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The air transport industry is complex. Many players need to collaborate to make processes work. A long-haul flight, for example, typically takes 90 to 120 minutes to turn around and involves a minimum of 20 people on the ground. The digitalization of processes can help improve operations through effective collaboration and lead to a better passenger experience.

Collaboration goes hand in hand with achieving operational excellence

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the industry’s digital shift. Some of SITA’s customers believe they have achieved three years of digitalization in one year. Tomorrow’s travel will be a healthy, frictionless, and personalized journey. It will be driven by identity and biometric technologies, combined with mobile applications, data, artificial intelligence, digital cabins, and more. Reliable services with efficient operations and smart, collaborative IT are vital to the industry’s future as it digitalizes its processes. The focus must be on collaboration and operational excellence. The seamless journey and operational efficiencies will build on digital platforms – SDN (software-defined networking), APIs (application programming interfaces), and the cloud. These technologies meet the industry’s need for cost-efficient and agile operations now while safeguarding existing capital investment.

Facilitating industry collaboration is about bringing the industry’s players together because we all rely on each other in the travel chain. By working together, we can achieve more to smooth out processes and share approaches. Collaboration goes hand in hand with achieving operational excellence for airlines, aircraft, airports, and other players.

One area with untapped potential is the real-time collaboration between teams in the air and on the ground. Today, the information flow between an aircraft approaching an airport, the operation control center (OCC), the ramp, gate, and maintenance control is not optimal. Processes are complex and time-critical. The multiple stakeholders on the ground often work in organizational silos at different airport locations and, in the case of dispatchers, sometimes even from home. While the flight crew and OCC communicate via datalink, the teams on the ground rely on SMS, e-mails, chat applications, and phone calls to get themselves organized. The convoluted communication across different channels often means that information does not get to the right people fast, leading to operational inefficiencies and stress for everyone involved.

Here are six ways how a single, integrated platform can help airline and airport teams communicate and collaborate effectively:

Air-to-ground communication

Accurate fuel management

Thanks to better than expected weather and strong tailwinds, a flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles has used less fuel than planned. As the plane approaches the US west coast, the pilot notifies the aircraft fueler Liam at LAX that less fuel will be required for the upcoming refueling. The heads-up via cockpit MCDU (Multifunction Control Display Unit) can help prevent the next flight from carrying unnecessary fuel and excess weight. It optimizes the refueling process, leading to more sustainable fuel usage and reduced costs for the airline. In a situation where more fuel was used than planned, the pilot can, of course, notify the fueler that more fuel is required. In both situations, advanced communication reduces the refueling and aircraft turnaround time.

Weather diversion

A pilot on approach to Saint John Airport on Canada’s east coast asks dispatcher Stephanie for permission to divert to Fredericton International Airport because of freezing rain at the arrival airport and low fuel. Seeing that conditions are also rapidly deteriorating at Fredericton, Stephanie advises the pilot to land at Bangor International Airport instead. Now that it is clear that the plane will divert to another airport, all ground teams are notified simultaneously so that they can take immediate action. The crew manager can determine if an emergency crew is needed, maintenance can check options at the diversion airport, and operations can assess the impact on flight schedules. No stakeholder is left out of the loop, and one notification triggers all processes to deal with the logistical challenges of the plane’s diversion.

Passenger medical emergency

A passenger on a flight from London to Dubai feels unwell shortly after take-off and then faints. The cabin crew immediately attend to the passenger, who regains conscience after a few minutes. The cabin manager and pilot decide that a return to the airport is not necessary. Via MCDU, the co-pilot then asks gate agent Ahmad in Dubai to have a medical professional stand by at the arrival gate for a potential check-up of the passenger.

Ground-to-air communication

Late connecting passenger

Johanna, a gate manager in Miami, informs the OCC via mobile application that three passengers aboard an approaching aircraft will have to quickly disembark if they are not to miss their connecting flight to Sao Paulo. Johanna provides the passengers’ seat numbers and specifies that these passengers should be brought to the front of the aircraft after landing, where they will get express connection cards from the arrival agent waiting by the aircraft door. Thanks to an IP connection in the plane, the cabin manager can also view this message on the crew device and prepare the passengers for priority disembarkation. The cabin manager then lets Johanna know directly that the passengers are all set. The passengers will make their connections.

Gate assignment update

Ramp supervisor Kevin is authorized to send ACARS messages and uses his mobile application to inform the pilot about the assigned gate at JFK, which has changed since the plane departed. The cockpit crew can prepare accordingly before descending to New York. At the same time, the ground teams are also informed about the newly assigned gate. They can immediately reorganize the logistics, such as making sure that the fueler and passenger assistance will be ready in the right place.

In-flight entertainment (IFE) issue

The entertainment system of a transatlantic flight has just stopped working. In-flight entertainment (IFE) specialist and cabin technician Vernon, sitting in front of his computer in Montreal, sends a message to the pilot, explaining that there are network problems and that the issue should be resolved within 15 minutes. The pilot acknowledges the message on the MCDU and then apologizes to the passengers for the inconvenience, reassuring them that the system will be up again in a matter of minutes.

In all the above scenarios, the (co-)pilot interface is the MCDU because most of the aircraft operating in the world today do not have in-flight internet connectivity in the cockpit. However, we believe around 15-20% of the world’s commercial aircraft already have connected cockpits, and that number is growing. Increased internet connectivity in the cockpit will mean that enhanced communication and collaboration will be possible and more commonplace across mobile applications that pilots use during flight. Therefore, over time, the MCDU will serve more as a backup interface.

Airlines can turn around aircraft, and airports free up gates faster

There are many more scenarios where an integrated communication platform can greatly facilitate real-time collaboration between airline and airport teams. Such a platform allows airlines to maximize the use of available resources around the operation of flights. Pilots are apprised of pertinent changes coming from the ground. The ramp receives advance notice of disruptions and can adjust accordingly. OCCs are more aware of the communications between the pilot and teams on the ground. Overall, such a platform improves collaboration before, during, and after a flight, mitigating operational variances and disruptions, lessening operational stress, and reducing fuel usage. Airlines can turn around aircraft, and airports free up gates faster. The greater efficiency has a hugely positive impact on their bottom lines. Passengers benefit because information relevant to them is more readily available. Issues are resolved more quickly and satisfactorily, contributing to a better travel experience in general.

The collaborative approach is part of SITA’s history – and it will shape the industry’s future

Industry collaboration and sharing were the founding principles of SITA, and they remain a key part of our business. The platforms and applications we have in place for the industry are built for collaboration. They enable communication: globally, efficiently, cost-effectively. They keep the industry moving. So it is also telling that SITA developed its new collaboration platform, ‘Mission Control’, together with Microsoft. ‘Mission Control’ integrates seamlessly with the Microsoft Teams platform, part of Microsoft’s Office365 suite. By leveraging current Microsoft infrastructure without the need for any ‘extras’ to support a separate application, ‘Mission Control’ is easy for airlines to deploy, access, and use via mobile phones, laptops, and tablets.

Our airline founders put into place shared infrastructure so that that planes could land in airports around the world. This was already a brilliant and far-sighted thing to do in the 1940s – long before the internet and the concept of shared technologies and assets came about.

Collaboration is in our DNA, and it will shape the future of the industry.

Learn more about Mission Control

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