As IT innovation gathers speed in the global aviation industry, Africa’s projected growth makes it even more imperative that the continent must enhance its adoption of technology to drive operational efficiency and improved passenger satisfaction. Aneesh Jaikrishna, Vice-President for India and Sub-Continent, SITA, explains in this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business how Africa is gearing towards new technology and SITA’s remarkable role on the continent.
Q: As passenger figures continue to grow in Africa, do you see a corresponding year-on-year growth of passenger satisfaction and processing on the continent, compared to the global trend?
A: What we know for certain is that the more we use technology to automate the passenger journey, the more satisfied the passenger. From a global perspective, the recent SITA 2019 Air Transport IT Insights shows airlines and airports have spent a record US$50 billion in 2018 on IT to support improvements to the passenger journey and are now beginning to enjoy the benefit of that investment. Our research, published in the recent Air Transport IT Insights, shows clearly that this investment has resulted in a significant improvement in both the satisfaction levels for passengers and average processing time.
A total 60% of airline chief information officers recorded up to a 20% year-on-year improvement in passenger satisfaction. During the same period, 45% of them recorded up to 20% improvement in the rate of passengers processed.
The growing investment in automating the passenger journey means the industry is providing a faster, more pleasant airport experience. This is particularly positive at a time when we expect passenger numbers to double over the next 20 years, with physical airport infrastructure struggling to keep pace.
Africa ranks slightly behind the global rates for satisfaction and there is potential to drive more technology use in Africa by leveraging mobile services for flight updates and mishandled baggage notifications via mobile phones.
Frictionless travel should be the aim of all airports in Africa, and embracing new technologies is the key to achieving this. We and many other industry stakeholders envision the air travel industry in 2030 to be one of the most advanced sectors on the planet.
Q: Would you say Airport and Airline IT spend growth levels have increased in recent years in Africa, and do you have specific examples of this growth in Africa?
A: While we cannot provide a breakdown specifically for Africa, the industry continues to increase its IT spend, and total IT spend for airlines as a percentage of revenue rose to 4.84% while airport IT spend grew to 6.06% of revenue in 2018. Projections for 2019 show investments will continue to grow.
Two notable recent developments serve as some of the best examples of how investment in IT is moving forward by leaps and bounds in Africa. The first of these is the Ghana Airports Company Limited, which has extended its agreement with SITA to manage and support all airport passenger processing, baggage management, and airport operations systems across Kotoka International Airport’s newly commissioned Terminal 3 for the next five years. SITA’s technology will be vital in positioning the airport as the pre-eminent hub in West Africa, leading the way in passenger automation and operational efficiency.
These systems include common use check-in desks and self-service check-in kiosks, allowing the airport to maximize its capacity by enabling airlines to cost-effectively share the same infrastructure. The airport will also make use of SITA’s state of the art baggage management technology that will assist airlines in reconciling and tracking bags across the journey.
In South Africa, Lanseria International Airport has invested in SITA’s self-service technology that will add new convenience for passengers. In a first for a South African airport, passengers who have checked-in online or on their mobile device can now tag and drop their bags in less than a minute using SITA’s Scan&Fly self bag-drop units. Scan&Fly’s plug-and-play design allows the bag-drop solution to be easily installed onto existing airport check-in desks, maximizing terminal space while leveraging the speed of self-service.
Using SITA’s Airport iValidate, Lanseria International Airport will be able to automatically verify all types of boarding passes, including home-printed A4 and mobile boarding passes, increasing security and speeding up the check-in process for passengers.
Q: How do you see the penetration of automation of the passenger journey in Africa, and how crucial do you think it is amid rising passenger numbers on the continent?
A: For background, currently, there are 731 airports and 419 airlines on the African continent, with the air transport industry supporting 6.2 million jobs and contributing $55.8 billion to Africa’s GDP.
Given that air travel throughout the whole of the African continent is showing a continued overall expansion of 4.6% per year, and it is expected to grow to 9.8 million jobs and contribute $159 billion to the continent’s economy by 2036, information and communication technology will be key to realising the industry’s potential over the coming years.
Passenger satisfaction is a key indicator of how well airlines and airports are performing. This year’s SITA Air Transport IT Insights report highlights a lot of improvement in this area.
The report shows that airlines and airports both use ‘passenger satisfaction’ and ‘average processing speed per hour’ to measure passenger processing performance. It reveals a sharp focus on investing in the passenger journey with the industry embracing new technologies to accelerate processes, reduce queues and keep passengers better informed.
Given the projected increase in passenger traffic (discussed previously), passenger flow investment is (and should be) a high priority for airlines. Current airport infrastructure will not be able to keep up with increasing passenger numbers; therefore, automation is vital for processing more passengers and more baggage, quickly and safely.
Passenger flow interconnects with other points essential to better operational efficiencies, such as streamlined check-in, baggage and boarding processes. These processes are fundamental to a seamless passenger journey.
Q: How do you assess the level of investment in intelligence among African airports, do you see African airports aligning with the “airport of the future” concept any sooner?
A: We do not have Africa specific data but can comment on a global level: In 20 years’ time the number of passengers will double to reach 8 billion, according to IATA. The number of aircraft will double too. However, the number of airports will increase by only 7%, creating an imbalanced supply and demand ecosystem with congestion on the ground and more disruptions in the air.
Forward-looking airlines, airports and ground handlers are embracing AI and embarking on the road to optimization so they can leverage their data assets and remain relevant and competitive. This will help to ensure passengers will still have a seamless journey, despite the upcoming congestion. And it will enable industry players to achieve the objectives of their digital transformation. These objectives include efficiency in disruption management, industry collaboration, security and cybersecurity, as well as the delivery of a great passenger experience.
With these challenges and opportunities in mind, AI is no longer a ‘nice to have’ option. It’s becoming mandatory; a business imperative for all industry stakeholders. It will ensure they remain relevant, with personalized offers and services for extremely fickle customers who are becoming ever more demanding and tech savvy.
By 2035, Africa will have a total market of 303 million passengers traveling to and from destinations on the continent. The top ten countries where the air travel industry is growing the most rapidly include, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Central African Republic, Benin, Mali, Rwanda, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Madagascar. Each of these markets are predicted to achieve a year-on-year growth of 8% over the next 20 years. The same supply imbalance that we predict in the global market, will manifest in Africa too, so the need for investment in AI, automation and biometrics is high.
Making the “airport of the future” a reality in Africa will require a methodical approach. Airports and other investors in AI must begin with “baby steps” by starting with small projects to test and quickly learn and adjust.
The industry is at a pivotal point where AI’s capabilities are a competitive differentiator, thanks to processing power, great algorithms and comprehensive data. Data is the most valuable and powerful asset in today’s globally connected world. Stakeholders in the industry need to leverage AI to mine this data and extract the most value.
Q: Air cargo is relatively very small and needs better attention in Africa for airports and airlines. How can technology reposition or rediscover Africa’s air cargo potential, and what is SITA doing in this regard?
A: Air cargo in the Middle East is still growing strongly. Asia is still growing but not at the same rate as previously – and there is more growth in the domestic than in the international market. However, Africa is definitely the one to watch – the sector has been grown at 24% against last year and there is definitely further potential there.
Digitization of information and then sharing it between the different stakeholders in the air cargo space is definitely the way forward. Successful companies in this space will be those that share – because by sharing information they will remove inefficiencies and unnecessary complexities, improve quality, timeliness and transparency. Improved performance will then be reflected through increased satisfaction among shippers.
Every function, from carrier to forwarder, only represents one segment of the end-to-end logistics chain. Collaboration is therefore essential for driving further improvements and cost savings, starting with the digitization of information.
Today, airfreight represents about 18% of airline revenues – in some cases going up to 25%. Airfreight was very much the hidden side of airline operations. But with more belly capacity, cargo is going to become an integral part of the growth strategy for airlines. They recognize it is a different business model to the passenger side, and so it requires specific systems to optimize the logistics flow rather than piggy-backing on passenger systems.