Learning to fly – again!

Read time 6min 30sec
Mthoko Mncwabe
Mthoko Mncwabe

In the past year, organisations across all sectors have suffered under the weight of lockdown restrictions, as the world has taken steps to combat the Covid-19 virus. However, few industries have suffered as much as the travel industry, most notably the airports, which found themselves turned from busy meccas into virtual ghost towns within days, due to pandemic-related restrictions.

Over the course of the last year, South Africa’s airports have had to significantly shift focus, institute new ways of earning revenue, implement new technologies and overcome a range of new challenges, just to remain in business.

As CIO of the Airports Company of SA (ACSA), Mthoko Mncwabe is well aware of the difficulties that have had to be overcome, as well as the programmes undertaken to do so. Brainstorm spoke to him about what has changed in the last year, the difficulties faced as travel begins to open up once again and the way technology can be applied to help alleviate at least some of these difficulties.

Challenging times

No doubt last year created many challenges, he says, some of which are still being felt and dealt with. Mncwabe explains that the airports were impacted badly – to the point that traffic has reduced by 70% to date. Furthermore, he adds, ACSA has not only had to put on hold all its infrastructure build projects, it is also undertaking a process of retrenchments.

“While air travel itself was halted, this didn’t mean all our people had to stop working. In fact, from an online remote work perspective, there was little impact, as we already had systems in place for remote operations, two years before the arrival of Covid-19. The major issue we had to deal with was the provisioning of mobile end-user devices to those personnel that had physical computers in the office.

“Modular architecture and scalability have been key for us, as this gives us the ability to flexibly scale up and down, in keeping with demand, while also improving business resilience – something which has been critical, given the rapidly changing environment we have been faced with.”

There were still challenges ACSA had to overcome, however, particularly the fact that with many complex aeronautical processes, it hasn’t always been possible to digitise an entire process at once. To this end, he says, the company is prioritising steps that have the most impact on customer engagement, while designing these to be intuitive, so as to encourage adoption by both travellers and internal teams.

Modular architecture and scalability have been key for us, as this gives us the ability to flexibly scale up and down, in keeping with demand, while also improving business resilience.

As the country and the world begin vaccinating, new challenges will arise for airports, particularly as traveller numbers start to increase again.

“The biggest issue we’re facing is to design an end-to-end contactless travel experience, one which offers multiple payment options in the airport, to cater for a variety of customer preferences. We also need to scale up our technology infrastructure to optimise traveller and customer services, staffing and platform stability,” says Mncwabe.

“It’s imperative we remove unnecessary points of contact from terminals, by optimising digital payment experiences. This will encourage and empower travellers to make transactions entirely from their device.”

A digital alternative

Although ACSA has faced a number of significant revenue shocks, he continues, the company is committed to increasing its investment in digital channels and technologies, as these are vital to help mitigate revenue impacts, retain customers and adapt product offerings for the post-pandemic world.

ACSA, he notes, is therefore adapting its behaviour and ways of doing business. IT budgets have been reallocated, particularly to increase digital channels and technologies and to boost our digital presence and capabilities. Mncwabe explains that digitisation will ultimately span the whole value chain, from robotics to machine learning, and from the Internet of Things (IoT) to cloud and big data analytics.

“Digital transformation is a deep change for ACSA, but it must be embraced in order to prosper in the digital world. Investments will be made in robotics, AI and computer vision that will assist not only our customers, but more crucially, will help our own employees in making better decisions and improving operational efficiency. The implementation of AI will increase the accuracy and optimisation of passenger movements, driving improved customer experience. While, robotics will play a key role in enabling solutions like oneID, self-boarding, self-baggage drop, online payment solutions with the application of discount management, e-commerce within the airport, wayfinding and customer query resolution on the terminal floor.”

Of course, a complete digital ecosystem also has to drive production efficiencies in the back office. “Here we plan to utilise technologies such as datacentre and Infrastructure-as-a-Service, as well as robotic process automation in finance, with the aim of digitally orchestrating the daily operation of ACSA on an end-to-end basis.”

Contactless service

Mncwabe says the company realises things won’t return to the pre-Covid state, mainly due to the fact that customer behaviours have changed, as they become more familiar with approaches like online shopping, and becoming more health- and safety-conscious over the long term.

“As these health and safety concerns have been prioritised by customers, we’ve seen a massive increase in the popularity of contactless commerce, which enables end-to-end contactless self-service. This is something we’ll clearly be prioritising as well. As such, ACSA is also prioritising a self-service passenger experience that is viewed as our flagship contactless technology programme and includes all forms of self-service as defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation passenger service framework.”

This means that airports will have to evolve substantially, as the contactless travel experience becomes the new normal in the travel value chain, he says. Contactless travel can be undertaken digitally or physically for both online transactions and those undertaken in-person at the airport.

“When implemented properly, it will allow customers to conduct airport activities without touching public structures or hardware, and without coming into close contact with another person.”

Moreover, adds Mncwabe, it covers the entire airport travel experience process – from booking to check-in, and includes bag drop-offs, security check points and boarding, not to mention payment for extra luggage and delivery of the airport retail merchandise.

“Digital travel is already contactless at most new airports, and an increasing number of older airports are now going digital too, blending travel experience with digital shopping and offering an end-to-end contactless experience to alleviate travellers’ health concerns. Among the innovations other airports are beginning to use – and which we’re learning from – are things like the provision of QR codes for parking, allowing in-app payments and ensuring duty-free self-service ordering and payment.

“Based on these learnings, we will be undertaking our own long-term changes, which we expect will culminate in our own, complete contactless operational environment across ACSA airports. With this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that despite the challenges we face, ACSA remains confident in the future,” concludes Mncwabe.

* This feature was first published in the April edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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