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Gus Pina is the Director of SITA Lab, the company's strategic research and development arm. Created in 2008, SITA Lab explores new technology. It drives innovations for the air transport community, working independently and in partnership with others on pilot projects in robotics, big data, AI, wearable technology, and many others.

With 25 years in the IT industry, Gus has always been passionate about transforming business processes with emerging technologies. Prior to SITA, Gus spearheaded key roles in digital transformations across FedEx, Delta Air Lines, and Macy's. We spoke to him to determine what drives SITA's innovation roadmap.

The pandemic caused chaos across the air transport industry. What was the most interesting lesson learned from the crisis? Are there any silver linings from the period?

A key lesson from the pandemic is that operations in the air transport industry can be more about exception handling than repeatable processes. During the height of the pandemic, the staff with the experience and knowledge to instinctively adapt and recover left, and most did not return. Other disruptive factors like climate change, fluctuating fuel prices, wars, natural disasters, and pilot shortages are making constant change a new normal with increasing 'black swan' events. We need to focus more energy on contingency planning and knowledge management.

The silver lining from it all is a newfound recognition that the status quo needs to be optimized to improve the resilience and agility of operations. The industry needs to invest more in IT to predict, manage and efficiently recover from disruption. This was reflected in SITA's 2022 IT Insights report, which showed the industry's IT spending is projected to continue its steady year-on-year growth trend since 2020 to support this push for digitalization, with a full 96% of airlines and 93% of airports expecting their IT spend to stay the same or increase in 2023 compared to 2022.

Also, stakeholders are collaborating more and looking for unified tools that make joint planning, situational awareness, and disruption recovery easier. So, more integrated planning and situational awareness will exist to identify problems and recover as a collective. 

What are the most critical areas for airports and airlines to invest in technology solutions as the industry recovers?

There are opportunities to address the operational issues our industry is facing. However, many solutions and new capabilities made possible by Artificial Intelligence and other new technology require a solid data foundation. With all the advancements, the industry is still immature digitally. Most airlines and airports operate with disconnected IT point solutions, and there are still blind spots or areas of poor data quality. We often see very detailed data for small portions of the passenger journey. It's like looking at a slice of the airport through a microscope and missing the bird's eye view.

Our view in the Lab is the industry needs to invest more in the fundamentals of understanding and handling the data that underpins a broader business process. We need to improve how we harvest and integrate the intelligence derived from data into operations in more actionable ways. Collaboration and sharing between multiple stakeholders across the journey are also essential to harness the data effectively.

You recently launched the SITA Meet the Megatrends report, citing cutting-edge new technologies and trends shaping the industry – which of these trends excites you the most?

I still have a romanticized future view of air travel inspired by the Jetsons era, so Urban Air Mobility and Autonomous Electric Vehicles are particularly exciting. But the unknown aspect will be how several of the trends will combine to shape the future of travel. Of course, sustainability is extremely important to keeping our industry relevant, evolving, and working in harmony with people and the planet.

Has SITA's approach to innovation changed over the last few years?

Yes. We have cultivated a more open innovation approach to innovation jointly with our customers and industry groups to try many things to relieve difficult problems in agile-lean ways. We launched a partnership platform, Launchpad, last year and redesigned our approach to innovation and idea harvesting from the ground up. Partnering with experts where we see a big opportunity, canvassing the imagination and talent of our employees across the entire organization, and drilling down into hyper-efficient models for validating ideas and nurturing them through the development cycle have been a focus for us.

Let's talk about OpenAI and ChatGPT. What do you see as the future for AI platforms like this in air transport?

The capability of ChatGPT propelled large language models and generative AI into the mainstream. There are myriad potential applications, but some initial ones that come to mind would be helping passengers plan trips and operators manage disruption and develop best practices. 

Planning a family trip using search tools is tedious in aligning the air travel, stay, and activities. With this technology, it would be possible to start with a simple question like: ‘I want to go scuba diving in the Caribbean in spring and have $8K to spend’. There can then be a back-and-forth conversation to refine the overall itinerary further.

From an airport operational perspective, this type of AI can be trained to understand standard operating procedures. So, an event like baggage mishandling can trigger instructions to staff on how to recover and infer the workflow, monitor the status of the activities, and ensure the issue is being handled to policy and completion.

Also, the technology could better connect natural language questioning options to access key data without hardwiring APIs and apps/dashboards.

What was your highlight project in 2022 and why?

The emergence of Digital Travel. It's exciting that all the pieces are finally starting to come together. The call for digital identity is not new, and we strongly support it. We are encouraged by the momentum from governments globally around digital identities, particularly as this relates to travel. In fact, we see the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) progressing swiftly towards a digital identity standard that will, in the coming years, result in the dematerialization of physical documents such as passports, visas, or health forms.

Digital identities mean we will be able to travel from anywhere to everywhere – by air, land, or sea – without needing to show our physical travel documents. As the technology underpinning these digital identities mature, the benefits are enormous.

For one, it gives the traveling public more control over what information they share and with whom. This is privacy by design.

Also, this move supports an era of digital borders where the immigration checkpoint is pushed to the point of departure. Passengers can provide all the documentation for a trip – visa, passport, and flight details – well in advance and arrive at the airport, rail station, or port ready to travel. That means a quick scan of your face or mobile phone is all that will be needed.

Travel and tourism are fundamental pillars of rebuilding economies globally. Therefore, we should make the passage of travel as easy and safe as possible. Digital identity is the cornerstone of that experience. Digital travel will also greatly ease the operational strains on airport congestion and create a smooth passenger journey.

If we can use digital identities to trust the majority of passengers, we remove them from the haystack of passengers requiring further investigation, creating a better overall passenger experience. It also makes the jobs of immigration and border agents much easier because they can focus on assessing passengers that pose some risk or require further checks to approve travel. It's a win-win in terms of reduced liability for the airlines, smoother operations for airports, and improved passenger experience.