November 2021 Update: With passenger numbers approaching once again pre-pandemic levels, the prediction we made in this article turned out to be accurate
The COVID-19 Pandemic delivered an unprecedented blow to the airline industry. What started as an outbreak the international community expected to control with lockdowns lasting just over a few weeks turned out to be a global crisis. In the end, a virus we knew little about came close to stopping the world for over a year.
Today, however, thanks to widespread vaccination campaigns and under the pressure of millions of people feeling an intense urge for normality, the sleeping giant that is the aviation industry is awakening from its forced hibernation.
But is the sector ready to face the upcoming surge?
How can airports and airlines turn the tide in their favor and improve traveler experience at this critical point?
Less restrictions, but the fear remains
Before the pandemic hit, it was 9/11 that hit the airline industry the hardest, with a staggering 30% downfall in air traffic. During the COVID-19 outbreaks, companies trimmed their capacity down to under 10% – this may sound like old news now that countries are uplifting restrictions and travel bans, but the situation is more complex than this. The loosening of COVID-related limitations is more regional than it is international.
Domestic flying will thus be possible again, but it makes up for merely one-third of the revenue generated by an essential factor for airlines: passenger-kilometers flown. In other words, long-haul travel – something that seems far-fetched right now. Another dynamic to consider is the psychological and financial impact the pandemic had during the past twelve months: if we look at the bigger picture this way, it is easy to understand why big industry players are worried.
A key predictor of the future: the past
Whether political or financial, there has been no shortage of disruptive events in the airline industry. The Gulf War to 9/11 and the outbreaks of SARS. The avian influenza H5N1 and the global crisis in 2008. Fluctuations are nothing new for the industry.
Nevertheless, as Figure 1 shows, the aviation sector is also no stranger to increases in its growth after unpredictable events.
The number of airline passengers was just over 650 million in 1980. It hit the 1 billion mark in 1990, and it climbed way above the 4 billion passengers in 2018: based on these numbers, the pre-pandemic IATA forecast for the industry’s growth was about a yearly 3,5%.
It took the industry almost six years to fully bounce back from 9/11. Fear was a big part of the ripple effect of its aftermath, but so were also the uncoordinated regulations and processes that stiffened traveler experience, giving the industry things to deal with even to this day. And yet, it was a learning experience that gave players a big lesson to apply now as key to recovery: perception. Once passengers perceive travel as safe, once they trust that their life won’t be on the line during the whole process surrounding air travel, numbers will climb back to normal.
After all, isn’t that what the aviation sector does best after a crisis?
Revenge travel and its dangers
It is self-evident that building this trust will require time. It will take years for the industry to reach pre-pandemic levels.
What we foresee, however, is an upcoming, sudden increase in traveler volume. This phenomenon has even a name: India’s federal health ministry baptized it “revenge travel”, and it describes the population’s eagerness to experience freedom outside of the “new normal” once again, thus jeopardizing the results achieved with strict COVID regulations.
Even though testing and vaccination requirements will play an essential role in this upcoming surge, the industry needs ways to prevent the further spread of the virus as much as possible. There is a reason we wear masks and keep social distancing: COVID-19 is an airborne disease . Studies like the one carried out by Daniela Chirizzi in Italy reinforce the notion that the virus is unlikely to spread in outdoor spaces, but airports are enclosed environments.
With increasing evidence that the risk of contracting the virus is directly proportional to the time a person spends exposed to it, the main approach to counter it is either by increasing the distance between passengers, the time of exposure, or the mixing of passengers.
For airlines and airports, the challenge will be finding out what they can implement to make the traveling process safer and smoother.
While some are testing temperature screenings as a possible solution, a study led by Ronald K. St. John in 2005 found no evidence to back up the effectiveness of these measures. the disease’s incubation time and the high percentage of asymptomatic patients make this solution ineffective in detecting cases and preventing transmission. In 2020, Billy J. Quilty’s study on COVID-19 and infected travelers came to a similar conclusion. These screenings are thus more likely to be a psychological reassurance for passengers rather than an actual preventive intervention.
Many ideas have been drafted on how modern technologies can support in supervising passenger’s behavior and their compliance with e.g., distancing rules and wearing masks. But while that might be effective, it also carries the heavy burden of ethical questions concerning surveillance.
We believe that software should support the people and make their life better. In our opinion, the key word is optimization. Reducing as much as possible the mixing of dozens of people and optimizing traveler flows – these two things will not only reduce exposure, but also improve the quality of travel and avoid the financial consequences of flight delays.
Efficiency, safety & optimization: the future of aviation
So, what if, instead of implementing solutions bearing Orwellian omens, the industry found a way to speed up onboarding processes to mitigate the upcoming surge in passenger volume? In our minds, the solution is using computer vision to accelerate passenger flow and avoid overcrowding.
More specifically, we want to tackle a problem the industry has been facing for a while: oversized or excessive hand baggage items that slow down boarding and cost airlines and airports millions every year.
Cloudflight developed a system for detecting & measuring hand luggage automatically that we are currently testing in three major airports in Europe. This retrofittable solution uses real time object detection to make passenger flow seamless, reducing crowdedness and increasing onboarding speed up to threefold. Potentially, it decreases the number of delayed flights and allows to bring in more revenue.
However, this is only a part of the advantages: by making the boarding more efficient, passengers won’t have to walk around the plane trying to find a space to fit their luggage. This apparently trivial detail entails that there will be less mixing of air particles, reducing the changes of virus spread specially in the case of effort-induced heavy breathing due to lifting and carrying baggage around the plane.
The result is a much-improved traveler experience, with faster processes that prevent financial loss and protect passenger health.
You can read more about our solution here or by reaching out to us.
Technology is supposed to be at the service of humanity. Now more than ever there is a need for solutions that safeguard people’s while, at the same time, making the process of going through life smoother.