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The concept of digitalisation in the aviation industry has been around since long before the pandemic challenged the industry to re-examine its operations. Despite awareness of the concept though, the industry is still missing the ‘lightbulb moment’ which is required to drive real change across it. Currently, the aviation industry appears to react to new technology rather than leading the way so it’s time for the industry to start looking at the bigger picture in order to determine the steps it needs to start taking today to prepare for the opportunities and challenges of the future. 

In order to achieve this, aviation needs to look beyond the smaller scale innovations already adopted. This means engaging in forward-thinking thought leadership and deploying integrated change strategies that place digitalisation at their heart. During the launch FlightPlan in 2020, which I conceived at the very start of the pandemic, we brought together aviation experts, analysts and leaders to share information, insight and direction across a collection of important industry themes, it became apparent that aircraft connectivity is an obvious enabler for the industry’s next big step.

The world of satellite communications is evolving at a rapid pace with high-speed satellites capable of delivering super-fast connectivity with pinpoint accuracy anywhere in the world. On the ground, 4G and 5G networks are being transformed into highly capable connectivity solutions that can operate on aircraft. As the world puts pressure on the industry to improve efficiencies and value for money, lessen impact on the environment and speed up the transportation of passengers and cargo, a huge opportunity presents itself for the industry with big data, predictive analytics, sensor technology, processing power, connectivity and storage helping organisations predict and adapt to changes in customer experience, supply and demand in real-time. 

In a world of connectivity, airports, aircraft, partners and suppliers should be able to communicate with each other seamlessly in a way that can drive efficiencies, savings and better passenger experiences. A lesson from our recent past on how digitalisation can transform both the consumer and the corporate world is the dot-com boom over 20 years ago. Connectivity presented a great opportunity for millions of innovators and creatives that resulted in a rapid change on a global scale laying the foundations of the digital world we live in today with solutions we could not have imagined just a few decades ago. The internet was the backbone of the dot-com revolution and the world embraced change quickly because the right infrastructure was in place. 

Making that backbone available at 30,000 ft, and on a scale and quality similar to the ground, is undoubtedly going to drive innovation and change and is why aviation needs to do more than dip its toes into the water when it comes to digitalisation. Airlines should prioritise digitalisation strategies and build robust data handling systems that gather and share data safely for both consumer and operational purposes. This will require investment in both systems and skills, however, it will open up the door to interacting with a captive audience and improving operations at a larger scale. 

On the passenger front, organisations will gain a better understanding of spending and decision-making. As a result, they will be able to enhance their customer offering and build brand loyalty. On the operational side, digitalisation in the form of data processing, sensor networks and geographic information systems can inform purchasing and decision-making, improve supply-chain demands and routing, and provide insight into passenger movement through airports. This information can offer real strategic advantage and set the next leaders of the industry apart from the competition.

The cost of all this is currently one of the biggest blockers as it is no secret that airlines operate on a knife-edge when it comes to profit margins. It’s understandable that they see connectivity as yet another expense but it’s essential for the industry to look beyond cost per megabits per second and comprehend connectivity’s capacity to revolutionise the industry. 

Change will require more than a few innovators if the industry doesn’t want to be locked into the current paradigm and become blind to the impact of disruptive factors such as digitalisation. That’s why embracing this new era and combining AI, data and technology with our existing knowledge will require a leap of faith, a shift of mindset and strategic thought leadership across organisations.