Flying high in turbulent times

As the aviation industry globally struggles to rebuild capacity, some operators are faring better thanks to technology investments. Security Middle East Magazine talks to Maxxess EMEA Managing Director, Lee Copland about his company’s long involvement with the sector.

Despite unprecedented stresses impacting the aviation sector globally, in regions like the Middle East air travellers don’t expect their flights to be cancelled or delayed. Nor is it routine for passengers to have to queue to get through security checks, passport control, and baggage reclaim.

Despite turbulent economic conditions disrupting the global economy post-pandemic, services from leading Middle East airports and airlines – Emirates, Etihad, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Qatar Airways, Oman Air etc – continue to be delivered relatively efficiently. Travellers still enjoy a smooth journey.

We see the same, largely positive picture in the far East, where airlines such as Singapore Airlines, ANA and Qantas continue to score highly in customer ratings.

But in the European and American aviation sectors, some airports and carriers are struggling under the pressures of understaffing and rising costs. Having laid off staff during the pandemic, they are now finding it hard to recruit and manage ground and air crews, to rebuild capacity in time for the busy summer months.

As a result, schedules have been reduced, many flights have been delayed or cancelled, and reputational damage has been done.

The differences in performance between the most resilient and the worst hit are not just down to local labour market conditions, or the fact that staff who left the sector during lockdowns have found alternative job options that are easier.

Other factors are contributing to the higher levels of efficiency seen at some of the more successful airlines: systems digitisation and integration which has given managers much improved situational awareness and control over their operations.

Maxxess’ Managing Director, Lee Copland, said: “Those airline operators that have invested in integrating their access control, HR, time and attendance, visitor management and wider corporate systems now have an advantage.

“They know in advance when there’s a risk of bottlenecks occurring at key points in the passenger’s journey through the airport – on departure or arrival – and they have the command-and-control systems to rapidly commit extra resources. Shift by shift, flight by flight, they now get early warning if there’s a possibility of under-staffing, again allowing rapid preventative action.”

A glimpse behind the scenes of these incredibly complex, global operations reveals how impressive this digitised infrastructure is, and how secure.

For example, at some airports the check-in and security clearance process for air crew begins as soon as staff board the transit busses that bring them onto site. The access system on the vehicle logs each arriving staff member, validating their authorisations – air-side clearance, health & safety training, COVID status etc – flagging their presence, and ensuring that they get to where they need to be without unnecessary further delays for checks.

The same system that smooths the way for flight crews will also trigger an alert if an expected member of the team doesn’t arrive. This gives operations managers enough time to take action so that absences are covered and that flight schedules aren’t disrupted.

“Airlines and airports using this technology to streamline staff movements have significantly reduced aircraft turnaround times compared with those that don’t,” said Copland.

They’ve also reduced stress on staff, and kept staff turnover down.

This contrasts with Europe, where staff have been left struggling to cope, and have faced increasing anger from travellers. It’s a downward spiral, with under-staffing making jobs less attractive. As a result, recruitment is now a major problem. Airports in Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands have resorted to offering perks including pay rises and bonuses for workers who refer a friend. Elsewhere workers in security, baggage handling, transportation and cleaning have been offered pay rises over 50 per cent.

So, taking care of staff – not just paying them enough, but improving working conditions with efficient back-of-house systems such as connecting access to payroll – is vital. This is an important benefit of integrating and digitising systems.

“There are other benefits too: airports that now fully use all the passenger data available to them – who is arriving, what their nationality and residency status is, exactly what time they will get here – have achieved greater efficiency in people through passport control and on to reclaim their luggage,” explained Copland.

They take a strategic view, he said, recognising that there is a cost to keeping travellers waiting in queues: “For business travellers, tourists or residents, those are wasted hours that could be better spent enjoying duty free or local facilities, and contributing to the wider economy. If travellers can be quickly and securely cleared to continue their journeys, there’s an economic and reputational benefit.”

Thanks to the digitisation investments made over the last decade, operators can match their service level to the needs of the moment ensuring that teams are neither over-staffed nor overwhelmed because they don’t have enough people.

Digitisation is also an ongoing process that’s core to these organisations, not something that’s done once and forgotten about. New applications being customised continually, as new needs become apparent.

This flexibility and commitment to adapt is impressive, and might seem surprising to some. In highly regulated settings it would be easy for organisations to be conservative, risk-averse, and reluctant to innovate – trapped by the complexity and scale of their operations and the cost of their legacy infrastructure – but this is not the case in the aviation sector, and certainly not in the Middle East.

“In this sector, digitisation is allowing complexity to be managed, and integration is making operations more flexible,” said Copland. “Leading airlines are constantly looking for ways to improve. Vision and ambition are in no short supply.”

And he makes another point: the solutions being proven in this sector will be a model in many other industries.

“We are already seeing this in logistics and healthcare for example, and particularly among large scale employers with strong IT capabilities. Increasingly IT departments are influencing security decision making. They are accelerating the integration of those old, siloed systems and databases, and making much smarter use of all the data that they hold – and that’s delivering major benefits,” he confirmed.

If you’re an airport operator or airline, next time passengers complain about queues, or flights are delayed or cancelled, that’s something worth thinking about.

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