2020 has ushered in an era of unprecedented complexity for aviation. At this writing, the Coronavirus pandemic has affected over 14 Mio. people in more than 200 countries. This outcome makes the ongoing safety and sanitizing crisis the most challenging in history. As it started to be felt, industry players were faced with massive flight cancelations, groundings, and thus increased airport costs. This led to a new state, where an endpoint was hard to see. Since then, operators have been trying diverse maneuvers to boost business adaptability despite the great uncertainty.
There is no golden rule for a successful Post-COVID recovery. However, to develop optimal responses, managers must contemplate different scenarios including the one where operational constraints are even tougher. The creation of resilience will depend on two types of factors: those that are external to aviation like the projected global recession and things that are within decision-makers’ influence. Focusing on the last ones means that airports must review their own procedures to eliminate waste time, make a better use of resources, and enhance their bottom-line.
Roadmap to keep airport costs under control
1. Time to challenge paradigms
Life is full of deeply held beliefs. Among business people, it is common to hear the phrase “this is how things are done”. In the face of such a statement, hardly anyone would dare to question the status quo. Having established practices is not disadvantageous at all. On the contrary, they help to improve productivity while reducing errors. However, in the long run, following fixed patterns can generate some resistance to change, even when the circumstances demand to embrace it. The result: blind spots that prevent companies from generating competitive advantages.
In order to move forward, airport managers must comprehend one thing: The traditional way of doing things has been heavily disrupted and might not go back to what it was before the pandemic. The main reason for that is an apparent shift in the behavior of passengers and their perception of air traveling:
- While speed has always been a decisive factor to ensure customers´ satisfaction, today a greater value may be placed on the implementation of protective measures.
- Self-service technologies help to reduce processing times and airport costs. Trends indicate thus that coronavirus will be boosting the transition to touchless alternatives to minimize physical touchpoints whereas possible.
- Facial biometrics have become popular solutions to upgrade security checks while avoiding the formation of long lines. Nevertheless, the enforcement of wearing face masks poses some impediments for this method. Travelers might expect that, in the future, multi-modal technologies will take over identity recognition.
- More than ever, facility cleanliness is being scrutinized. Therefore, open communication to visitors about the advanced sanitizing programs taking place to lower risks of virus transmission will be paramount to instill confidence.
The highly dynamic environment is forcing airports to reevaluate their approaches to the customer journey. Creativity and open-mindedness are two ingredients for reinventing current services and adjusting them to the new requirements. Especially important will be to develop strategies to incorporate safety measures in a way that delivers a seamless flight experience. Addressing transformation is an arduous process that requires throughout planning, staff commitment, and the support of the right technology to maintain airport costs under control. Only so, operators will be able to thrive in the New Normal.
2. Moving to off-airport processing
Being connected nowadays is as imperative as ever. Whether to check emails, shop online, or have a look at the latest social media news – mobile devices have become an indispensable part of our reality. Figures show that over 45% of the world´s population uses a smartphone. Moreover, it is estimated that in the next five years, 72% of all internet users will access the web only via mobile phones. Such a trend represents a chance for operators who seek new means to narrow airport costs.
Several processes like baggage check-in and security controls challenge today´s concerns to ensure social distancing. Trying to avoid congestion highlights the urgency to implement technologies that enable the decentralization of certain pre-boarding procedures. Thanks to dedicated apps, people can get essential information on booking numbers, terminal assignments, and other air services in one place. The unnecessary waiting time in the concourses vanishes as travelers get notifications of flight updates from the comfort of their homes.
Particularly, portable check-in has gained notoriety in the last years. It gives airports the flexibility to process passengers and handle their bags wherever they are. Some cloud-based solutions go a bit further by providing real-time insights on parking availability within the facilities, ground transportation schedules, and the length of security lines. These features help not only to improve crowd monitoring, but also to make a better allocation of staff and equipment. That is how innovation can add extra operational capacity.
3. Leveraging data to limit services
One of the most complex decisions that managers must face is how to plan for the upcoming season. Irregularities in the growth of passenger volumes make it difficult to calculate the potential demand. In fact, the Airports Council International estimated that in May traffic at EU airports fell by 98% compared to the same period in 2019. Such projections oppose previous calculations which suggested an increase of 2.3% for the entire year 2020. This is just a reflection of how volatile the current situation is.
To face nearing challenges, decision-makers must rely on more than mere business intuition. Finding answers to common questions like, “How much staff do we need at counters?” or “It is really necessary to keep all these gates operative?” can be a tricky task. Through powerful analytics, planners achieve an optimal deployment of their resources considering all new and upcoming restrictions. High airport costs can then be prevented by maximizing capacity utilization following criteria like:
- Expected show-up of travelers at boarding areas
- Targeted wait time at each processing point
- Performance standards
- Bag load factor
Planning accuracy will depend on the maturity of the data available and the capabilities of the technology used to process it. Historical information serves as a baseline to make more conservative forecasts on relevant parameters. During daily operations, the output of the planning phase can then be easily adjusted according to real-time updates. Even if there are several restraints to collect valuable input, a demand-driven approach is beneficial at most since it fosters a better anticipation of future events.
4. Advanced training for ground workers
Sometimes when it comes to improving internal practices, the importance of training personnel goes unnoticed. In fact, it is common to associate the term efficiency with the integration of high-end tech. In a modern digitalized world, such assets play definitely a crucial role. But what is the point of having state-of-the-art equipment if employees are not able to take advantage of it?
Process reengineering methodologies suggest the starting point of the analysis should be the most critical part of the chain: manpower. As procedures to hinder the spread of COVID-19 undergo continuous revision, maintaining relevant and current training becomes paramount. By providing regular workshops, staff will be able to develop the skills required to deal with the ever-more stringent requirements of the sector.
If employees have direct contact with the public, they must be aware of how to handle infection cases. This will depend on the emergency responses established in the facility. As important as protecting others is to keep oneself safe. Daily briefs can provide teams with wider orientation to perform their activities, considering that each task involves different degrees of exposure.
Those who do not adopt higher standards of education and health monitoring for their workforce let the probability of contagion grow. This can significantly diminish the amount of qualified personnel available, and then not only the infected subjects must be isolated. Quarantine protocols affect anyone who has been in close contact with an asymptomatic person. Staff shortages impact the overall performance leading to increased airport costs.
The optimization effort should start now
Airports, as any other aviation stakeholder, are struggling to stay afloat in this financially constrained context. The New Normal has put in check the traditional way of performing tasks as travelers have higher expectations. The huge pressure on expenditure prompts managers to take fast and severe actions to reach efficiency. Therefore, they must be ready to leave orthodoxies behind and envision flexible solutions to decentralize some processes.
Due to the high levels of uncertainty, deciding upon cutting airport costs can be a complicated mission. On the one hand, reducing expenses indiscriminately now might hinder the capacity to quickly scale operations once travel demand ramps up. On the other hand, if cost savings are not enough to have the necessary liquidity to face short-term liabilities, the continuity of air service will be put at risk.
To manage expenditure sustainably, data-driven decision-making becomes the norm. AI tools deployed for planning deliver more accurate forecasts based on the evaluation of future scenarios. Relevant stakeholders can easily share information, which fosters transparency and collaboration. An optimized allocation of resources contributes to avoid downtime of crucial infrastructure and minimize the potential of delays across the passenger journey.
As the sector moves towards recovery, airports are actively looking for new ways to incorporate Coronavirus regulations to their services without compromising their quality. To make the travel experience more streamlined these days, there is a lot of work that needs to be done behind the scenes. Manpower is paramount to achieve productivity goals and thus, the utter importance to train it accordingly.