We may think of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as being part of the mobile phone revolution, the driving force behind the 1.5m-plus apps available on iPhone and the 100bn-plus downloads recorded since 2009.
Yet APIs were originally introduced for use with web applications. The first organization to employ APIs was salesforce.com, in February 2000. Then came eBay and Amazon. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the social web that things really took off for APIs.
In 2004, the introduction of the RESTful(1) API gave Flickr the boost it needed to become the platform of choice for early social media enthusiasts, followed by Facebook and Twitter.
The Google Maps API was made available in 2005 to allow developers to integrate Google Maps into their websites. Amazon began to use APIs to present cloud computing services.
Along came the iPhone and the API became mainstream for both mobile and web services.
SITA launched its own API site, Developer.aero, in 2012. It gives air transport developers access to data and processes to expedite innovation for the benefit of the community and its customers via the cloud.
“Exposing RESTful APIs on the developer.aero site allows developers to focus on building their own apps. The site now handles millions of API calls a day,” says Benoit Verbaere, Portfolio Director, Cloud Platforms and Solutions, SITA.
Above all, APIs provide a channel into the vast amounts of rich data that’s generated and required by airlines, airports and travelers. SITA’s APIs open up endless possibilities for breakthrough advances – from passenger travel planning and booking, to airport operations and security, baggage, aircraft connectivity and in-flight cabin and cockpit operations.
The growing interest in SITA’s APIs within the developer community is evident, with site traffic significantly escalating on a daily basis and with SITA APIs featured strongly in winning travel apps in recent industry hackathons.
“We’ve set out to make the whole process of accessing and using our APIs as simple as possible”, explains Verbaere, who’s responsible for SITA’s API Center of Excellence.
“We’re stimulating the developer community to design and publish new apps and services by making industry data more easily available through APIs.
“The opportunities are endless, from the simple to the complex. For example, SITA’s Day of Travel Services offers a complete package for the development of the world’s first location-aware airport app.”
It works by bringing together a suite of APIs and combining them with Airport Maps and Beacon Services (see ‘New heights for insights'). Airlines and airports can integrate these powerful contextual passenger services into their own apps.
“Crucially, the introduction of new apps not only drives new revenue opportunities for the airport or airline. It also provides invaluable business intelligence on passenger flow and other elements that impact on staff and asset deployment, aircraft movement and other key operational decisions.”
It’s not just mobile apps on which developers have set their sights.
Interestingly, a 2015 Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport Group hackathon showed the diversity of platforms that APIs can target. Kiosk technology featured in the winning entries in both categories.
An Automated Form Kiosk allowing travelers to scan their boarding pass and passport to generate a prefilled immigration card was one of the prize winning entries in the ‘Start-up category’. Overall winner in the category was a virtual customer service desk powered by Artificial Intelligence.
Meanwhile, for example, SITA’s Boarding Pass API is embracing a whole host of gadgets and apps, enabling airlines to deliver boarding passes to many different channels using a single service.
That includes the traditional ‘print at home’ boarding pass, mobile web, smart watches, native airline apps, Evernote, Apple Passbook, Google Now, Google Wallet, NFC, and more.
Build apps fast
The 10 APIs on developer.aero have already spawned numerous applications and solutions across all airline and airport operations.
Interested developers are first invited to explore the Airport API, to understand the process. “Our free Airport API enables you to list all major IATA Airports,” says Verbaere.
“You get specific details about an airport using an IATA code, a list of airports matching a given name or code, the distance between two airports, and the airports’ nearest latitude and longitude. You can then contact the relevant product manager to discuss subscribing to other APIs.”
The portal will see the continuous addition of new APIs, along with sample code, case studies, data registries, and other services that will help software developers build new apps fast and efficiently.
Late last year saw SITAONAIR launch its first API through developer.aero. Its Inflight Wi-Fi Voucher API encourages onboard Wi-Fi usage – by enabling airlines, GDSs and other agents to sell Wi-Fi sessions, both as part of the booking process and during the flight.
A promotional code retrieved during booking or purchase is used by the passenger to activate the Internet session on the plane. The API can be integrated directly into the booking flow of airlines, GDSs or other agencies as one of the additional value added services that can be sold to passengers as part of a flight booking.
The company is also pioneering the adoption of beacon technology to remind passengers to purchase Wi-Fi credit or to activate their previously purchased credit.
By combining the Inflight Wi-Fi Voucher API with beacon location data retrieved using the SITA Beacon API, notifications can be triggered on the Smartphone app to advise passengers that Wi-Fi is available on their aircraft.
It includes a link to the appropriate page enabling them to access purchase vouchers or download complimentary sessions.
Now being explored is the use of APIs to provide real-time interaction for the development of the next generation nose-to-tail connected aircraft solutions.
An API platform offers airlines and maintenance, repair and operations (MROs) organizations more tools to enable aircraft to fly more efficiently and more cost effectively while ensuring that safety is never compromised.
APIs can leverage the wealth of data transmitted during flights via sensors, avionics and flight crew interaction, and enable the development of practical applications for predictive aircraft maintenance, flight tracking, air traffic management, improved weather forecasting, fuel consumption management and load balancing.
Developer.aero APIs are already in use by the SITA CrewTablet cabin management solution, to enable cabin crews to efficiently perform in-flight and post-flight passenger and crew management procedures and operations. The application uses APIs to integrate with Departure Control (DCS), Reservations (RES), baggage and weather systems.
A growing body of knowledge and experience of using SITA’s APIs is accumulating as developers, airlines, airports and other industry players take advantage of the opportunities offered by this relatively new technology.
Prime examples are in place at Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and Malaysia Airlines.
Virgin Atlantic wanted to enhance passenger check-in by enabling passengers to send boarding passes to their mobile phones via email or SMS text message – and selected the SITA Boarding Pass API to integrate with its own web check-in application.
The passes are designed to meet TSA requirements and support the Apple Passbook electronic wallet application, while passengers with Gmail addresses get real-time flight status information and have their boarding passes displayed automatically on their smartphones.
The API system gave Virgin Atlantic full creative license in developing the application to suit their own business requirements and work flows, including the novel ability to issue separate boarding passes for infants with an ‘INF’ code as a seat number.
The airline is well-known for its headline-grabbing collaborative trial with SITA of Google Glass technology to enhance customers' travel experiences and improve efficiency, which used an API to get passenger data to the Google Glass screen.
JetBlue wanted a self-service mobile boarding pass solution that could be tightly integrated with its own customer mobile IT platform and strategy. The airline wanted to retain control over branding, design and targeted distribution of the boarding passes, as well as integration of the system into its own IT infrastructure and processes.
Using SITA’s Boarding Pass API, the app complies with TSA requirements and supports Apple Passbook and is fully integrated with other mobile apps available to JetBlue passengers, including mobile booking, check-in, flight status, and more. Passengers are also notified of real-time flight updates within the apps and via push notifications.
The ability of the boarding pass to work on Apple Watch led JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes to cite its benefits in a CNBC television interview. “I’m wearing my Apple Watch … and I’ve got my boarding pass on here. … with this technology, now everything’s on [the Apple Watch] – departure time, your gate – it really takes a lot of stress out of traveling.”
In 2015, SITA introduced WorldTracer Tablet, following successful trials by Malaysia Airlines at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. A mash up of a number of SITA APIs including the iTravel, BagJourney and WTR APIs, the management module’s intuitive graphical user interface is the perfect way for agents to offer passengers more personalized services.
Mobile agents can roam the airport to help passengers at baggage carousels or wherever they are to report mishandled baggage and trace their status. Agents can help make potentially stressful situations bearable and manageable.
In the cloud
APIs need and feed on data. And big data thrives in a cloud. Cloud computing is hugely scalable, so it provides a near limitless resource which makes it ideal for application development. Resources for trial projects can be switched on and off at will and at minimal cost, but equally projects can be grown rapidly without the need for up-front investment in new hardware or programming.
APIs started life as a neat way to add functionality to web-based software. “Today, they’re the day-to-day building blocks of our platform-agnostic connected world,” says Verbaere.
“And in the air transport community, developer.aero is driving some of the most exciting advances to services in a way that’s highly accessible and across many different platforms.”
(1) REST stands for Representational State Transfer, an architectural style for networked hypermedia applications, primarily used to build Web services that are lightweight, maintainable, and scalable. A service based on REST is called a RESTful service.