Smarter collaboration is key to the future of air travel

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Ian Ryder, vice president strategy management, Air Travel Solutions, SITA, gives three examples of promising developments all centered around technology-enabled collaboration.

We all know that the air transportation industry’s complex ecosystem is built on collaboration. Without its many stakeholders working in unison, we’d simply not be able to travel and fly the way we do. Emerging technologies now promise to enable collaboration in new and increasingly effective ways.

With the plethora of systems, applications and high data volumes involved in making the journey happen, technology already underpins air travel. Whether that’s to create a more seamless journey for the passenger, or to ensure efficient interaction between industry players, technology lies at the core of our industry.

It’s estimated that at least 20 stakeholder organizations can be involved in making the journey happen. Turning around an aircraft, for example, requires close teamwork and IT systems across airport operations, aircraft operations and air traffic control. Working with them are many other stakeholders, all coordinating with crew on the aircraft, the crew handling baggage and cargo, and the teams involved in the aircraft’s replenishment, engineering and technology processes.

A growing industry, a growing IT dependence
It will be essential for technology-enabled collaboration to bring vital changes to our industry’s processes if we’re going to cope with double the volume of air travel by 2037, as well as new business models for airlines and airports and ever higher passenger expectations. Let me give you three examples of promising developments all centered around collaboration.

1. At the airport: shared awareness and coordinated action
The first is at the airport. One way we can achieve shared awareness and coordinated action among airline and airport stakeholders is through a concept called ‘digital twins.’

This is where real-time industry data harvested from sensors on the aircraft and on the ground are combined with other industry data sources to enable a digital model of the real world at the airport to be created. This holistic digital airport model is powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Across the airport, stakeholders can interact with visual representations of the model using devices appropriate to their needs, such as a HoloLens to explore the airport overall, or a wrist device for workers on the ramp.

Thanks to AI, the model can highlight what issues need addressing right now and predict what’s coming in terms of queue lengths, passenger movements, aircraft turnarounds and so on. This will enable quick and effective collaborative decision making. Digital twins could eventually become the universal interface and ‘collaboration space’ for stakeholders working together to keep the airport operating at maximum efficiency, or responding to incidents in real time.

2. For the aircraft: getting data into the right hands
Then there’s the potential for better collaboration around the ‘digital aircraft’. Of the 43,000 commercial aircraft flying in 2034, 85% will be new generation, churning out high volumes of telemetry and data that needs to be understood. Such an aircraft today might generate at least 500GB of data during a flight, but in the future, we’ll be counting in terabytes.

With the arrival of the IoT and intelligent digital devices, aircraft data will be available to feed new analytics and services. These will reduce costs, drive efficiencies, increase aircraft utilization and improve services for passengers, giving them confidence in schedules.

For original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), this growing stream of data is vital in helping them to improve the performance of their aircraft. The challenge is getting the right data to OEMs so they can create value from it. It needs to come from many different types of aircraft; it must be collected, aggregated, cleansed, and then appropriately shared.

This is the rationale behind SITAOnAir’s e-Aircraft DataHub. Focusing on data accuracy, timing and simplification, this service acts as a trusted industry data brokerage to enable better collaboration around the aircraft and its processes.

3. Data sharing: we need a single version of the truth
My third example concerns the accuracy and consistency of shared data, be it airport operational data, passenger or baggage data. The problem is, multiple versions of the truth may exist. An airline might estimate when a flight will arrive; an airport may do the same. Having determined the times separately, those times may differ. When the aircraft actually arrives, multiple parties may again register that event slightly differently. This means duplication of effort, inconsistency and inaccuracy and it impacts both operational efficiency and the quality of service provided to passengers.

As demonstrated by SITA Lab with its FlightChain project, blockchain looks set to play a critical role. Using smart contracts with blockchain, stakeholders can determine who’s allowed to update the blockchain, which enables a sharable single version of the truth. IAG provided a real-world use case, using blockchain and working with SITA to provide authoritative shared flight status information. IAG’s Harvey Tate refers to ‘many sources’ and ‘filter failure’ in determining usable information. He believes that with accuracy around flight status or flight arrival times, for example, there are valuable use cases based on that information, such as rebooking services and providing directions to passengers.

Better collaboration is the key to air travel’s future
Examples like these illustrate how better collaboration can be achieved so we can cope with industry growth. Technology will be an enabler, but we need to work together to identify and exploit the use cases that will be critical to our progress. In doing this, we must keep an eye on Gartner’s Hype Cycle, as we want to base our use cases on stable and deployable technology. And we must remember that all of the collaboration discussed here feeds off one thing – data. Collaboration is about trusted sharing of data.

A final word of advice: if you want to embark a project involving technology-enabled collaboration, work with your stakeholders, and with an experienced IT provider. Start by identifying where collaboration is critical in your organization, focus initially on areas where change is easiest and involve a small number of actively engaged stakeholders, talk to the players involved, and brainstorm how you can improve.

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