Air travel is more popular than ever, and passengers increasingly expect a quicker and smoother travel experience. That’s why technology has never been so important to the air transport industry, says SITA CEO Barbara Dalibard.
Q: Air travel is growing. What role is SITA playing in its evolution?
Barbara Dalibard: Being 100% owned by the air transport community, SITA is driven by its technology needs, so we have always played a key part in the evolution of air travel. This is something that no other provider can say. We innovate and develop technology collaboratively with the many 'players' who span the processes making up the journey experience. This underpins our vision of ‘Easy air travel every step of the way’.
Adding to existing capacity is not a way to address growth pressures. The air transport industry flies over 4 billion passengers today, but we expect 8.2 billion by 2037. That means more baggage, more regulation, and more security threats. To enable this growth, our community must invest in the effective use of technology, to become more agile and integrated.
SITA’s 2018 Air Transport IT Insights research shows that the community is turning to technology to prepare for growth in the years ahead. Airlines forecast a substantial increase in IT spend for 2019, to 3.67% of revenue, while airports forecast a rise from 5.14% of revenues in 2017 to 5.69% in 2019.
Q: How will you help to deliver the changes needed?
BD: The key is our ability to bring together the multiple players involved at each stage of the journey. SITA can achieve this because we are an integral part of air transport, created in 1949 as the community’s own provider of shared technology. In fact, next year we celebrate our 70th anniversary. Our airline founders1 definitely showed great foresight in creating us, since today’s technology is all about sharing and learning together.
We now work with around 2,800 air transport organizations. They include airlines, airports, ground handlers, governments, border agencies, Air Traffic Control, Air Navigation Services Providers, and more. We serve the community globally, with a footprint at over 1,000 airports, where the activities of the industry’s players come together. And we work closely with around 20 industry bodies across the world, including IATA, ACI, ICAO, FAA, CANSO and others.
This will help us to deliver the changes needed. And, of course, as part of the community, we are unique in our knowledge of operations and processes at airports and around aircraft.
Q: So how are you working towards ‘Easy air travel every step of the way’?
BD: We are focused on three areas. First, we will continue to facilitate industry collaboration, so that we can tackle issues together – with customers and the wider industry – in a world that is more and more connected.
Second, we help the air transport community to achieve operational excellence. This means better managing complex operations at the airport and around the aircraft. All of the players rely on each other, so how can we gain efficiencies across these players and their processes?
And third, we are helping to deliver the seamless passenger journey that the community wants to see. Again, it requires that we all work together across stages of the journey.
Q: Tell us more about the importance of facilitating COLLABORATION?
BD: Air travel is getting ever more complex. Every time we take a flight, around 20 companies enable that journey. There may be as many as 100 airlines using any one airport. And one airline may handle as many as 700 destinations. It is essential to work closely with all the stakeholders, to deliver the technology needed to cope with industry growth and change.
SITA works across the travel chain to improve passenger processing, airport operations, baggage processing, border management and aircraft operations. Collaboration is our founding principle. We were formed through collaboration and for decades have facilitated it. With technology being about sharing and connecting, SITA is well placed to play a role in the community’s evolution.
Let me give you an example. Collaboration is represented in SITA’s shared industry platforms and infrastructure, which are spread globally. We provide more than 13,500 air transport site connections in around 200 countries and territories.
We have over 1,800 VHF ground stations in more than 160 countries, as the community’s global air-ground communications infrastructure. And over 430 airports use our shared airport platform (AirportHub) now available across more than 150 countries, and rising. AirportHub is about sharing the infrastructure at the airport. We can connect every single airline to every single airport in every country.
So collaboration and sharing are in SITA’s DNA. Added to that is the aviation know-how and passion of SITA people ‘on-the-ground’ in airports across 170-plus countries the world over, and the fact that we bridge as much as 60% of the industry’s data exchange, among airlines, airports, aircraft and border agencies.
Q: How will data create opportunities for collaboration?
BD: Data has the potential to add greater value at every touchpoint and interchange between the airlines and passengers, as well as airports, ground handlers, border agencies and others who make the journey happen.
SITA’s business is evolving to meet the future data needs of the air transport community. Today we are focused on sharing the network, infrastructure, platforms and technology. But the sharing of data and knowledge is also of immense importance to our industry’s future.
As a community provider, SITA ‘naturally’ has access to large volumes of air transport data – along with experience in unlocking and handling huge amounts of data through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), as well as airline, airport and government systems.
We process baggage data for 500 airlines and ground handlers at airports across the world, for example, and we pre-approve over 200 million passengers a year for E-Visa. Another example of data and know-how sharing is SITA’s Community Cyber Threat Center for the community-wide exchange of cyber threat intelligence.
Air transport needs a common platform at the airport and for the aircraft, making sure everything is open, enabling us to plug and connect to the different data, to make travel more efficient. We will create more opportunities for collaboration and data sharing through a single platform for each service – one to serve the airport, one to serve the aircraft, and so on. This will remove silos, which is essential if we are to exploit opportunities.
This is SITA’s approach and it will give us great insights by calling on industry-wide data that encompasses identity, baggage, flights, sensors and more, furnishing information through different APIs.
Q: What new technologies will help us to collaborate?
BD: We are exploring technologies that will enable better collaboration, such as blockchain, and we are empowering people who work around the aircraft to communicate and share information.
When we think about sharing technology and data, as well as our community role, it is as though the blockchain was invented for SITA. Blockchain is about sharing information safely and securely, between industry players in a decentralized way. It provides one truth at a given point that can be used to facilitate workflow and facilitate data exchange.
We began exploring blockchain for identity management in 2016, and have since conducted research and trials with IAG, British Airways, Heathrow, Geneva and Miami Airports to create a single source of truth around flight data.
We continue to explore and develop, adding other use cases across baggage, identity management and cargo. Our FlightChain and Aviation Blockchain Sandpit are great examples of how we co-innovate with customers.
Q: And collaboration around the aircraft?
BD: New generation aircraft feature thousands of sensors, generating terabytes of data each day. By 2034, 85% of the world’s commercial fleet will be new generation aircraft. Each piece of data provides essential feedback on the status of the aircraft, which is vital for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).
We will enable airlines to collect, control and share this data, while correlating it to external sources, such as weather conditions – through our eAircraft DataHub. This will help monitor engine performance in certain conditions, for example, or evaluate engine performance and maintenance.
Becoming an 'Aircraft DataHub' is well suited to SITA's DNA. SITAONAIR is a market leader in facilitating aircraft data acquisition and management on the ground.
Q: Tell us about SITA’s focus on OPERATIONAL EXCELLENCE for the industry?
BD: Given the growing scale and complexity of the air transport industry’s operations, there is great potential for improvement. Flight delays cost the industry US$ 25bn a year, almost US$ 70m a day. Airports are having to cope with more and more passengers: over 300,000 pass through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport each day, for example. And at any given moment, about 10,000 planes are in our skies, a number that is set to double in the next 20 years.
With growing levels of activity, the cost of delays will rise, as will the volumes that airports and airlines will have to manage. The pressure to become more efficient and save money will increase. By linking players across the journey through digital technologies, we are helping the community to achieve operational excellence and savings.
This enables the industry to better manage the complexity of operations and processes. Vitally, that includes data flows at the airport and for aircraft, for passenger processing, airport operations, baggage processing, border management and aircraft operations.
Q: How are you helping airports to evolve their operations?
BD: We are advancing in key areas such as airport management, baggage management, passenger flow, mission-critical infrastructure, data analytics, predictive technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and more. Airport infrastructure will not increase as passenger numbers rise. Technology will, and is, making a major difference.
Our airport management services support and enhance airport operations, for instance, from landing to take off. They include Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM), as well as business and operational intelligence. GRU Airport in Sao Paolo, Brazil, is a good example of using collaborative decision-making and operational intelligence tools. The airport automated 95% of its 830 daily aircraft movements, and decreased check-in allocation time from 1 hour to five minutes.
Our baggage management services are helping to further reduce mishandled baggage, as this currently costs the industry US$ 2.3bn. They offer end-to-end baggage tracking, reconciliation and management. We work with IATA to deliver tracking to enable the community to comply with IATA Resolution 753.
We are helping airports with crowd management as well, through real-time and historical data analytics that track the movements of passengers, staff and key assets. Using these capabilities, we’ve worked with major European and US airports to reduce average wait times at process points.
Q: You mentioned predictive technologies and AI?
BD: Yes, we are innovating in these technologies to provide accurate predictions of flight arrivals. At one major airport in APAC, we have been using Deep Learning AI to enhance the airport’s operational efficiency. This is a world first.
The airport typically gets less than 60 minutes’ notice of arrivals. Using Deep Learning, we can now provide an accurate prediction within 15 minutes of flight arrivals for around 80% of flights, six hours before touchdown. We are planning to launch a flight predictor for airports.
We are also looking into the potential of Computer Vision, another discipline within AI, to track all players around the aircraft, to enable proactive turnaround management. Using Computer Vision, a camera at the gate will automatically recognize what is happening and when. This will provide better visibility, identifying issues before they happen and driving better on-time performance.
Q: What about aircraft operations?
BD: We are driving operational excellence for aircraft through SITAONAIR, which collates and distributes data from over 15,000 aircraft. As you heard, with its aircraft data and communications capabilities SITAONAIR is bringing greater efficiencies to maintenance and scheduling.
We also provide real-time flight tracking for aircraft situational awareness, for major airlines such as Avianca Brasil, Azul, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Vistara. With no changes needed to the avionics, this enables airlines to track their aircraft every minute of the flight, which is more than the ICAO recommendation of 15 minutes.
In the meantime, our CrewTab solution digitizes crew operations, which greatly reduces paper use. Two of our larger airlines have gone paperless for their forms and now process some 250,000 of them digitally a year.
Our Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) also digitizes services, for pilots, while our eWAS service makes for greater fuel-efficiency through avoidance of severe weather. It offers accurate, real-time weather reports pooled from many sources. Some 6,000 pilots from Air France and Singapore Airlines use eWAS monthly to monitor and avoid severe weather.
Q: How is technology helping to deliver a SEAMLESS PASSENGER JOURNEY?
BD: Technology makes passengers happier. SITA’s research tells us that passengers hate losing time. The one thing that makes them most dissatisfied at the airport is queuing. Our research also shows us that passengers like to be in control of their own progress through the airport, and that 74% of them want to be informed about flights in real-time. We know that a satisfied passenger will spend 20% more time on duty free shopping than a dissatisfied one.
SITA’s Passenger IT Trends Survey demonstrates that the more automation there is at various stages of the journey, the happier the passengers. It shows the importance of implementing self-service technology across many steps if we are to create the seamless passenger journey.
In the areas of booking and bag tagging, where we see relatively high levels of automation, only 9% and 11% of passengers respectively experience any negative emotions. Yet those figures are higher for the passport and security stages of the journey, at 25% and 36% of passengers, respectively.
That is why CIOs continue to prioritize self-service and mobile services. SITA’s 2018 Air Transport IT Insights shows that 95% of airports are planning major programs and/or R&D for self-service over the next two years. And 85% plan the same for passenger mobile services; the figure for airlines is 90%.
Q: And how is SITA enabling the seamless journey?
BD: One way is through our collaborative approach, at every step: working proactively alongside airlines and airports, as well as governments, ground handlers, air traffic control bodies and others. This puts us in a position to develop, implement, and trial technologies that will take us towards a ‘walkthrough’ experience – through self-service check-in, bag-drop and border control, to boarding and onboard connectivity.
For example, our self-service technology and Airport Management Solution at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, helped to bring about a three-fold fall in check-in to boarding time, as well as cost reductions. We reduced the number of mishandled bags by 10-20% for the Airport Authority of India, and at Melbourne Airport, our automated self-service bag-drop units mean the ‘tag and drop’ bag process now takes passengers an average of only 30 seconds.
We are changing the onboard experience too. SITAONAIR’s in-flight Wi-Fi won the ‘Best Personalization Award Apex’ enabling over 32,000 internet sessions a day (Emirates). And over 20 million passengers used its GSM onboard connectivity service to make mobile phone calls and send texts from over 550 aircraft in 2017.
Q: What about the least automated areas?
BD: Biometric identity management technology will make a transformational impact on the passport, boarding and security stages of the journey. SITA is a leader in this area and again we work with various players to introduce biometric self-service. This is giving passengers control across the journey, but it also lets teams at the airport spend time focusing on those passengers who need help.
We have seen the positive results. At Australia’s Brisbane Airport, self-service check-in and automated boarding gates use biometric facial recognition. We provided this using SITA Smart Path, which enables passengers to use their biometric for the end-to-end process from check-in all the way to boarding. We improved both security and the efficiency of passenger processing for Brisbane.
In a world-first, JetBlue and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency successfully trialed SITA’s biometric technology in place of the traditional boarding pass and ID check. Called ‘board in a snap’, it is based on one quick photo and offers a paperless and device-less self-boarding process that takes just a few seconds.
The trial, which proved very popular with travelers, points the way forward for air travel. A similar trial with British Airways for flights from Orlando in Florida, US to London Gatwick resulted in about 240 passengers being boarded on international flights in just 10 minutes.
These are early days, but we can look forward to a time when id management technologies enable us to walk non-stop through the airport using our biometric to identify ourselves at each step. Biometric standards and common approaches will be vital for global adoption and consistency. SITA will remain at the forefront of bringing these innovations to our industry.
Q: How is technology impacting the journey for bags?
BD: Considerably. A bag has an average of 10 changes of custody along its journey. About 23 million bags are lost in a year, making for very dissatisfied customers and an industry cost of US$ 2.3bn in 2017. Resolving the baggage issue is a perfect example of how our focus on collaboration, operational excellence and the seamless passenger journey comes together to deliver for all stakeholders.
In collaboration with IATA, for example, we are a leader in addressing the requirements of Resolution 753, providing bag tracking data at check-in, aircraft loading, transfer and arrival. That data can be shared across all stakeholders – allowing greater operational effectiveness by reducing mishandling costs and driving on-time performance.
Passengers can be sent data telling them where their bag is at any point. So it makes the journey more seamless. Passengers are more relaxed or, if there is a mishandling, they will be able to see at a glance what is being done to resolve the issue.
Q: With so much change ahead, are you optimistic about the industry’s future?
BD: Of course. Air transport has constantly evolved and changed. The story of SITA over the years has been the same, as it is our job to meet the industry’s IT needs. But I believe that the changes we have seen in our industry over past years are nothing compared to the changes before us.
We are only just touching the surface of what many new technologies may be able to deliver, although based on innovations coming through, we can begin to see how air transport is going to evolve. SITA will continue to be at the heart of that evolution, jointly exploring technologies that will make the difference. I believe we are ideally placed to realize our vision of ‘Easy air travel every step of the way’.
1) Founded in February 1949 by 11 airlines, SITA’s primary aim was to bring together existing industry communications facilities so that all airlines could take advantage of the cost efﬁciencies of a shared infrastructure. Those airlines were: Air France, KLM, Sabena, Swissair, TWA, British European Airways Corporation (BEAC), British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), and British South American Airways (BSAA), Swedish A.G.Aerotransport, Danish Det Danske Luftfartselskab A/S and Norwegian Det Norske Luftfartselskap.