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Enabling a flexible, digital tomorrow for the air transport industry

Martin Smillie, Senior Vice President at SITA Communications and Data Exchange (CDE), explains that the digital transformation of the air transport industry relies significantly on SITA's essential connectivity and data backbone. This includes network services, operational messaging offerings, and value-added services.

What is it about the air transport industry that you find so exciting?

I’m motivated by change and challenge, and I love technology. Fortunately, the air transport industry has all those ingredients. I like the fact that, from a technology perspective, the air transport industry is always trying to innovate to optimize operations, while constantly improving the customer experience and helping airlines and airports to thrive. I find it particularly thrilling to leverage cutting-edge technology to facilitate and drive the transformation of our airline and airport customers.

How responsive is the air transport industry to the imperative of digital transformation?

The industry widely acknowledges the importance of utilizing digital technologies to enhance operational efficiency, optimize profitability, and enhance the traveler experience. So, there is an emphasis on increased digitalization throughout various aspects of the business, whether in the realm of airlines or airports.

In embracing digital transformation, customers move at different paces, ranging from a more cautious approach to really embracing innovation. The majority fall within the middle of the spectrum, striking a balance between conservatism and innovation. Recognizing this diversity, the CDE portfolio is designed to accommodate every need. Whether assisting airlines and airports in their initial stages of transformation or catering to those desiring cutting-edge solutions with ubiquitous internet access and unparalleled agility—allowing them to modify and reinstate services within hours swiftly—we ensure our offerings cater to the unique requirements of each customer.

What does SITA CDE offer?

CDE enables our valued clients' digital experiences and transformation needs. I often compare our role to the essential rails that are the mainstay of railway networks. Our underlying capabilities provide a firm foundation for the airlines, airports and borders we serve to achieve meaningful outcomes. We do so through four key portfolios: SITA Connect, delivering reliable network services; SITA Messaging, handling operational messaging needs; SITA Advanced Data Services, offering industry data via user-friendly Application Programming Interfaces (APIs); and SITA Value-Added Services, providing enhanced connectivity and security solutions for our customers.

How is CDE helping its air transport customers on this journey?

Within SITA CDE, we empower our customers to navigate their operations with speed, efficiency, and flexibility. We provide customers with the adaptability needed to quickly evolve their business practices through digital transformation while catering to the increasing demand for touchless and digitally enhanced travel experiences.

The success of our customers, and supporting their seamless journeys towards digital transformation, lie at the heart of what we do. A great example of this is the speed at which airlines are bringing on new routes and moving into new airports, while also taking other routes down or running seasonal flights to certain places. This requires agile decision-making that is well supported by solutions like SITA Connect Go, which enables the flexible bandwidth and secure cloud connectivity needed to bring new routes online quickly. SITA Connect Go is just one example of how responsive we must be to our customers’ needs and how they want to set up and run their businesses.

Can you share some other examples of the underlying digital capabilities and tools helping the industry operate?

On the networking side of things, we have introduced the latest generation of Software-Defined Networking technologies (SDN) which works across the bandwidth backbone that supports all IT services. The software enables our customers to define the level at which their applications need to perform and what applications get allocated more bandwidth. This means that if there is a contention for bandwidth then applications dealing with check-in or bag management would be prioritized over, say, customer loyalty card information to optimize the performance of the underlying applications at any time.

Currently, many of our customers seek to host applications across multiple cloud providers, so seamless and secure communication between apps on different providers is needed. Consider a scenario where a customer operates applications on both Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS). To facilitate smooth communication between these applications across diverse cloud provides, our SD-WAN technology guarantees secure and efficient connectivity. This ensures seamless interaction among applications hosted within hybrid and multi-cloud environments, enhancing the overall experience for the customer.  

In terms of our core messaging services, SITA remains a big player. We run between 35% and 45% of the traffic exchanged across the whole industry, everything from airlines talking to government agencies and ground handlers to other airlines and air traffic constituents. We continue to invest in these core messaging solutions.

Our data and analytics focus hinges on how we can help our customers make better decisions with the data that we and they produce and how to form that data into actionable insights which our customers can use to make better quality business decisions. This is the particular focus of our SITA Advanced Data Services portfolio and ranges from providing end-to-end tracking of passenger baggage to providing quality data to governments at the border. In the future, access to application performance data will enable our customers to optimize the performance of these applications, allowing their business to run at optimum.

What new innovations can we expect to see from SITA CDE?

We are continuously improving and adding to our overall offering, while building the latest generation of networking capabilities within our SITA Connect portfolio. We launched our new multi-cloud and Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) security capabilities at the end of 2023, along with adding more data and analytic capabilities across the top of our networking services.

As the appetite for mobile applications drives bandwidth usage, we are also looking to invest in private 5G wireless capabilities at the airport. Wireless 5G can support advanced technologies like virtual reality and biometrics, and can handle the real-time data needs of automated vehicles, advanced video analytics and the like, which cannot be achieved using WiFi.

For instance, we are seeing significant growth in the use of applications like Microsoft Teams which airlines are using for video conferences as well as to conduct remote diagnostics on airplane problems. Since Covid, the need for bandwidth has gone up quite dramatically and we’ve had to pivot quickly to cater for the large increase in bandwidth that airlines are requiring as they continue to use applications in a more elegant and thoughtful way.

These are all focus areas that keep our customers ahead in the digital transformation race.