Airports & airlines face unexpected pressures and consequences

There’s a growing appreciation that airports and airlines are facing unexpected pressures.

Some of these are inevitable and a result of the collapse of air travel, but some are not those that would have first come to mind.

In any war, the acceleration of technological change is one of the most marked consequences. World War 1 saw a dramatic upswing in aviation technology, mechanisation and mobility. World War 2 saw the dawn of the nuclear age, the jet engine, radar, and rocketry – and even further expansion of aviation technology.

This pandemic, a war of a different kind, is seeing an extraordinary change in technologies being applied and the consequences of aviation being tackled by governments.

Several countries, lead by France, have moved against aviation policies they see as unsustainable. Yesterday they went a step further.

The price of many of these huge airline bailouts has been an insistence on environmental priorities airlines are less than keen to accept but have had little choice.

Mais non! No domestic routes in France, merci!

The biggest has been telling AF-KLM that domestic flights are to end by 2024, with very few exceptions, mostly to enable flights to Corsica. Unsurprisingly other airlines like easyJet and ASL announced a likely increase in their domestic flying. Yesterday the French government told them they too, were going to be stopped from operating domestic flights in France.

In China, airlines are moving quickly to enable only online check-in systems, with self tagging and bag drops as the only option.

This has been a long time coming, all around the world airlines have been moving in this direction, but few airlines have ever gone wholly down the road of removing all human contact. Now the advent of Covid19 allows airlines and airports to insist on removing the risk of human contact, loosing expensive check in staff and replacing them with wandering help staff – loosing around 80% of customer facing check-in personnel.

Gate automation, passport and boarding card scanners, facial ID, are all in trials, but Covid19 pushes their need and overcomes public resistance to their use.

The use of timed arrivals at airports, a specific check in time frame, the end of ticket sales at airports, all of these things are planned or in use to keep people apart and in a flow that’s manageable as numbers return.

But the job losses are acute. Airports are loosing up to a third of their staff. Swissport today, have just laid off 5,000 baggage and gate handling staff in the U.K., over half of their workforce. They closed down their Belgian operation and have cut staff at most others.

Heathrow Airport is still planning on keeping Terminal Three shut through the summer. It doesn’t expect to open it again at planned volumes until early next year.

Such examples are global, infrastructures are changing, technology accelerating because necessity is driving it.

If you’re an infrequent flyer the next time you go to an airport, surgical level face mask in hand before boarding, you’re probably going to face a familiar but noticeably changed process.

Environmental policies, security and health policies are all combining in this fight to change how things are being done.

We may resist change like Face ID at gates, but now we’re going to have to accept it, just as airlines and their owners have to accept that change in the way they operate and the aircraft they fly is inevitable.

Governments and the public have seen clear skies and low pollution, but they still want to travel. Only now, the expectations have changed and so must airlines and airports. And they will because they have to.

The old saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has never been more apt.

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