COVID-19 refocused IT spending priorities for airlines and airports in 2020 with safety, automation, and efficiency becoming the new emphasis

The COVID-19 pandemic has refocused IT spending priorities for airlines and airports in 2020 as revenue plunged and the industry faced new health and operational requirements needed to keep flying, according to a review of last year’s business trends by air transport industry IT and telecommunication services provider SITA.

Among the key findings from its ‘2020 Air Transport IT Insights’ was an accelerated investment in automated passenger processing focusing on touchless and mobile services. There was also a strong focus on virtual and remote IT services that allowed employees to work from home while ramping up communications with passengers. Cybersecurity and cloud services – that helped automate operations and drive new efficiencies – were found to also be key.

The report highlights how airlines slashed their IT investment plans in 2020 to mitigate the revenue drop caused by the pandemic. However, it notes CIOs quickly reprioritised their IT investment agenda to increase efficiency in airport operations and ensure safer, automated processes were available.

In 2020, SITA data showed that flight volumes plunged 44% year-on-year due to the pandemic.  “The severe slowdown in 2020 forced the air transport industry to focus on driving new cost efficiencies,” said David Lavorel, CEO of SITA at Airports and Borders.

Adding to this pressure, airlines and airports have had to rapidly incorporate new health measures such as touchless passenger processing and the handling of new health information and protocols, including PCR testing in many destinations.

“To solve these challenges, the industry has turned to technology and, in many cases, reprioritised where they invested in 2020,” explained Mr Lavorel. Airlines and airports were able to capitalise on existing trends to automation and according to the SITA executive have made further “significant strides in implementing new solutions that will bring new improvements for the passenger now and into the future”.

Making the check-in process completely touchless is a key priority for airports and airlines to help protect passengers and staff, improve the passenger experience, and drive efficiency. Biometric technology is the focus for airport investment with the research showing around two-thirds (64%) of airports are aiming to roll out self-boarding gates using biometric & ID documentation by 2023, three times as many as in 2020. Airlines have also doubled implementations and plan to double investment for self-boarding using biometric & ID documentation by 2023, rising to 82% from just under half.

Similarly, airlines are prioritising a completely touchless check-in process, and most want mobile touchless payment options for all services provided. The report shows the majority (79%) are focused on enabling self-bag drop for passengers. All essential customer services will also likely to become contactless says SITA, including automated lounge access and mobile delayed baggage reporting.

Airline mobile applications for passenger services was also shown to be a priority with nearly all (97%) airlines having major programs and R&D in place by 2023. By 2023 the majority of airlines plan to send passengers real-time notifications on their mobile devices about their bags and plan to provide real-time bag-tracking information for staff, an application that will be welcomed by travellers.

SITA acknowledges that in response to the pandemic, most airlines and airports are investing more in in-house virtual and remote IT services allowing employees to work in a more agile and effective way while speeding up communications with passengers. Almost three-quarters of airports and airlines will continue to invest in data exchange, cloud services, cybersecurity, and business intelligence to accelerate their digital airport processes, its research shows. This includes increasing services on passenger mobile apps and ensuring staff services are accessible via mobile or tablets. 

SITA’s Air Transport IT Insights report is a well established publication that acts as the global benchmark research for the air transport industry exploring emerging IT trends and this year the transformative impacts of the recent pandemic on the air transport industry. The latest edition represents the views and insights from more than 180+ IT decisions makers from leading airports and airlines around the world based on surveys conducted during Sep-2020 and Oct-2020.

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