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When we work collaboratively and co-innovate, we have the potential to truly digitally transform the air transport industry – ‘to move the world together’.

That was the starting point for last month’s SITA Innovation Forum, which was reinforced during the morning’s ‘Collaborate to innovate’ panel, which brought together five IT leaders and innovators in air transport and space travel.

It was a privilege to moderate and explore the topic with industry experts of this caliber. In order to get the most out of the discussion it was important to start with the basics:  What do we mean by innovation?  At its simplest, innovation is to turn an idea into something new, that’s useful and adds value for customers, organizations and companies alike. The good news is that our panelists broadly agreed with the proposed definition.  

Mega trends that will stimulate innovation

First up on the panel was Sarwant Singh, Senior Partner and Board Member at Frost & Sullivan, who heads up its think tank working on future mega trends. We’re now in the ‘cognitive era’, said Sarwant, and the future will be all about connectivity and convergence.

The game-changing technology will be 5G, which will enable machine-to-machine communications and machine-to-infrastructure communications, improving latency and enabling autonomy. In the future, he predicted, anything that moves at the airport could be autonomous, from airside vehicles to the cars that drive you to the airport, and continue on to drop off your luggage in the baggage make up area.

Innovation is no longer a choice

Hubert Riondel, CEO of BigBlank, Air France-KLM’s start-up incubator, noted that new digital players are entering the travel value chain, customers’ expectations are changing fast and competitive advantage does not last that long. Innovation for him is something that changes the status quo and if you don’t act quickly enough, you’ll be disrupted by new start-ups.

Air France-KLM has a twin-track approach to innovation: improving what it already does and exploring new disruptive ideas. It has installed digital factories to support the internal digitization of its businesses, helping to enable an agile way of working which has become a standard for the whole company.

On the disruption side, BigBlank was launched last year to build travel start-ups from scratch, combining the strengths of the large Air France-KLM group with the nimbleness of entrepreneurs, confirming that in order to innovate they must collaborate. 

Collaboration goes a long way

Innovation at Changi Airport Group is about putting new tools or capabilities in the hands of its staff, so that they can change the lives of customers and passengers. The Changi Living Lab is the airport’s platform to collaborate with innovative companies and start-ups. For Dawen Choy, Changi’s Group Senior Vice-President, Transformation & Enterprise Development, this means creating change across the airport.

One example is Changi’s work with the SITA Lab to develop a tool using Artificial Intelligence to predict on-time flight arrivals several hours ahead. This makes a difference to manpower resourcing, planning gate operations, ground handling and immigration.

Dawen explained that a lot of what they do is based on collaboration and learning how to leverage each other’s strengths. A central innovation team of 10-15 people drives the company’s 2,000 strong workforce to innovate, and thinks about how they can also influence the other 60,000 people who work at the airport. The Lab team helped Changi’s business units recruit 19 innovation champions, and over the last year, those champions have helped the business units triple the number of projects undertaken.

Make it customer-centric

Glenn Morgan, Head of Digital at International Airlines Group (IAG), is heavily involved in the creation and activities of Hangar 51, IAG’s accelerator lab that hosts startups with solutions that will disrupt any part of the travel industry.

He views innovation as extreme customer-centricity; flipping the business model, and focusing on the customer. Every employee needs to be innovating. For example, a workshop with IAG’s airport ground teams resulted in the deployment of robotic push-back units to move aircraft across some 30 stands around London Heathrow. Glenn reported that this initiative disrupted on-time performance and has had a massive impact on net promotor scores.

Plan to innovate and innovate the plan

Will Whitehorn, former President of Virgin Galactic, who took the space tourism venture from ambition to project, observed that innovation is a business plan that changes the dynamic of a business with benefits to customers and the company.

His advice was to first work out what you’re trying to achieve; then, produce a business plan that explains to yourself and to those you want to bring with you on the journey, what the end result will be. For example, the plan and the way you approach the customer experience, through a new business plan, can be part of the innovation in its own right.

He also stressed the importance of a legislative framework, especially when innovation takes aviation into a new realm; it helps to provide structure while advancing the idea.

My own takeaways

The ‘Collaborate to innovate’ panel at this year’s SITA Innovation Forum produced a lively, informative and inspiring discussion among real innovation experts. It became obvious that there’s no innovation without collaboration; collaboration with both partners from inside and outside of the industry. 

It was also encouraging to hear that while innovation labs and activities may take on different structures and financial models, they’re all focused on transforming our industry by leveraging technology, evolving operations and business processes, and driving strategies. 

Surely this type of co-innovation and collaboration will be key to unlocking the future sustainability of the air transport industry, not to mention making the passenger journey even better!


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Graham Parker Thu, Jul 04, 2019 06:02:00 AM
This forum is a great idea and I love the idea of more collaboration across such amazing innovation labs and incubators in this travel space. For me, the key messages in your blog are the need to have extreme customer-centricity and that the co-creation of ideas and innovation is the path to get there.