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BLOG: Should passengers be the new materials of ‘just in time’ thinking


COVID-19 has disrupted the world in a way rarely seen before, with aviation as one of the hardest hit sectors. But as the industry looks beyond the immediate response phase and thoughts turn to recovery, we find ourselves with the unique chance to think differently.

Just-in-time (JIT) production has been a core principle of the manufacturing industry for decades. The thinking attempts to ensure materials and components are delivered and available only immediately before they are required, to reduce cash storage cost, with increased efficiency and reduced production capacity requirements also typical benefits.

When translated to the aviation industry, the philosophy has the potential to provide real value – whilst we must be careful about considering passengers simply as ‘materials’, they are the throughput airports seek to maximise.

An airport model where passengers arrive just-in-time has potential opportunities to be explored: terminal capacity and efficiency can be increased, and reduced staffing levels can lead to cost savings.

Importantly though, where the cost of material storage in the manufacturing industry is measured in pounds and pence, the cost of ‘passenger storage’ in terminals comes at a much greater cost – health.

For every minute a passenger spends in the terminal, there’s an ongoing risk that they will touch a contaminated surface or come into close contact with an infected person.

Modelling of a UK hub airport suggests a typical passenger will touch something other than their own person over 30 times in terminal before boarding their flight (of which, 60% occur as part of mandatory processes). A JIT philosophy seeks to minimise this.

The challenge we face is how we shape the passenger journey in the mid-term, during the recovery phase, to best align with our visions of the new normal.

Short-term disruptive ideas, requiring significant abortive CapEx are off the cards, so solutions need to think of the longer term to be able to support a robust business case. A more seamless end-to-end passenger journey was already a key component of the aviation vision of the future and IATA’s One ID principle.

Thinking in this area needs to encompass intelligent passenger flow, with the need to remove congregation areas in terminals, and replace them with mechanisms that allow for effective social distancing. Yet, the most obvious way to reduce congestion is to ensure terminal occupancy remains low.

One area of opportunity comes from the ever-increasing adoption of automation. With the right, data driven platform, existing infrastructure can be harnessed and more usefully applied (think live queue level notifications, or seat specific boarding calls for example).

Whilst attempting to minimise time in terminal, we should consider the case for off-airport ID verification. Previously demonstrated at Heathrow Airport, this technology has the potential to aid both the passenger experience as well as the ongoing risk of virus transmission by reducing the number of people coming into contact with passengers’ passports.

Another area where there seems to be an obvious solution is hold luggage, which could be sent directly to passengers’ homes to remove the crowding seen at baggage reclaim belts.

However, this is difficult to justify in current cash-strapped times. Instead, we see the possibilities offered by a personalised journey experience, powered by interaction with existing technology – smartphone use is now widespread, with passengers already being encouraged to use electronic boarding cards.

Could we facilitate JIT passengers via tailored instructions sent to an individual’s phone, to stagger movement through the airport?

The JIT thinking leads to some natural opportunities, but there are some very real and practical challenges to overcome. If passengers are encouraged to minimise their time in terminal, how do we maintain retail spending that forms a vital part of airports’ business models?

This will depend largely on how passengers react: in the shorter term a mentality of ‘safety first’ will mean passengers follow guidance carefully, but as we move into safer times, this message may become lost.

Passenger perception will, to a large extent, be driven from the messaging they receive from their airline. Will airlines wish to be involved in the personalised journey? It seems logical that they will; it allows better passenger experience, but also opens the door for re-shaken commercial options – targeted ads for example.

It is this passenger perception of aviation that is so critical to the recovery of the industry; airlines, airports, governments and the wider stakeholder community are now focussing on how passenger confidence in air travel can be increased.

With the likes of JIT thinking offering a step-change in the way passenger journeys are conducted, we have an opportunity to improve passenger flow through airports, reduce queuing time and – most importantly – demonstrate to passengers that their health and safety is the priority.

• Gyan Mahatme is a senior consultant at Atkins.


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