Post pandemic, a new era of travel has been born and airlines are responding to it.

It is imperative for airlines to embrace change in order to prosper in the ever- evolving environment of air travel. They are doing so by staying agile, streamlining operations and passenger management.

The shift of IT spend over the past year from running the business to transforming the business confirms airlines are targeting their investment towards new digital technologies that promise to meet many of the pressing issues and requirements they are faced with, says SITA, a global IT provider for the air transport industry delivering solutions for airlines, airports, aircraft and governments.

“With the rapid recovery of air travel, IT spend is almost at 2019 levels. A full-scale recovery is well underway in the Asia-Pacific airline market. Last year [2022] saw the region’s air travel market start reopening, and the outlook for the remainder of 2023 is equally positive, especially with the opening of the key Chinese air travel market,” SITA President Asia-Pacific, Sumesh Patel, tells Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

“With a full recovery expected in 2024, we anticipate the region to increase adoption of digital solutions to help manage the rising passenger volumes and mitigate risks associated with congestion, operational burden, and staff shortages,” Patel adds.

“While we can’t talk about upcoming projects, our SITA Smart Path and SITA Flex solutions are currently helping rethink the traveler experience across the globe, making journeys entirely mobile, biometrically enabled, and untethered from fixed points in the airport,” the SITA Asia-Pacific boss highlights.

SITA Smart Path, a biometrics, self-service, and mobile-enabled platform, delivers ‘Your face is your boarding pass’ solutions.

Passengers enroll their facial biometric and journey details, in advance, via their mobile or at an airport touchpoint. With cross-border arrangements, this can be the same at all airports on the journey.

SITA Smart Path has thus far been deployed at several international gateway airports, including at Beijing Capital Int’l Airport (BCIA), Qatar Airways’ Hamad Int’l hub, as well as in San Francisco, Muscat, Istanbul and Athens.

At BCIA, the technology has been implemented at over 600 biometric checkpoints for check-in, bag drop, restricted access, security, duty-free and boarding. This includes 250 lanes of automatic gates, 80 kiosks, and 30 self-bag drop stations to process passengers from international flights. BCIA is able to process over 400 passengers boarding an Airbus A380 in fewer than 20 minutes, Patel tells Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

He adds: “Airlines are increasingly investing in, and piloting, biometric solutions. Looking ahead, it is clear that airlines are focused on streamlining passenger services using biometrics and are moving away from having their staff check and scan identity documentation.”

Baggage Issues

Airlines and airports are facing a surge in baggage mishandling rates amidst the growing number of passengers, with the number of mishandled bags almost doubling from 2021 to 2022 to 7.6 bags per thousand passengers, according to SITA’s 2023 Baggage IT Insights report released recently.

The shortage of skilled staff, resumption of international travel, and congestion at airports have made it challenging to manage bags and ensure their smooth handling at airports – particularly during peak travel periods.

The overall increase in mishandling is forcing the industry to focus on digitalization and automation, with technology investments that deliver greater automation and self-service being a top priority.

Delayed bags accounted for 80 per cent of all mishandled bags in 2022, lost and stolen bags increased to 7 per cent, and damaged and pilfered bags decreased to 13 per cent.

The surge in the mishandling rate comes after more than a decade of reduction in mishandled baggage. Significant process improvements helped the mishandling rate per thousand passengers fall by 59.7 per cent between 2007 and 2021.

However, given the pressure of staff shortages on operations post-Covid, the 2022 mishandling rate of 7.6 bags per thousand passengers represents a 75 per cent increase from 2021, SITA’s Patel notes.

Transfer bags have historically accounted for the majority of mishandled bags. This was no different in 2022, with a one-percentage point increase from 2021, pushing the proportion of bags delayed at transfer to 42 per cent.

This increase is attributed to the resurgence of international and long-haul travel, leading to loading errors and greater transfer mishandling rates. The failure to load bags accounted for 18 per cent of all mishandled bags in 2022, representing a 3 per cent decrease from the previous year. Loading errors more than doubled compared to the previous year, accounting for 9 per cent of all delayed bags in 2022, the airline IT provider’s data show.

SITA is actively working on industry solutions including real tracking and notifications. Passengers can receive personal notifications advising bag arrival location and times, to avoid clustering in the baggage arrivals hall. They can use mobile lost bag reporting to check progress on lost bags and connect to the airline.

For example, Lufthansa has launched a contactless way for passengers to report delayed baggage from mobile devices, avoiding waiting at busy baggage areas, with WorldTracer® Self Service. Two-thirds of travelers now use this way to report baggage issues instead of visiting a counter.

Patel highlights that to improve the efficiency of mishandled bags during transfer, SITA’s WorldTracer Auto Reflight automatically suggests suitable flight routing for rush bags (baggage not accompanying a passenger). It uses the original bag tag to reflight and informs the baggage system of the new bag routing.

Airline Innovation & Inflight 5G

“Over the past few years, having an innovation strategy has clearly become a priority for airlines,” says Patel.

“Looking back, in 2018, 31 per cent of airlines had no innovation strategy in place, with 13 per cent confirming no plans to implement such a strategy. Today only 1 per cent say they have no plans in place, while 87 per cent of airlines have an innovation strategy now or one that is one that is currently being developed, with a further 12 per cent having plans to develop such a strategy in the future,” he adds.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the most common technology area where innovation partnerships take place (53 per cent). The top 6 technologies of focus where airlines collaborate with innovation partners to drive implementation are those same technologies being prioritized by airlines in their IT&T investments, both immediate and long term: AI (82 per cent), Biometrics (79 per cent), BI software (77 per cent), Digital Tags (77 per cent), Data exchange technologies (71 per cent), Near Field Communications (73 per cent) and 5G communications network (69 per cent).

“Globally, 84 per cent of airlines are focusing investments on wireless services for cabin crew and pilots and another 80 per cent prioritize wireless in-flight services for passengers. The focus suggests that airlines are making steady progress in implementing on-board connectivity, with some of them (66 per cent) maintaining investments in full satellite broadband connectivity to aircraft,” says Patel.

“In terms of shifting technology norms, all eyes remain fixed on 5G. While there is a famous lag in the time it takes for terrestrial trends to land in the cabin, it’s just a matter of time before inflight 5G comes onboard. And when it does, it’ll not just enable an improved and unified passenger experience. It’ll have the performance and capacity necessary to handle fast-mounting rates of mobile and connected device usage, and all the innovation potential that lies within.”