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Imagining the future through the eyes of the air transport industry

Elie El Khoury, Director Product Management: SITA Value-Added Services, explains that the modern airport environment requires secure, flexible, and resilient infrastructure that can handle large volumes of passengers, especially during peak travel season. SITA Value-Added Services solutions enable a personalized service for every passenger, thereby taking the travel experience to the next level while optimizing ground operations, ensuring business continuity, and enhancing safety.

What excites you about the aviation industry?

I have been with SITA for 15 years, during which I’ve held positions in pre-sales, business development, sales, and people management. I am now leading a portfolio. I am constantly motivated by the positive impact SITA makes on the aviation and travel industry thanks to the portfolio of products we design for airlines and airports.

The air transport industry is a dynamic world shaped by technology, where even the sky is no longer the limit, and that still amazes me. Being able to help all the different actors – from pilots and crew to ground handlers, agents, and IT people – to do their jobs more efficiently is extremely satisfying, as is helping passengers enjoy their trip by minimizing delays and reducing the impact of disruptions.

On a personal level, traveling and visiting new countries allows me to feed my curiosity for cultures and history, as well as my enjoyment of nature, meeting people from around the world, and connecting with family and friends.

Can you tell us more about the SITA Value-Added Services portfolio?

The SITA Value-Added Services is a large, wide-ranging portfolio that falls under the SITA Communications & Data Exchange umbrella. This portfolio is never static, so I am always learning in this role.

Our solution line encompasses a variety of infrastructure offerings, such as cybersecurity, wireless, satellite, and mobile products. These solutions provide the secure, and reliable infrastructure our clients need to reduce operational downtime in airports and town offices, while connecting to the cloud. We are also increasing mobility by expanding passenger processing to new areas inside or outside the airport, like parking lots, hotels, and resorts for check-in or baggage drop, connecting next-generation aircraft, and better managing disruptions.

With our campus network local area network (LAN), WiFi and 5G solutions, airlines and airports can make use of state-of-the-art technologies like augmented reality, smart robots, and advanced video analytics, to improve and enhance the passenger experience. By undergoing a transformative journey to a cutting-edge, high-bandwidth, secure, and resilient LAN, our clients can leverage a large amount of data with next-generation access points and switches, thereby enabling better management of power consumption, automating operations by getting rid of endless paperwork procedures, and connecting autonomous vehicles and drones for inspection over a private 5G network, as well as facilitating the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI).

How would you describe the key challenges facing airports around the world?

With the increasing number of passengers, flights, and destinations served, airlines and airports struggle to keep pace and guarantee passengers a touchless, self-service, zero-hassle travel journey. At the same time, the air transport industry is facing significant challenges around infrastructure assets and outdated hardware, as well as old applications. Our clients are under increased pressure to operate in a more sustainable manner while coming to grips with digital transformation and the rising threat of cybersecurity breaches. All this makes the airport environment increasingly complex to manage and operate.

How can 5G support and enhance the airport environment?

5G is the new generation of mobile internet offering faster speeds, more capacity, lower network latency, and higher efficiency. In an airport environment, delivering business-critical applications over a dedicated 5G private network will have a significant impact on ensuring operational reliability and, at the same, benefit from mobility on the airside and landside. This rollout, which we term ‘cutting the cable’ in the departure terminal, will enable wireless connections for passenger processing assets like check-in kiosks, agent workstations, self-bag drop, security and boarding gates, tablets, but also screens, and cameras, reducing fiber optic usage. As a result, 5G can help to expand operations to new areas of an airport, less crowded, which has advantages not only for mobility but also for social distancing.

In addition, by enhancing wireless coverage on the airside, taxiway, ramp, and apron areas, 5G can help to reduce the turnaround time of the aircraft, increase automation, and enhance the safety of flight departure/arrival on the runway.

We are currently working with a major US airline to supply 5G to one of its airports to enable real-time aircraft ground operations. Using cameras at the gates and advanced video analytics, the airline will be able to monitor and analyze the aircraft turnaround time from refueling to cargo and baggage unloading/loading, catering, and pushing the plane back for the taxi. This optimization of “below the wing” operations helps to reduce costs and increase airline punctuality.

How can SITA support airlines and airports in enhancing the reliability of their operations?

Infrastructure business continuity remains one of the top priorities on the Chief Technology / Information Officer’s agenda to mitigate serious disruptions, avoid blackouts, and recover from incidents faster.

We are designing and developing our products considering the redundancy and diversity of our mobile and Voice over IP (VoIP) telecommunications partners, reducing the operations downtime to zero and allowing quicker recovery by roaming between different providers for mobile SIM or sip trunk connectivity. The approach reduces the impact of any failure on the contact center voice calls, and the pilot/crew/aircraft/scanners connectivity.

To mitigate potential service disruption risks due to local wired network or internet failures, we also provide a robust contingency solution that leverages low-orbit satellite connectivity and mobile SIM cards, complemented by portable mobile hotspot “MiFi” gateways. This backup system ensures seamless connectivity, acting as a reliable alternative to terrestrial internet service providers and LAN services.

On cybersecurity, we ensure all measures are taken in terms of security best practices, network segmentation, endpoint protection, cloud secure access, regular assessment of the infrastructure assets, and penetration testing to mitigate any attack and avoid breaches.

How does the value-added services portfolio enhance the passenger experience?

SITA offers end-to-end managed passenger communications solutions to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. Our call collection service, for instance, allows passengers to reach the airline contact center from any country while abroad by enabling PSTN (public switched telephone network) and toll-free numbers worldwide over SIP. In addition to facilitating this essential communication channel, our platform can notify passengers about their luggage status, and provide agent-assisted support if needed.   

Our solutions also allow passengers to communicate virtually with an airline representative during check-in and bag drop by enabling video over the self-service kiosk, thereby reducing the need for physical interactions. While onboard the plane, our mobile SIM service ensures airline crew tablets are connected, so they can continue to provide a personalized service to passengers.