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Airlines and airports in China are leading the way globally in automating the passenger journey, with 100% of airlines saying they are investing in upgrading their passenger management systems. In particular, the industry is focused on introducing biometrics at more touchpoints across the journey and streamlining the management of health documentation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to SITA’s 2021 Air Transport IT Insights, Chinese airlines and airports are continuing their push towards digitalization to support operational efficiencies, streamline the passenger journey, and cater to health & safety concerns. Sustainability has also emerged as a priority, with Chinese airlines and airports exploring strategies to conserve energy and otherwise reduce environmental impacts.

A seamless passenger journey & efficient operations

A large majority of Chinese airlines (91%) and most airports (68%) expect to spend the same or more on IT in 2022 compared to 2021. A full 100% of airlines are directing these investments towards upgrading their core passenger management systems by 2024. Solutions for aircraft maintenance, a new priority for this year, are also attracting investments from 100% of airlines over the next three years as they look to further boost operational efficiency through digitalization.

Chinese airports, which have been ahead of the global curve in the implementation of passenger self-service, are reinforcing their commitment to a seamless, low-touch passenger journey. Applications to provide digital passenger services (90%) and touchless solutions for both passengers and staff (88%) remain high priorities for the next three years. Airports are also investing ambitiously in the biometric-powered journey, with 86% planning to have self-boarding gates using biometrics only in place by 2024, and 58% planning a secure single biometric token across all touchpoints.

A key consideration for the seamless passenger journey in the age of COVID-19 is the automation of passenger health certificate verifications. While 80% of Chinese airports and 75% of airlines relied on manual health checks performed by staff in 2021, a significant number expect to have mobile app-enabled health checks (75% of airlines and 39% of airports) or kiosk-enabled checks (31% of airlines and 34% of airports) in place by 2024.

While artificial intelligence remains high on the list of emerging technologies prioritized by airlines (87%), business intelligence (BI) jumped significantly in priority (63%), reflecting a further focus on tracking operations to maximize efficiencies. 73% of airports are also investing in BI, with A-CDM (Airport Collaborative Decision Making) and flight operations being the top areas of application.

Sumesh Patel, President, Asia Pacific, SITA, said: “The lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a challenging operating environment for Chinese airlines and airports. Despite these constraints, China’s airlines and airports are affirming their commitment to technology as the way forward to support a safe and seamless passenger journey amid new health demands. Technology will enable the industry to respond to rapid shifts in passenger traffic and travel regulations, and promote cost savings through newfound operational efficiencies.”

Bringing sustainability to the forefront

The report findings show that both airlines and airports in China are steadily increasing their IT sustainability budgets. They are examining how to lessen the energy consumption and other environmental impacts of their operations at a time of accelerated digitalization. Over the next three years, more than half of airlines and airports plan to shift their data centers from dedicated infrastructure to an energy-efficient cloud.

Most airlines also plan to implement selection criteria for external data center providers that favor sustainability, and nearly half plan to implement IT life cycle management controls promoting the re-use, repair, and remarketing of equipment. Meanwhile, airports are taking advantage of advances in smart building technology and automation, with nearly all expecting implementation by 2024.