August 14, 2019

Common Roadblocks Airlines Face in Embracing Digital Technologies

For much of the world, the days of paper and pencil have long been over. However, for a variety of reasons, the aviation industry has been slower to catch up. But the undertaking of digital advancement is no longer a nice-to-have for airlines; it’s an operational necessity. At the same time, airlines’ hesitation to fully invest is understandable. After all, many have embarked on large-scale digital advancement initiatives, but only 30% of these efforts meet expectations. The remaining 70%, no matter which objectives they target, either lose their footing, are awash in confusion or never realize their potential. Here are some of the reasons such initiatives are so challenging throughout the industry.


Careful development of and adherence to protocols and procedures is essential in any industry, but it’s of special importance to airlines. Unlike, say, a social media company, an airline cannot adopt the blanket fail-fast approach characteristic of digitization. In addition to increasing the likelihood of human error, disruption caused by software issues can be expensive or put operations at risk. With so much at stake, airlines have an error-free mentality that results in a slower, more conservative approach to adopting new technologies.

Outdated technology

As a result of this culture, airlines are much more likely to stick with a given technology long after other industries have moved on to newer alternatives. Believe it or not, some airlines and airports are still using tools like Windows 3.1 and fax machines. Such legacy systems are unlikely to seamlessly communicate with each other. As a result, upgrades are more complicated because the systems and software they’re replacing are older and more siloed. The fact that airlines’ systems contain an exceptional number of interdependencies only adds to the complexity.


If employees are accustomed to using older technology, the transition to a state-of-the-art upgrade won’t happen overnight. Airlines must invest extensive time and resources into training to ensure employees have the skills to competently operate the new tools necessary to perform their jobs.


Digital advancement opens up a host of cost-savings opportunities, but not without significant investment upfront—which can present a barrier in the low-margin airline industry. Low-cost airlines in particular, reluctant to pass costs onto the consumer, have been slow to invest extensively in operations and adopt digital solutions.

Executive support

Roughly a third of unsuccessful digital advancement initiatives fail in part because management styles are unsuited to the transformation. That means gaining executive buy-in to invest in new technology is only half the battle. Beyond an intellectual understanding of digitization, executives must be prepared to adopt the behaviors and practices of the digital age.


Digital advancement often requires a shift of mentality among those who will be using the new technology. Pilots, for example, may feel uncomfortable relying on a single device for all the information they need on the flight deck. Moreover, pilots and many other airline professionals are often the type of people who excel while making critical decisions and resolving minor crises. While they eventually come to appreciate and rely on new solutions with predictive or automated capabilities, there may be initial feelings of apathy or affront to overcome upon the introduction of such technologies.


Developing markets are the fastest-growing in the industry. For airlines serving these regions, however, connectivity often presents an issue. A lack of technological infrastructure—some offices are currently served by 64K lines—means that some of the groundwork necessary for digital advancement has yet to be laid.

While there’s no shortage of roadblocks, making the effort to surmount them can result in huge gains across cost savings, efficiency, productivity and more. Check out our follow-up blog post, How Airlines Can Overcome Barriers to Digital Advancement, to learn more.

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