Though 2020 was a year of challenges, many experts in the industry, including Brian Cobb, Chief Innovation Officer for Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), viewed the turbulence as a chance to embrace growth, particularly in the area of the touchless journey.

As Cobb reflected on last year’s challenges, he aptly quoted Winston Churchill, saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is particularly true of the aviation industry, which has faced many major hurdles over its long history, only to come out stronger with valuable lessons learned.  While there are many challenges in the future, Cobb believes that there will be many opportunities ahead, if the industry is ready to embrace them.

Here’s what Cobb had to share with us:

CAT Editors: There are a lot of opportunities for the connected ecosystem to evolve in 2021. What areas do you believe will see the most change?

Cobb: I’m anticipating connected ecosystems to evolve in the areas of consumer, curator, mode, and environment. The “touchless journey” has been touted for years but there wasn’t necessarily an expectation to connect touchless elements across multiple “modes,” so to speak, like the airport, aircraft, or concessionaire.

The focus was more on a brand’s singular product that enabled a touchless element. The pandemic has accelerated consumer expectations beyond wants and more into the realm of needs. The expectation is that the individual brand is going to work with partner modes to deliver a fully touchless journey in the interest of personal health and safety. These expectations are pushing brands to act as curators of personalized services.

In order to achieve success in the eyes of the consumer, these curators are now on the hook to connect disparate systems that were previously accepted but no longer tolerated. This will likewise drive robust changes in connected environmental systems to address everything from air quality to networked cyber protections. All in order to sustain critical infrastructure while doing our part in contributing to environmental wellness.

Our present circumstances will prove yet again that successful brands are agile enough to accept, adapt, adjust, and deliver during another pivotal change for the industry and world at large.

CAT Editors: How will the technology and its adoption evolve in 2021 to help move the aviation industry forward in a post-COVID world?

Cobb: There is no denying that aviation, simply by nature, accelerated the spread of the virus. In order to propel our way forward, we need to instill confidence and restore trust, just as we have in-flight safety. A healthy combination of talent and technology is the way forward towards a touchless journey.

So many incredible minds and entrepreneurs are working right next to us, but unless there’s an encouragement to think and speak openly, we’re stifling what could be. Look at how events have played out so far, for example. Leaders across the aviation ecosystem have put technology front-and-center.  But is the proverbial tail wagging the dog? We want to avoid adding more disparity and focus on gaining consistency throughout the workforce. Where is the talent to act as the connective tissue to ensure that we’re in near-complete alignment in the technology applications?

Cabin air quality is a good example. Airlines have implemented hospital-grade quality filtering systems. However, the consumer still has to traverse through several other potential areas for contamination before they ever reach the cabin. How do we address those concerns for the passenger? Perhaps the industry is better served in collaborating on air quality and standards, among other challenges, along the extended journey.

CAT Editors: What are the most pressing challenges that you see on the horizon that could hinder progress, if not addressed?

Cobb: Our challenges are coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end we’re dealing with a lack of Nation-State clarity and disparity of who can fly, to where, and under what conditions. On the other end, we’re recognizing and taking greater responsibility for the industry’s impact on the environment. Consumers may perceive a disconnect across the industry, as theoretically the industry has had ample time during the slowdown to reassess, adjust, and prepare for a safe, secure, and more environmentally friendly recovery.

Internally, however, we’re dealing with a conundrum of investing during the downtime to bolster cyber protections and enable environmental improvements OR slip further behind due to lack of funds, depleted reserves, and lack of access to capital. Reasonably and compassionately noted that much of the available funds have been invested in job stability for as many and for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, with cyber, the bad actors become more advanced by the day. The industry has felt the sting of physical terrorism, but are we amply preparing for silent cyber-attacks? Aviation will remain a target for the foreseeable future due to its global reach.

CAT Editors: How can the industry collaborate to ensure it addresses the most important priorities in 2021?

Cobb: Perhaps an overly simple but realistic approach is to support our trade groups and organizations like ICAO to align efforts more uniformly and as a collective voice. There is strength in numbers as well as strength in aviation’s influence on other industries. Manufacturing is nervously watching to see if products can be moved or if their factory can stay open while waiting on that critical part to arrive from the other end of the world. Arts and entertainment are watching closely due to similarities in the basic operational and financial model; we only survive with butts in seats. Once we find our groove internally, we might consider crossing industry lines for mutual advancement.

Now is the ideal time to work with healthcare. Airlines, airports, and hospitals all “process” people. What can we learn from healthcare leaders that they’ve already conquered, in some cases for decades, in the way of air and surface cleanliness standards, the use of UV lighting, and more that can benefit the touchless journey.

CAT Editors: How would you sum up your predictions for 2021?

Cobb: 2021 will be the year of restoration. We’ve been hit exceptionally hard and like nothing experienced before for such a prolonged period of time. Inevitably, calm heads prevail, and thought leaders rise to the surface. Hear them out and explore the possibilities. They may just have the answer to your organization’s own restoration.