There's a saying that I heard a lot over Covid lockdown all about not wasting a good crisis. It's business talk and, like all good business talk, it runs the risk of seeming a little bit disrespectful or tone-deaf to individuals' suffering.
So let's get one thing out of the way: some people had a hard time this year and we shouldn't diminish that. People got sick. People lost their jobs. People were forced to spend the weeks of lockdown in crappy housing or in unsafe domestic situations. People also died, thankfully not so many in New Zealand, but globally Covid has been a big deal and not something to be dismissed lightly.
But, while we should acknowledge that fact, the reality is that a crisis like Covid creates winds of change which some organisations can leverage.
Recently I was invited by Amazon Web Services to take part in a roundtable about the future of aviation. As a bit of an #avgeek who, until a year or so ago had an annual air mileage of many hundred thousand miles, I'm always interested to talk about travel generally and aviation specifically. Getting the opportunity to see what was happening within an industry that has obviously been decimated was too good to say no to.
And given the news that Mike Pero, king of second-hand houses and first-hand mortgages, is going into the business and starting an airline that will service the Pacific Islands, it is obvious that Covid is creating not only challenges but also opportunities for the aviation industry.
Anyway, on the AWS call was Aaron Hornlimann, co-founder and CEO of Elenium Automation, an airport and airline travel technology company working with Auckland Airport and Queenstown Airport.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that anyone servicing the aviation sector would simply have shut up shop and hibernated when Covid hit. After all, passenger volumes, especially on the big-ticket international stuff have cratered.
But Hornlimann told a story of seizing the opportunity to innovate in ways that will deliver, in his words, upon changing customer expectations and desires. On the call, he explained how Elenium has developed a check-in kiosk that works without requiring any touch.
If we think back five years or so, check-in was entirely manual where we would queue up to speak with a customer service rep. Fast forward to pre-Covid days and every airline seems to have introduced self-service kiosks where we scan a passport or similar and can check-in, choose a seat and print our boarding pass.
But how do you take those advantages of self-service and the reduced overhead it brings for airlines, and make them sensitive to changing requirements in a Covid world?
For Elenium, it was around embracing a bunch of whiz-bang technology (and, considering Amazon organised the call, clearly their platforms powered a bunch of it) to reinvent the check-in kiosk.
Elenium decided to create a kiosk that would work via novel interactions such as head gestures and voice recognition. No longer does a passenger need to physically touch any surface, simply look at the kiosk the right way, wink the required number of times and you're in.
Now, don't get me wrong. It's fair to say that simply changing check-in to a touchless system isn't going to make the difference between an airline surviving or not, but it is an example of trying to find opportunities for improvement within the context of a decimated industry.
It reminds me of the tech sector back in the GFC. At that time funding was scarce and many potential customers, both commercial and individual, were understandably thinking of anything other than spending money on some random internet offering.
But, despite all this, companies such as Airbnb, Uber, and WhatsApp were all founded at this time. The founders of those companies knew that bad times are cyclical and would eventually pass by, And, when they did, it would be those organisations who invested in innovation who would come out stronger at the other end.
No one knows what the "new normal" will be for the aviation sector, but it's a safe bet that there will be many successful new businesses created out of these times and, as has always been the case, fortune will favour the brave.
I'm just quite looking forward to the strange looks I'm going to get as I wink and nod my head at the next airline kiosk I come to.
- Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.