The golden age of airlines!

Probably that’s how we’re going to call the period from 2014 – 2019 in a few years. Years, in which many airlines operated at relatively high-profit margins. Of course, we witnessed the bankruptcies of airlines during that time. However, from my point of view, most of them were related to standard market mechanisms.

Source: Statista

In total, as shown above, airlines generated a profit of 175 billion USD from 2014 to 2019. But undoubtedly, this golden age came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. You don’t need a Ph.D. in Aviation Management to forecast the advent of a considerable period determined by financial loss, bankruptcies, state aid, etc.

How long it’s going to take? Actually, no one knows.

Profit and technology spendings went hand-in-hand

Correlating with increasing revenues and profits, SITA reported that airlines spending on technology and digital initiatives reached records year-after-year from 2014 to 2019.

Having worked closely with many airlines over the globe during that time, it was amazing to see how airlines accepted the digital challenge and started to transform their business. The amount of digital initiatives that have been kicked-off seems to be endless.

Additionally, many airlines —especially flag-carriers and airline groups— formed new departments and incubators to develop innovative digital solutions. Some airlines even set the goal to become a tech company with aircraft operations as an add-on (that means, tech’s first, aircraft operations “just” an add-on).

Personally, I think the digital path many airlines trod was needed and overdue. The questions now is, how is COVID-19 going to affect technological developments and digital initiatives?

Devastating impact on airlines digital development

Unfortunately, I believe that COVID-19 has a devastating impact on airlines’ digitizing process and the ability to develop modern, digital solutions and offerings. Especially during the next 12 to 24 months, airlines will re-concentrate on their core business: flying.

But I’m also convinced that this approach —as necessary it might be— will make airlines vulnerable.

From discussions with airline colleagues, it seems that taken measures are quite similar — depending on the financial situation and percentage of remaining operations:

  • Nearly all airlines stopped a considerable amount of technology projects immediately. Although “stopped” isn’t equal to “canceled,” I’m convinced that the status switches during the next months to the latter.
  • Many airlines are already calculating scenarios to cut down IT/digital headcount. The range varies from a few percentage to +50%.

Airlines are going to re-think digital strategies

Accordingly, airlines will —on a broader scale— definitely re-assess their digital strategies during the next weeks and months. From my perspective, the results are quite obvious — especially when taking the above into account.

  1. Airlines will strip down the digital investment for the next 12 to 24 months massively.
  2. The concept of in-house digital departments will slow down or even be revoked.
  3. Related to the last aspect, the use of off-the-shelf products will increase.
  4. Accordingly, the dependency on software and solution provider will increase.

State aid as key differentiator

State aid, as currently discussed between many airlines and states, could —potentially— play a decisive role for airlines’ future digital strategies.

Here are two reasons why:

  • In general, airlines equipped with state aids most likely will have a slightly broader scope when it comes to financial and digital decisions.
  • It isn’t unlikely that states will combine their grants with requirements. What we’ve already heard in the news is the combination of aids + environmental measures. Probably there will also be requirements in terms of more digital and user-friendly products.

Airline digital strategy: Moving at a slower pace

Regardless of the details, there’s one thing for sure: The entire airline industry will reduce its invests tremendously. First and foremost, this is going to happen in non-operations-relevant areas. Accordingly, I’m genuinely convinced that we will see an industry that is developing at a much slower pace when it comes to digital and technological aspects.

Digital revolution isn’t waiting for airlines.

The thing now is that the digital revolution is going to continue. Most likely, we will even see an acceleration of digital developments due to the Coronavirus. The rise of de-central working and home offices is just one prominent example of an area that is disrupted heavily by COVID-19.

The question is if the airline industry has financial equity to keep up with the digital developments in the future. I’d rather doubt it.

Vulnerability grows

In that case, the whole airline industry will become vulnerable. Vulnerable in a way that external players enter the market aiming to disrupt the entire industry.

I know it might sound crazy that airlines’ business model will be disrupted by external players that bring in new digital approaches. But it happened the same way with hotels and taxis.

From my point of view, one of the main reasons why an industry is disrupted by external players lies in the fact that the industry lags behind the digital development.

Certainly, the entry barriers are quite high due to the required assets and related financial effort. Conversely, no one knows how a disruptive approach would look like and which investment is needed.

Let me know your thoughts and get in touch with me!


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Benjamin is an aviation-enthusiast, a content-maniac, and CEO of Information Design (in this order). His daily business revolves around pioneering solutions with the aim to change the aviation industry. His visions are based on expertise gained in more than 15 years in the industry, and working with renowned airlines such as Lufthansa, Emirates, Air India, Aegean Airlines, Saudia Airlines, S7, Icelandair and many others.