COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation in aviation

Representation of digital transformation
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Ryzhi)

When the history of commercial air travel comes to be written – or at least when the next iteration is published – the text will be divided into two parts. Before COVID-19, and after. The global pandemic has disrupted everything, but perhaps no sector has been affected as much as aviation. In March 2020, an entire industry was shut down almost overnight.

So, with things finally returning to some semblance of normality – or a new normal – how is aviation approaching this new world? What are its strategies for recovery?

About the author

Niels Steenstrup is Senior Vice President at Inmarsat.

Of the many factors, one that is critical is ensuring passengers feel confident about returning to the skies. Appreciating what passengers think, what they’re nervous about and what aviation can do to allay those fears is vital to aviation’s recovery.

To stay ahead of the curve, airlines need to understand passenger confidence and the equally important passenger experience. And one-way airlines can achieve this is by understanding that digitalization – a buzzword for a reason – is a catalyst for the aviation industry’s safe, sustainable and profitable recovery.

Confidence is critical

Improving passenger confidence is key for airlines to win back customers. Our 2021 Passenger Confidence Tracker uncovered passenger attitudes to travel and flying, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the role that connected technologies supporting things like inflight broadband have in enhancing passenger confidence at every stage of the passenger journey.

In particular, digital technology was found to increase passenger confidence in two ways; minimizing contact with others on a flight, another need brought about by the new normal, and keeping passengers connected and informed about the latest information and updates. After a year of constant online connection, passengers crave being as connected in the air as they are on the ground – which will hugely increase their confidence in travelling after 18 months of staying at home.

Meanwhile, during the pre-flight stage of a journey, passengers placed importance on digital health passports, destination status alerts, facial recognition security and real-time luggage tracking. Our Passenger Confidence Tracker found that digital pre-flight activities, including destination status alerts (39%), facial recognition security (33%) and real-time luggage tracking (31%) were key to improving confidence at the beginning of the travel journey.

The continued digital acceleration of the aircraft cabin

This connectivity both reduces critical touchpoints in the passenger journey and keeps passengers connected and entertained, both important to improving their confidence in flying. From inflight availability of contactless payments and destination status alerts, to pre-order contactless catering and video medical support, many technologies can improve confidence significantly.

It is not all safety though. Technology helps restore passenger confidence in other ways too. Inflight broadband enables them to stay connected during a flight – just knowing they can message friends and family really does assuage any anxiety. It can also distract passengers too. Watching a boxset or listening to music on streaming platforms are not only entertaining but can put passengers at ease. And of course, passengers interacting with their devices means that they will reduce contact with other services on board the aircraft, such as a seatback screen, and also reduce their contact with the crew members.

So, it is no wonder 41% of our Passenger Confidence Tracker respondents said inflight Wi-Fi had increased in importance since the pandemic began, with 30% saying the same thing for inflight entertainment. To enable the use of these technologies onboard, airlines need to invest in cabin connectivity.

The connected platform of the future

It is not only passengers that are increasingly placing their faith in connectivity either. Airline leaders have also recognized and agree that digital technologies are of increasing importance. If airlines can do things in a digital way, it is can streamline the processes associated with the passenger journey, creating a better experience.

While aviation is currently facing many challenges, it opens up a real opportunity for airlines to push a more digital agenda. Aviation customers want efficiency, and the full digital experience is the reality of what airlines have to do to achieve this.

It is clear that airlines need to embrace digital transformation. But in order to do so they need to be equipped with the latest, competitive technology to attract customers. Key to this is connected platforms that will enhance passenger’s digital experience and enable airlines to unlock the sector’s many ancillary revenue streams – a first for the industry.

Smart, customer-centric and cohesive platforms, built with connectivity at their heart, are uniquely designed to drive monetization through targeted content, digital commerce, advertising and sales-lead generation. Delivered directly to passengers trusted personal devices, an engaging user interface hosts a range of inflight services, such as Wi-Fi access, food and beverage ordering, online shopping, entertainment, destination information, contextual offers and much more.

Empower and enable with inflight connectivity

A digital transformation was already underway in the aviation industry. However, it is clear the pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated its implementation. Passengers have seen the new ways they can stay connected and informed. Inflight connectivity holds the key to enhancing the onboard experience and improving confidence in the future. We have seen passenger usage of our inflight connectivity solutions increasing hugely compared to pre-COVID levels – this may not be surprising, but given the challenges the aviation sector has faced, it’s certainly encouraging.

Airlines are also embracing innovation, with new ways to enhance their onboard experience using connectivity. A major focus on touchless experiences means these innovations are in-keeping with today’s passenger expectations, while still delivering the quality of service they require.

The tumultuous events of the last two years have been hard for everyone in aviation. But if there is hope, it will be located in pushing the industry’s digital agenda even further. Those airlines that embrace digitalization the quickest and most thoroughly will be the most empowered – and will keep their customers coming back for more.

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Niels Steenstrup is Senior Vice President at Inmarsat, a provider of connectivity services to passenger airlines.