From sanitizing robots to unmanned ground vehicles, airlines and public facilities in the Middle East have become fixated on innovation. Despite the push for new, contactless tech, travel across the region still couldn't weather the storm of Covid-19.
Since the coronavirus crisis changed the business of travel as we know it, the world has become obsessed with digital health passports, new technologies, and automation methods. Since then, the race to deploy digital solutions intensified among rival airlines and airports in the Middle East.
The Middle East region is known for connecting tens of millions of international passengers annually, but since January 20 of last year, regional carriers saw their scheduled capacity slump 57 percent, according to the latest data from OAG.
Typically, the region’s busiest airports include Dubai International, Doha International Airport, Abu Dhabi International, and King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2020, however, airlines in the region lost about 74 percent of their revenues, the sharpest decline globally, according to the Airports Council International. That’s a loss of about $8 billion in revenues.
Although airlines trade group International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the region’s passenger numbers to grow about 4.3 percent annually, the group says Middle East carriers still have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to improving the social and economic benefits of their aviation sectors. This goes beyond deploying new technologies or improving infrastructure — the region also needs to enable more women to find careers in the industry.
Many of the Middle East’s travel hubs — from Israel to Dubai or Doha — rely mainly on international traffic, but with the ongoing global travel restrictions, they’ve had to rethink their strategies to find new ways to adapt. Skift has put together a comprehensive list of new technologies that some countries in the region have adopted to help travelers navigate better.
In a bid to outshine its rivals in the region, Qatar Airways joined the “fit to fly” movement as part of its post-pandemic recovery strategy. On January 26, the country’s flagship carrier announced that it would become the first airline in the Middle East to begin trying out the new IATA Travel Pass “Digital Passport” mobile app, in partnership with the International Air Transport Association.
The trial is set to begin March 2021 and allows Qatar Airways to offer passengers a more contactless, safe experience, the company said in a statement. The first phase of trials is set to start on the airline’s Doha-Istanbul route. The app is a “one-stop shop” that lets users receive their digital Covid-19 test results so that they can verify if they are safe to travel. The IATA Digital Passport isn’t the only technology platform that’s launched trials. Skift reported earlier about the launch of CommonPass and other similar platforms. But, the movement, while welcomed, risks confusing players in business travel given the lack of harmony on requirements.
Abu Dhabi’s Unmanned Vehicles
Abu Dhabi Airports became one of the first airports in the region to deploy Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UVG), in partnership with the United Arab Emirates’ Tawazun Strategic Development Fund. Tawazun, which means stability in Arabic, was created to beef up the UAE’s private sector investments in defense, security, and aviation through investments and partnerships with SMEs. The AED 2.5 billion fund ($681 million) partnered up with Abu Dhabi Airports to launch the new CoDi BOT UGV, which were designed and made by one of its affiliates, UAE-based Marakeb Technologies. The UGV was piloted in May to ensure that aircraft cabins are kept clean and sterile in the safest way possible. The UAE, through Marakeb, prides itself in being a “leading” tech provider in the region.
Israel: Talk, Don’t Touch
It’s not a surprise that a company like Touchless.ai was born out of Israel. Dubbed as “start-up nation” by experts in the tech scene, Israel spends nearly 5 percent of its GDP on research and development — the highest out of any country in the world. Touchless.ai is a new technology that can be used for restaurant menus or airport kiosks to help stop the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases. Inspired by Covid-19, the technology allows users to speak into a digital kiosk using touch-free technology and has launched trials in the U.S. and some European countries. Created by Roy Baharv and Eyal Shapira, Touchless.ai supports English, Hebrew, and Japanese, as well as both iOS and Android. It has also been optimized for noisy environments, such as airports — and honestly, we’re better off for it. Who really wants to touch public screens after what the world has experienced throughout this pandemic?
Dubai: The Robots Are Coming
Robots in Dubai have become all the rage. Since the pandemic, the emirate rolled out germ-busting robots in some public facilities, like hospitals and airports. And, last week, a new RoboCafe opened up in the city, where customers can place their orders and get served by German-made robots. In September 2020, Dubai International Airport also introduced “Rahal,” which means traveler in Arabic, to help passengers at its airport. The robot is part of its customer service team at Terminal 3, the world’s largest airport terminal. Still, robot Rahal didn’t help Dubai Airports’ traffic numbers, which slid 70 percent in 2020.
Gulf Air: Crisis Management
When the first global lockdown hit in March 2020, Bahrain’s national carrier, Gulf Air, partnered up with travel technology provider ANIXE to begin conceptual work to improve its business. The airline invested in ANIXE’s Resfinity Air, an internet booking solution platform. This allowed the carrier to shift digitally to reallocate aircraft and change cabin class seating ratios. ANIXE also helped Gulf Air enhance its online bookings. Previously, changes to bookings were only possible via call-centers or travel agency partners. Today, that seems like a thing of the faraway past as automation becomes key to survival for many businesses in the coming years.
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Photo credit: Dubai boasted a 95-percent smart adoption rate at its electricity and water authority in May 2020. (Pictured: Dubai digital employee) Dubai Media Office