like self-service via mobile and biometrics supporting the walk-through passenger experience. But there is broad consensus that adoption of these technologies is the way forward for the industry.

Which other areas do you think will grow over the next few years?

Airlines have maintained three top priorities for IT services investments for the next three years: a full 100% of airlines are investing in cybersecurity initiatives, while cloud services (95%) and mobile applications for passenger services (88%) stay high on the agenda as in 2020. 

Other IT services are rising significantly in priority, with most airlines investing in major programs for aircraft maintenance (86%), business intelligence (85%), and mobile applications for pilot services (85%). Again, this reflects the strong trend towards digitalisation of aircraft and cockpit to drive efficiencies. 

Due to the increasing dependence on technology, digital services, and remote work patterns, it is not a surprise to see cybersecurity initiatives (94% of airports investing), cloud services (86%), and inhouse virtual and remote IT services (83%) as high priorities for airports over the next three years. 

Unified digital systems that simplify the passenger journey will become increasingly important.

As the industry enters the recovery phase, airports are also placing new IT services at the forefront as they focus on offering seamless health and safety solutions to enhance the passenger experience, while optimising resources and infrastructure as air traffic picks up but remains volatile. 

Airports have identified self-service processes (84% of airports with investment plans) and touchless solutions for both passengers and staff (83%) as key for boosting the safety and efficiency of airport touchpoints.

Supplementing this, internet of things (IoT) initiatives are seeing significant investment (83%), aimed at smoothing the passenger journey through the airport via beacons or sensors powering way finding solutions as well as personalised messages regarding facilities, baggage, and more. 

As travel becomes more connected and intermodal, having unified digital systems that simplify the passenger journey will become increasingly important.