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by Francesco Violante, CEO SITA

Ubiquitous connectivity, combined with disruptive technologies and big data, are poised to have a major impact on air transport operations, says Francesco Violante, SITA.

Today, there are more than 7.16 billion mobile phone connections and 3.64 billion unique subscribers. About one billion smartphones are sold each year.

The tablet market is growing at more than 50% per year, and two billion people are connected to the internet through smartphone and tablet.

Around 25% of people have internet access through smartphones, including 40% in Africa and 80% in China. With the eventual introduction of IPv6 and the Internet of Things, we can envisage 26 billion devices connected by 2020.

Everything that can benefit from a connection will have one. Businesses are connecting assets and equipment and getting more data to optimize performance. We’ll also be connected through the things we wear.

Shift to apps

This has led to a shift from web browsers to mobile apps. We are seeing apps to control everything in our house, as well as apps to control our health, such as Apple’s iOS8 Healthkit.

The App for Everything world is around the corner and it will complement the Internet of Things. Downloads from Apple’s App Store are estimated at over 50 billion, with around 800 apps being downloaded every second.

Data explosion

The Internet of Things is generating a huge amount of data. It includes data generated by machine-to-machine (M2M) interaction, which is about connecting devices to sensors, and using data to control and optimize the use of those devices.

Obviously this has significant potential business value which is yet to be exploited. The air transport industry needs to be in the forefront of this revolution.

Passengers will want to use their device of choice will expect the same connected experience. They will want access to information and services from anywhere.

Using ‘big data’ to extract business intelligence is an extremely fast evolving market. This information will create new data sets to feed and control other connected devices. One result will be the ability for the industry to greatly improve disruption management, for example, by linking stakeholders seamlessly.

Some issues still need to be resolved – such as data ownership and privacy – but the direction of travel is quite clear.

Wearable tech

With technology becoming a normal part of passengers’ travel experience, that gives us more options to connect the passenger into the industry’s IT ecosystem. This offers a powerful platform for new services that will add value to their journey.

Wearable technology is poised to have a big impact. Examples are the successful Google Glass trials that SITA Lab carried out with Virgin Atlantic, as well as a recent one with Copenhagen Airport, enabling duty managers to improve customer service by getting fast access to passenger details and a range of operational data.

Our trials have included smart watches, and we were excited to see the introduction of the Apple Watch. We are also particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Apple’s NFC-based pay feature in its iPhone, which will be a boost for NFC in the air transport industry. The SITA Lab is keen to look explore this area further.


We are also starting to see biometrics used in passengers’ consumer devices to authenticate access, but also for passenger processing. One interesting aspect of biometrics is the integration into wearable technology.

SITA Lab is working with technology company Bionym to explore the use of ‘persistent identity’ in the so-called Nymi wristband. It uses your heartbeat like a password and provides authentication with a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.

We envisage passengers wearing these wristbands for authentication at control points.

Biometrics are being fully integrated into the passenger journey. It authenticates the passenger digitally, providing secure processing at each self-service step taken by passengers. Combined with proximity sensing, we can deploy an end-to-end passenger process that is seamless, intuitive and secure.

Validation of passengers can take place automatically in the background as they go through checkpoints and, with the accuracy of software improving all the time, biometrics could eliminate the need for boarding passes altogether.

There are other advantages to biometrics in the areas of automated passenger management and border control, such as Automated Passport Control.

Industry operations

As technologies converge, the possibilities to impact industry operations expand exponentially. Consider the ‘connected aircraft’ and ‘proximity sensing’.

Firstly, connected aircraft. By 2022, commercial fleets will include 10,000 new generation aircraft. These aircraft will be flying data centers.

They will depend on IT and data exchange to operate optimally – and they will stay connected in flight and on the ground. It represents a new challenge for the entire airline and its operating partners.

To unleash the full potential of new generation aircraft, we need a new approach to how everyone works together. At the moment, IT on board is the responsibility of different airline departments.

This can lead to projects being consigned to silos without a focus on the bigger or longer-term picture.

As an industry, we need to take a ‘Nose-to-Tail’ approach – a coherent IT and communications platform integrating both the aircraft cockpit and cabin with ground systems.

Proximity sensing

Secondly, proximity sensing is poised to have a major impact on industry operations. It relies on sensors to detect the presence of nearby objects, and is now ripe for progress because the means for joining it all together has advanced in the last couple of years. Technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are now common on mobile devices.

Linking airport and airline technology to a passenger’s mobile enables us to build and leverage new data sets that will give unprecedented insights into passenger flow and behavior at the airport. This will make a massive contribution to improving airport operations.

Using aggregated and anonymous geolocation data, airport operators can keep an eye on passenger flows and adjust operational procedures to smooth out the peaks. They can give passengers accurate queuing times at security and other bottlenecks, helping to avoid congestion.


Passenger flow data is aggregated and anonymous. For more personalized communications to passengers, there is the promise of beacon technology.

A beacon is a low powered wireless transmitter that sends out a Bluetooth signal over a radius of up to 50 meters. Combine this with an app and you can trigger context-relevant messages or actions on a smartphone at specific locations.

It might be as simple as a welcome message or a flight status update as a passenger arrives at the airport. It could be a mobile boarding pass on the smartphone at control points.

Apple's iOS8 will let passengers access relevant apps from the lock screen, depending on geographical location. So the lock screen becomes 'a portal to location-based app'. This will further improve the personalized passenger experience.

We are still at the early stages of learning what beacons can do. But the results are encouraging and SITA Lab is working on trials with several airlines and airports.

One issue arises if many travel providers all want to deploy their own beacons throughout airports. It would be complex for the airports to manage and could cause interference from overlapping beacons. A common-use approach is needed and so we have created a community service based on called SITA’s Beacon Registry, to act as a single point of contact for common-use beacons around the world. It provides a cost effective shared infrastructure, and it avoids multiple airlines installing separate beacons at shared gates. American Airlines is the first airline to use the registry, as part of the world's largest implementation of beacons at an airport.


The convergence of technology trends will keep driving innovation at a faster pace. It will be progressively harder to keep up with that pace and to identify good innovation from bad.

One of the great strengths of our industry, however, is the readiness to collaborate when it is in everyone’s interests to do so. SITA’s expertise and experience means we can continue to work with industry players on pilot projects and trials to validate new technologies. We can use this knowledge to develop solutions that capture the benefits.

We can develop standards with industry bodies, as well as define blueprints for deployment throughout our global industry.

Our responsibility is to ensure that connectivity and the IT infrastructure is an enabler of progress.

That is why, with Orange Business Services and a number of new regional partners, we have announced a major transformational program to deliver a new era of connectivity for air transport.

And it is why we have committed to working with the industry to ensure we can profitably and effectively use the vast amount of data that is coming our way.

Apple's new iPhone and watch

What does this news mean for airlines and airports? “At SITA we are really pleased to see this development,” says Jim Peters, SITA’s CTO and Head of SITA Lab.

> Read Jim’s latest blog post

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