COVID19 Impact on Accelerating Automation in Ground Handling? (Part 2 of 2)

By Andrew Walsh (Muscat, Oman)

Part 2 of 2. Please click here for Part 1

The impact of COVID19 can only accelerate these changes.  From a passenger perspective confidence in airport processes is needed to feel there is a reduced risk. Airlines and airports are needing to show that they can offer low risk environments to assist governments and regulators opening their borders and allowing more passenger travel.

So, what are some of the potential solutions? Along with the testing and tracing for individual passengers as being offered  by several airports and airlines, process changes should also be adapted, ideally, to be with minimum human contact along with contactless technology solutions, or solutions that use your personal devices.  Scanning with your smart device through entry points and boarding gates, booking slots at security and pre-ordering duty free would help the confidence. Human contact may then be limited only to necessary security searches and perhaps immigration at the airport, two areas where process changes, barriers and social distance can be achieved.

Similarly the use of technology to move processes off-airport, a solution already growing before COVID, allows check-in and baggage collection within the passengers own environment, reduces the time needed at the airport which lowers risk, and limits potential baggage handling.

Companies such as OACIS (Off Airport Check In Solutions) in Australia are utilising Amadeus cloud based technology to access airline departure control systems via secure internet connections.

As specialist companies move into these areas it further reduces the role of the ground handler.

Baggage remains a problem.  How do you provide passenger confidence in the handling of baggage?  Self-tagging and automated bag drops will help, but if you knew that the baggage handling process has minimum human contact due to robotic handling and automation this helps confidence and may become an additional airport/airline Unique Selling Proposition (USP) that helps promote a lower risk environment.

Implementing these solutions still requires investment at a financially difficult time, but change will be necessary to help speed up the recovery of passenger travel, but probably at the expense of the ground handling industry.

Ground handling was already a financially challenging business prior to COVID19.  High volumes of staff driving the largest proportion of operating costs, large investment in equipment and tough competition with airlines pushing for higher services at lower prices, plus increasingly costly concession agreements made, for many, a marginal business at best.  With COVID19 decimating passenger volumes and aircraft movements literally over night in many regions has left the ground handlers with high fixed costs and revenues being reliant mostly on cargo operations.

As highlighted below, air cargo has seen a sharp recovery since is May 2020 low point, however the trajectory is starting to level off as other modes of transport, including ocean trade which continues to eat into the overall market share for all modes.

Market Share of Air Transport in World Trade

For more details and insight on the global air cargo market check out IATA’s Air Cargo Market Analysis.

No wonder the level of furlough and redundancies seen in the industry were both large and swift as emergency actions were taken to cut cost, followed by further restructuring in recent weeks.

Coming out of COVID19 what structure will the ground handlers take?  If airports and airlines accelerate the development and implementation of automated solutions, both in the terminal and in areas like baggage handling, the ground handlers need to define what their business is, how they continue to add value and what they are charging to their clients.  Certainly, representation and oversight for safety and compliance remains, cabin cleaning perhaps expands to provide higher standards and command a higher price, specialised high touch customer service above wing and process oversight and facilitation below-wing.

Ground handlers will still need to invest in automation themselves – improved planning and back-end systems to drive efficiencies and productivity from limited staff resource and rationalised equipment levels.  Effective planning for staff utilisation and equipment management will become more critical to minimise costs, as well as accuracy in billing and collection to ensure fair pay for the services delivered.

It is a challenging time for the industry, but for the ground handlers now is the time to redefine their role to have a chance of long-term sustainability in the business, as well as achieve adaptability to become more resilient to future events.  The continuing risk to ground handling is that airlines and airports through automation will erode the handling business quicker than perhaps had been planned pre-pandemic.

At a financially constrained time investment is difficult but now would be the right time to invest in these technologies to help bring back confidence in passenger travel, but ground handling must adapt to the “new normal” just like the rest of the aviation industry.

 

 

 

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