|Where technology can take us: An interview with SITA CEO.|
Sunday, 24th February 2013
Source : SITA
A record crowd at SITA's Air Transport IT Summit underlined the conviction that technology has a much bigger role to play in air travel.
We sat down with SITA CEO, Francesco Violante (right), to get his take on where technology can help the industry and what tomorrow's air travelers can look forward to.
Is there a strong appetite for technology investment in the current economic environment?
Many airlines and airports know that the sources of their competitive advantage are more and more connected to technology. I think that is something that came over clearly from the speakers at the IT Summit. And despite the downturn there are areas of the world where the industry is growing and the fundamentals are good.
The Middle East, for example, is seeing double digit passenger growth, while much of the Asian market is still profitable. Brazil and India are also doing well. This is what we're seeing in our own figures with customers in industry hotspots still making technology investment, particularly in areas where there's a clear route to lowering costs and increasing efficiency.
Given all the trends discussed at the IT Summit, which were the big three for you?
For me, mobility, cloud services and business intelligence (BI) stood out. The first two are consumer driven trends. Together they're generating a large amount of new data points, which opens BI by providing an unprecedented opportunity to extract useful information by analyzing and interrogating that data. This should radically improve the performance of the industry through better decision making and insight.
Mobility is all pervasive now in the consumer world. Where do you see the main impacts for air travel?
Nearly every passenger carries with them a mobile phone when they travel and increasingly that phone is a smartphone loaded with travel apps. This brings benefits on almost every level - self-service, customer service, sales and operations - so we're seeing airlines in particular prioritizing IT investment in this area.
Ticketing and check-in are already widely available via a passenger's mobile phone. But there is a lot more to come. For example, there are a number of projects underway using mobile devices with sensor technologies like Bluetooth and Near Field Communications (NFC).
Bluetooth is being used for location sensing of passengers to determine queue lengths at checkpoints. This is something we are working on with the Transportation Security Administration. NFC will allow airlines and airport systems to exchange information automatically with a passenger's mobile phone at prescribed points in the airport journey.
This could be for access to an airport lounge or for receiving flight information rather than searching for the nearest flight information monitor. Eventually the phone will allow the passenger seamless movement by being used for both biometric identity verification at checkpoints and access through the gate to board the plane.
Mobile brings big savings for the industry. For one thing the hardware for check-in will be the responsibility of the passenger not the airline or airport. A passenger's mobile phone is their responsibility to fix it, so this is one less headache and cost for the airlines.
The second trend is cloud. What does it mean for our industry?
Cloud technologies will give the industry much greater speed and flexibility in deploying IT to run its operations. The traditional IT systems that the industry has depended on are struggling to cope with the increased demand on them from digital technologies.
For example, if airlines want to give a unified experience to their customers globally - whether it's via their mobile phone, on the airline website, at a kiosk, or face-to-face with an agent - it requires a lot of synchronization of data and applications over a wide geographical area in real-time.
And the agents will not necessarily be standing behind a desk. More and more they will be using handheld devices to deal with passengers so they need the ability to move from using their desktop PC to a tablet or handheld without re-signing into applications.
So managing the IT environment is going to get far more complex, with more end-user devices, more data and more applications to handle. The way to manage all this complexity effectively across a route network will be through a cloud based approach, of this I am certain.
It will also enable faster and more efficient deployment of new services and faster upgrades of existing services. For example, an airline will no longer need to make site visits to upgrade kiosk software at remote airport locations. It will be done centrally with the kiosk screen in essence being just a web browser displaying web pages of the services. So every passenger who uses a kiosk anywhere in the world is seeing exactly the same screens, with access to the same functionality.
What improvements can business intelligence bring and what can we expect as passengers?
Increased technology use, particularly mobility and wireless, are making our industry much more information-driven. This will give us a better insight into the dependencies and linkages in the industry's operations. Big data techniques are creating new data sets and cloud infrastructure provides the extra processing power to turn all that data into actionable information at a cost that brings it into the reach of normal businesses. This should lead to improved decision making and efficiency.
The technologies high on the list to achieve this are Collaborative Decision Making, along with techniques for tracking and location sensing passengers, baggage, and equipment used in turning aircraft around. The aim is to bring the aircraft and the passengers for that flight, together at the gate, at the optimal time. It sounds simple, but it's a really powerful concept that needs airport systems to be much more integrated. This is a major thrust for the industry at the moment.
For example, we worked with Copenhagen Airport to use Wi-Fi signals from mobile phones to get a real-time picture of passengers as they pass through the airport. This information can be used to improve the flow of passengers or improve the efficiency at bottlenecks such as checkpoints. It can also be relayed to the passengers through mobile apps to alert them to services close by or help them find their gate.
Airlines are also looking at better business intelligence to get a more complete view of their customer. This will improve personalization and loyalty, as well as ancillary revenues. We already see online retailers such as Amazon using the prior purchasing behavior to make recommendations Airlines want to follow this path. And of course with most passengers carrying a mobile device, there's now the possibility to engage with them throughout the journey.
You have not mentioned social networks, which are creating a huge buzz in every industry at the moment. Where do you see them fitting in?
Social networks provide another way for the industry to connect to its customer base and so we are seeing a lot of activity within the industry to understand how to get the most from this relatively new medium. In fact our latest IT Trends Survey shows that 90% of airlines intend to promote their services using social media in the next few years.
We're already starting to see some leaders appear and use social media to engage with customers across a whole range of touch points from sales to marketing to customer service, and even crisis management as the 2010 European volcanic ash shutdown exemplified.
Today, I would say the immediacy of social media is driving improvements to customer service and it can be provided at a lower cost than some other channels, such as call centers. As social media strategies mature and become more sophisticated, it is going to evolve into an important - if not the most important - way for the industry to talk to its next generation of customers.
Some of the speakers at the IT Summit were customers of SITA. What did you draw from their presentations?
Something that really came across from the presentations was this great desire to work together, to make the industry perform better. I think it shows there is a shared mindset across the industry and a much greater recognition that the next big leaps in operational efficiency will be achieved by working together.
If we want to optimize the airport environment, then a lot of the source data is owned by different entities at the airport. No one has the overall picture. So there needs to be good collaboration in order to put the puzzle together. The key is sharing information to create a single view from which everyone can take feeds to generate the information they need. I believe we at SITA can help facilitate this process. We have a cross industry membership base, so we are in a good position to not only bring the different technologies to work together but also bring the different parties - the data owners - together to develop a common approach.
So I captured this as a key point and the second point that was very clear was that business changes are happening now at a very fast pace, so projects need to have a positive return on investment in a shorter period of time - a faster payback.
I think the new technologies, such as mobile and cloud, can really make a difference here. If you look at the investments we are making in cloud infrastructure, for example, it allows you to turn IT resources on and off, quickly and easily, and just pay for what you use, so projects can be completed in less time and with less risk than was previously the case.
To wrap up, what do you see as SITA's role within the industry of the future?
Technology can help lead the way for the industry. So I think a big part of our role is anticipating where the industry is going and ensuring that the capabilities are in place when they are needed. Our cloud infrastructure is a good example of how we are doing this in practice.
We're also in a great position to serve as a change agent for the industry. SITA is at the center of much of the industry's data flows so we can integrate IT systems and share data to bring about efficiencies and new services.
Very few organizations in the world can do something like that for our industry. Having the vision to connect the dots and the ability to deliver the solution is something that we bring to the industry table.
The other thing I think is important for us is building on the relationships we have across the industry - spanning all sectors, including government entities such as border management. We can bring people together to develop common blueprints for business processes and foster collaboration to extract the greater scale and efficiency benefits of technology at the industry level rather than the individual level.
SITA is the world's leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology (IT). We work closely with every sector of the air transport community, innovating, developing and managing business solutions over the world's most extensive network - one that forms the "communication backbone" of the global air transport industry.