Guest Post: The five foundations for airline innovation in a post-COVID world

Guest Post: The five foundations for airline innovation in a post-COVID world

Kanu Aravind, head of innovation at IBS Software, asks what does innovation really mean for the aviation sector and how has it been redefined by the pandemic

The pandemic has been a watershed moment for the aviation industry.

While it’s been one of the greatest challenges the sector has ever faced, with travel effectively grinding to a halt and full recovery not expected until 2024, the adversity has bred a renewed focus on innovations that will have genuine long-term benefits for aviation.

The airlines that have fared the best during the pandemic have been those that have been the most agile and prioritised innovation to keep operations running smoothly.

In just two months, airlines brought in two years’ worth of digitisation, including procedures that take care of passenger reservation, airport management, flight operations, crew operations, disruption management and loyalty management.

But a laser-focused innovation approach shouldn’t stop when travel begins to return in earnest.

Instead, airlines should learn from the lessons in innovation showcased throughout the pandemic and adopt truly future-ready business models that will streamline processes and ensure travellers return.

The pent-up desire to get back to travel is there, but airlines will need to prove they have made it not only safer, but better.

But what does the term innovation really mean for the aviation sector? And how has it been redefined by the pandemic?

Innovation is not just about technology

It’s a common misconception that technology and innovation must exist in tandem. While tech often plays a critical role, innovation must be connected to a clear and addressable business problem.

Throwing money at the latest cloud solutions or AI will not magically solve defined issues if it’s done in isolation, and disjoined from the business initiatives.

Primarily, you must look at the basic functions in the back and front office and make sure these operate smoothly before you introduce a technology layer to streamline.

Innovation is about partnerships

Airlines that try to crack meaningful innovation within their own four walls are missing the point.

Innovation needs inclusivity of ideas and diversity of problem sets to be truly effective, and this can only happen if airlines think outside the airline domain to innovate.

They should be looking to the likes of cruise liners, who have undertaken the mammoth task of safely on-boarding thousands of passengers in a relatively short time using technology and have set an example for the entire travel industry.

With different sectors of the travel industry at different stages in their recovery, a well-connected travel ecosystem incorporating varied expertise from all over the industry will ultimately boost overall recovery and streamline innovation.

Innovation has to be focused on customer expectations

The pandemic has irreversibly changed consumer expectations. With many businesses switching to online services since the start of the crisis, the consumer is now used to having everything right at their fingertips and expects a convenient and personalised experience.

It’s no longer about selling what you have, but selling the consumer exactly what they want.

As a result of this sharp rise in expectations, innovation needs to be driven by a long-term desire to revolutionise the customer experience rather than by short-term efficiency and cost savings.

Loyalty, for example, has been a major topic of debate as well as a key revenue opportunity for airlines at the height of the crisis.

Operational challenges can drive innovation

In the five years before the pandemic hit, airline profitability was at its peak – it had not been as high for two decades.

As a result, innovation was not critical as airlines were raking in revenue without it. Necessity is the ultimate catalyst for innovation and the constraints of the pandemic have been the inspiration for industry-changing transformation.

While rapid innovation will lead to some failures, the learnings from these failures will be invaluable going forward.

That’s exactly why careful and considerate partnerships mentioned before are so crucial to managing change.

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes

Innovation doesn’t have to be seismic. While we won’t see an initial big bang of airline innovation, a combination of small changes to single processes with marginal gains will all ladder up to something bigger and more significant, simplifying the traditional complexity of airline services.

Ultimately, big or small, innovation cannot be achieved in siloes – it needs boardroom space and a structure that is aligned to core operations and integrated with the wider business agenda.

While the airline industry has had little to celebrate during the pandemic, the redefinition of innovation is a huge win.

Now, as international and domestic travel begins slowly but surely to reopen, the lessons in savvy and truly progressive innovation will stand airlines in good stead and set them on a path to recovery – and healthy growth – but only if they truly take them onboard, and incorporate them long-term.

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