Looking forward to safer air travel in 2021

For those in the aviation industry, the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it one of the most turbulent years on record. But for Aviation Co-ordination Services, the lessons of 2020 and the hope of a vaccine could see passengers return to a safer and more efficient airport experience.
Duke Phahla
Duke Phahla

Shirley Mnisi
Shirley Mnisi

For those in the aviation industry, the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it one of the most turbulent years on record.

But for Aviation Co-ordination Services (ACS), the lessons of 2020 and the hope of a vaccine could see passengers return to a safer and more efficient airport experience.

ACS is at the frontline of travel at all major airports in South African airports and other as Hold Baggage Screeners, managing the Baggage Reconciliation System, Common Use Terminal Equipment and Common Use Self-service Kiosks. The company manages the technology that processes nearly 21 million bags a year for both international and domestic flights.

Like all companies in the industry, ACS had to adjust to the uncertainty that 2020 brought: less foot flow in airports, a drop in revenue, staff concerns and a bleak mid-term future.

But with the promise of a vaccine rollout in 2021, and a change in human behaviour from lessons learnt, the future of aviation has brighter prospects on the horizon.

Duke Phahla, CEO of Aviation Co-ordination Services, doesn’t believe a vaccine on its own will see an immediate return to a new normal. But it will be a huge step forward to restoring confidence for the masses wanting to take to the skies once more, he believes.

“In my opinion, it will build that level of comfort within the community using airspace to travel for business or leisure.”

Phahla is also hoping to set an example for his company staff and the fight against fake news related to the vaccine, “For me, given the opportunity to get a vaccination, will I do it? Absolutely I would. And as a leader, I also hope I can then share my experience in order to assist employees to make their own decisions.”

A safer experience for everyone

While airports were closed for much of 2020, South Africa’s airports definitely saw an uptick in foot flow towards the end of the year, Phahla explains.

At the height of the lockdown in June, there were only about 51,000 passengers per month heading through South Africa’s airports, most of which were repatriation flights. However, as lockdown levels relaxed, that number increased to 600,000 in November, and then a high of around 870,000 at the start of December - just before the second wave hit.

While they are still waiting for consolidated data for the months of December and January, Phahla said they definitely noticed a reduction in traffic during the second wave peak. But now that the second wave has diminished, forward planning for 2021 and beyond represents a golden opportunity to streamline the airport experience, Phahla believes.

“This is really a good opportunity to look at the technology that is out there, coupled with the vaccine, continued safety measures and precautions and innovative measures we need to build passenger confidence.”

Contactless check-ins and self-service kiosks are already being adopted in developed airports across the world, and a standard is being set by international best practice.

“As far as contactless technology is concerned; we are not there yet. But we are engaging the airlines and airport authorities to see how we can adapt further, for example more self-service units. We have to work towards rolling out contactless technology in our country to stimulate passengers to start flying again.”

The goal heading into 2021 must be for passengers to feel that when they go to the airport, their journey from check-in to boarding is smooth, seamless and most of all safe, in a uniform way across airports and airlines, Phahla maintains.

The heads of airlines and the various airport authorities around the world will have a great role to play this year in steadying the ship through marketing and communication, he believes.

A safe, smooth and more streamlined experience for passengers also means a safer work environment for the airports and ACS’s frontline workers.

Shirley Mnisi, Head of Human Resources at ACS, said that being proactive was key when it came to caring and giving support to staff during this turbulent time. Staff as well as their spouses and immediate family were offered support through their employee wellness programmes.

With the first wave, they had to work “at the speed of light” to see that staff had alternatives to work remotely, had protective clothing and that offices were cleaned and fogged. And the glue that held it altogether was good and constant communication.

Ensuring a safe return to work has always been a priority and remains as such.

Tips for passengers

While many budding travellers and businesspeople look to getting back into planes in 2021, ACS believes there are number of tips that can help passengers traverse the new terrain.

  • Travel light, focussing on essentials;
  • Always have a mask, and a back-up, as well as quantity-appropriate hand sanitiser;
  • When you reach your destination, have a change of clothes ready;
  • Don’t idle in airports. Know what time your flight is and prepare to go from check-in to boarding.
  • Wash your hands frequently.

Going forward, both Mnisi and Phahla ultimately hope to see a change in human behaviour, being the defining characteristic of 2021 across the country.

“[I’d like to see us, people in general] having the ability to be a lot more disciplined and respond to change. That would have saved a lot of lives and saved our economy, and probably would have gotten us quicker to recovery than what we have seen up until now,” said Mnisi.

“We are the ones that can make sure we reduce the number of infections. The only ones that can make this work is us, by being responsible,” Phahla added.

ACS was jointly established in 1999 by the Airlines Association of Southern Africa AASA), the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) and the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) to provide operational support services to international and domestic airlines operating from, into and within South Africa.

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