April 5, 2021
Since COVID-19, the future of travel has become fraught and uncertain. Let's consider how airlines’ and airports’ use of XR and wearables will change post-pandemic given consumers’ reluctancy to travel, a sharp and likely permanent decline in business travel, and an economic recession.
Before the pandemic, airports around the world were hard-pressed to process more passengers and cargo than their terminals were designed to manage. By 2018, capacity issues had created a multibillion-dollar infrastructure crisis in the airport industry. Airlines had to deal with this crisis along with rapidly aging fleets, new customer demands (both the in-flight experience and sustainability), and a shortage of skilled workers. In response, airports and airlines experimented with and in some cases deployed immersive and wearable technologies to quickly process passengers, avoid delays, train cabin crew, and more.
Outlook and Pain Points
Clearly, the same pressures do not apply to the industry in 2021. Namely, there aren’t too many passengers; there aren’t enough. Airport renovation projects are at a standstill, and coronavirus has added a new dimension to keeping passengers safe and comfortable in the air. In addition, speed (faster boarding, plane turnaround, etc.) is not as paramount as health and safety.
Due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, border closures and quarantines, global air travel dropped by more than 60% in 2020, bringing an end to a decade of steady profitability for airlines (IATA). Some expect the airline industry won’t fully rebound until 2024, while others don’t believe air traffic will ever return to pre-pandemic levels. Certainly, business travel won’t: There will be a permanent shift to remote working and video conferencing as a replacement for some in-person meetings. Recovery will undoubtedly be slow and uneven, with domestic and leisure travel expected to outpace international and business.
Massive layoffs and furloughs have only exacerbated the existing skilled labor shortage, which will likely impair airlines’ ability to recover. Moreover, heightened attention to health and sanitation aren’t going away, nor is the pressure to reduce CO2 emissions. Every stakeholder has suffered: Airports lost out on nearly $112 billion in revenue in 2020, while aircraft manufacturers found cash-strapped customers looking to delay or reduce orders. From grounding planes to loss of talent, the aviation industry has certainly taken a beating; but pre-pandemic experimental use cases could help the industry survive and recover. Needs may have changed, but as always tech is the answer.
What’s Old is New Again
Pre-coronavirus, the airline/aviation industry had turned to AR/VR and wearables to:
- Make boarding more convenient (i.e. contactless)
- Visualize air traffic and airport operations in order to better manage staff, speed up flight inspection and turnaround, etc.
- Improve cargo and luggage handling
- Entice customers to book and upgrade their travel
- Improve the in-flight experience, including entertainment
- Train new pilots, maintenance technicians, flight attendants, etc.
- Create new business models like an all-virtual airline
Given the industry’s current and impending needs and challenges, the above use cases are arguably more important now than ever. Side benefits of immersive and wearable tech, especially the touchless nature of applications like smartwatch boarding passes and passenger processing via smart glasses, are also well-suited to the ongoing pandemic. From cutting costs to encouraging bookings and protecting travelers, XR and wearables will feature in aviation’s recovery.
Potential Use Cases
Airlines took on over $200 billion in debt last year, and over 40 airlines had completely folded as of October 2020. The need to cut costs is persistent, but how? Further staff cuts aren’t a viable option and with demand so low neither is any action that would undermine the passenger experience. And don’t forget about the higher operating costs involved in adopting new health and safety measures or the cost of sustainability initiatives.
Time, however, is money and so airlines should be seeking gains in efficiency and investing in experiences and solutions that will assure and encourage people to travel again:
- Equipping gate agents and cabin crew with augmented reality glasses to streamline boarding, relay health updates, help answer customer questions, check for proof of vaccination, provide more personalized service, reduce contamination (hands-free) and even perform no-contact temperature checks.
- In 2018, Changi Airport had plans to pilot 600 smart glasses to improve and speed up cargo and luggage handling. This is just one example of using AR to improve efficiency and reduce errors. Ground crew servicing aircraft between flights could use the same devices to get immediate remote expert support, and experts could inspect planes remotely through the “eyes” of personnel on the tarmac—both would increase turnaround times and minimize contact.
- Efficiency can also be gained and safety improved by visualizing airport operations in mixed reality. SITA previously worked with Helsinki Airport to reproduce the airport’s operational control center in MR, helping to make more informed decisions and better direct resources. CVG used sensors and smartwatches to track restroom usage in real time and direct housekeeping staff according to need. Having a better understanding of what’s going on in the air and on the ground once again helps to early detect issues, save time, and minimize interaction between personnel and travelers.
- Airlines need to do their part to encourage travel, whether by demonstrating COVID safety or innovating the cabin experience. Again, immersive technology can help here:
Immersive Training & Safety Videos
- Training new aviation workers is critical, but so is training existing workers on new health and safety protocols. Potential travelers, too, will want to know what airlines and airports are doing to enhance sanitation and protect customers against the spread of COVID-19. VR training programs, by now recognized as more effective than traditional training methods, could be developed both to educate airline and airport employees and to demonstrate COVID safety practices (like proper mask use) to passengers before a flight. Such content could also be repurposed for marketing, to showcase the aviation industry’s H&S efforts to prospective travelers.
- Before coronavirus, the airline workforce was already dwindling. The industry was facing a looming shortage of all kinds of aviation professionals, including pilots and maintenance engineers. The aviation sector cannot hope to recover without enough employees, and so fast-tracking AR/VR training solutions is imperative. When it comes to pilot training, at least, VR is also cheaper and quicker than traditional flight training: Around $1,000/unit for 30 students versus $4.5 million for one legacy simulator, according to the U.S. Air Force. And while standard pilot training takes about a year to complete, pilots can achieve certification to fly in less than half that time with VR. For other aviation professionals, VR eliminates the challenges of on-the-job training, including working around existing operations and securing aircraft for multiple training scenarios. The shift towards use of more online learning in the sector will only accelerate, as evidenced by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s recent revision of its guidance on virtual classroom instruction and distance learning.
Increase Passenger Demand
While demand greatly depends on mass vaccination efforts, airlines can take steps to win back travelers. Immersive demonstrations of COVID safety are a good start, as is using XR to design novel cabin layouts for enhanced health and sanitation. Really, any digital solution focusing on the customer experience is relevant, including contextualized and personalized AR apps spanning airport navigation, flight information, the cabin experience (entertainment), and more. And don’t dismiss VR tourism as a temporary stop-gap measure: The pandemic has presented a chance for VR to become a valid form of alternative travel and carved a permanent place for the tech in tourism marketing. Indeed, a number of countries have rolled out VR marketing campaigns to prepare for the eventual recovery of their tourism industries. Airlines should do the same.
Last but not Least, Innovation
Pre-coronavirus, Airbus, Boeing, and others were tasked with maintaining and replacing clients’ aging fleets. To this end – and to address increasing complexity and a growing talent exodus – aerospace companies were using AR for assembly and inspection (heads-up, hands-free superimposed instructions) and VR for new aircraft design and operator training. Pressure hasn't let up: Aircraft manufactures are still expected to deliver around 1,100 new jets in 2021 and, at the same time, innovate new tech like improved jet propulsion systems and sustainable aviation fuels. They and other industry players cannot hope to do this or reduce aviation’s environmental footprint without the cost/time savings and freedom to experiment unleashed by immersive tech.