Editor’s Note: This year we expanded our coverage of the technology companies that do the behind-the-scenes work of powering the technology systems of the world’s major travel companies.
We’re sitting down with a handful of industry leaders for our new Travel Tech CEO Listening Series to discover where they think the industry is heading.
SITA is a Geneva-based organization owned by the air transport industry. (It prefers to be known as SITA, not as Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques — perhaps because it knows acronyms are très chic.)
Nearly every passenger flight relies on SITA technology, which allows the company to earn about $1.7 billion a year in revenue.
About 1,000 airports use its systems for tasks such as monitoring airport operations, operating boarding gates, and processing baggage and passengers.
In recent years SITA has attempted to apply new technologies to help solve old problems.
It was behind Virgin Atlantic’s trial of having gate agents use Google Glass to check in first-class passengers more quickly, and Malaysian Airlines’ experiment in Facebook-based flight booking.
This week SITA revealed its experiments with a robotic check-in kiosk. The robot uses airport data on the most congested areas for passenger check-in and moves there to provide more self-service options, as needed.
At Brisbane Airport, the company is testing facial recognition technology as an alternative method of identification for Air New Zealand passengers checking in. (The system doesn’t yet integrate with government systems for border checkpoints, but the tests continue.)
SITA is also trialing virtual passports, which would let a traveler use a secure token (via a smartphone or wearable device) to generate a QR code, which the traveler flashes at checkpoints or kiosks throughout the airport journey (instead of showing papers).
Australia’s Outward Advance Passenger Processing program for exit checks, introduced last year, uses automated border gates. (In fact, on Monday, Australian airports discovered how dependent they are on SITA, when a third-party provider to a SITA data center failed, and immigration services had to be done manually for a few hours nationwide, causing hour-long delays.)
In March 2017, SITA invested in LocusLabs, a San Francisco-based startup that uses new technologies to create interior maps of the stores, products, and services of more than 70 airports and other venues.
SITA’s innovation drive has been accelerated by Barbara Dalibard, who became the organization’s chief executive in July 2016.
Dalibard had been CEO of SNCF Voyages, where she managed all passenger traffic for long-distance and commuter services, plus the company’s dealings with Eurostar and Thalys.
She helped to launch SNCF’s long-distance coach bus service, now called Ouibus, and its new low-fare train service, Ouigo.
Before that, she was CEO of Orange Business Services, a division of European telecom Orange.
The challenge she faces at SITA is whether she can rev up the organization’s metabolism so that it can compete with business services from rivals, such as Amadeus, Harris, and NCR.
Dalibard says that some top questions she’s asking her team are: “How will the Internet of Things, blockchain, robotics, and artificial intelligence, bring value? How fast can we go in executing our roadmap for cloud-based systems, RFID [radio-frequency identification] systems for luggage processing, etc.?”
She spoke with us by phone. We’ve edited the interview for brevity.
Skift: What’s your vision for SITA?
Dalibard: Today we are behind where we should be in leveraging data for our airline and airport customers.
We really want to invest in airport technology. A central theme is identity management of passengers.
We need to provide more business intelligence services. We are working on an innovation roadmap to strengthen this area.
We also want to retain our edge in aircraft systems by investing more in “the connected aircraft.” We already are strong in the cockpit, having about 60 percent of market share in aircraft systems.
I’m very passionate about providing good value to our customers. In other words, how can we finance the way we do stuff to provide more innovation and services to the customer at a lower cost to them?
There is a saying in French that a lean cat jumps higher. So, I think we need to be lean to provide the most efficient services at the best cost.
Overall, I want to make sure that we execute on what we say we will do. We need a closer focus on performance.
Skift: Not everything SITA does has been a success. It has rolled out Horizon, a next-generation passenger services system (PSS), in stages since 2013.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that only Air India, Cameroon Airlines, and Transaero are using it. That suggests the PSS isn’t compelling. How should we evaluate the success of that project?
Dalibard: A couple of things. More than 100 airlines and ground handlers use our legacy PSS to handle about 130 million passengers a year.
To your point, we have announced this next-gen platform, Horizon, that we have started to deploy and that is being used by, I would say, some customers, as you’ve mentioned.
The feedback we have from those customers is positive. It took us perhaps a little longer than what was expected but what we are doing is appreciated by the customer. I’d say, our DNA is bridging between the different competencies of the industry. It’s also about being aligned with our customers.
That is why SITA pushed to make sure that we are configuring this PSS business effectively.
What we want to do, and I’m doing currently with the team, is to look at ways to strengthen our position in the market, leveraging I would say our customer base and making sure that we are going to deploy a tool that is satisfying our customers.
At the end of the day, we need to strengthen this business.
Skift: Airlines and airports each want to “control the customer” by controlling passenger data. Airlines and airports have different goals, incentives, and (often) equipment. How does SITA negotiate the issues there, given that it is owned by both groups?
Dalibard: I’m very aware of the issues because, in my previous life, I was managing train stations and the rail entities and this kind of discussion on who is winning the customer is similar.
My strong belief is that you can manage some of the data in a way that you can bring value to both sides.
For instance, let’s take the example of beacon technology.
If you, as a passenger, are early at the airport and you visit an airport cafe, our beacon tech can sense your location and alert you that you need to go directly to the gate. Our app can say something like, “Okay, you only have 10 minutes before your boarding ends, and you better run to the gate.”
That’s a win-win for airports and airlines if they cooperate.
SITA is built to support our stakeholders, both airlines and airports. Given our community owners are driving collaboration, we can be a trusted partner in this area.
We have experience here. When it comes to aircraft and connectivity, we’re managing about 60 percent of the data exchange among multiple stakeholders, meaning, measuring the data exchange between distinct airlines, the airport, and government-run bodies they communicate with. We need to expand that further.
Skift: SITA has made passenger processing a high priority. What’s an example of an airport getting it right?
Dalibard: When we look at airports that are using SITA technology to provide the best passenger experience, we have many to choose from.
One that springs to mind is Miami International Airport, which uses our automated passport control kiosks. These biometric kiosks can reduce queues of arriving passengers going through passport checks by up to 40 percent.
Miami also uses the airport mobile app from SITA that harnesses beacons scattered around the airport and provides great customer service and experience.
Changi Airport in Singapore uses many of our solutions, including a unique, sophisticated passenger validation system.
In Australia, we have developed and supplied many of the systems that are in place there today, from e-visas to biometric checks.
There are other examples, of course.
Skift: Trying to get a large organization to change or re-prioritize things can be tough. How are you doing it?
Dalibard: When I’m looking at the transformation plan for SITA and its strategy, my first goal has been to make sure that we capture our customers’ issues and that we are bringing the value we can to them.
The second one is to determine how can we leverage the right technology. How will the Internet of Things, blockchain, robotics, and artificial intelligence, bring value? How fast can we go in executing our roadmap for cloud-based systems, radio-frequency identification systems, etc.?
The related point is that we need to improve on project delivery using new technology and best practices. When you implement mission-critical IT, you need to make sure that it’s robust.
Skift: You sound notably enthusiastic when you speak about the Internet of Things.
Dalibard: I am an R&D person. Everybody in my family is in R&D.
And I’m passionate about the Internet of Things. The end-to-end connected aircraft can help drive down costs and improve efficiency.
For example, we’re working on new technologies for the front of the aircraft. We’re testing partnerships with manufacturers, such as Rolls Royce, to monitor systems in a remote way that makes the airline more efficient.
Skift: How might SITA use blockchain?
Dalibard: When you look at what blockchain technology is enabling, I’d say it has meaningful potential.
It’s a work in progress for us. But we see potential applications in providing the right information across various systems.
One example is that today, you have to look at 100 sites and filter through 100 answers about where is the flight, when is it going to land, etc. Having one repository of information that is trusted by everybody, instead, has appeal.
Another example is about data. Blockchain could, in theory, enable airports to use biometrics without the passenger’s details being stored by the various authorities, and thus complying with local laws.
Skift: You mentioned executing on plans. How are you going to help sharpen the focus on performance?
Dalibard: Execution is about a couple of things. First, we must share the vision internally.
Because at the end of the day, when you have 5,000 people, you want to make sure that everyone facing the customer understands the company’s purpose so that they can take the right decisions.
We are mid-sized, and we need to fine-tune our strategy. We could do a million things for airlines, okay? But what are the things that are meaningful?
From there, it’s about making sure that everyone in the organization knows what each one’s contribution is and how that contribution will be measured.
It’s important that we measure performance regularly. As a friend of mine was saying, you don’t lose weight if you don’t use a scale.
Dalibard: You also need to make sure that you measure the customer satisfaction and check its improvement regularly.
One example of that: We’ve started using “quality loops,” a practice that is often used in the auto industry to make sure that you capture, for instance, any customer issues, whatever they are, from day one.
The feedback data goes up the ladder to make sure that everybody at every level knows what it is that is bothering the customer and takes regular actions to resolve them.
We want feedback loops related to customer satisfaction. We are implementing this.
SITA gets high satisfaction ratings, compared with some of its competitors, as I’ve learned in my conversations with customers since I started. But I’m sure we can do better.
Skift: What’s next for cutting down on lost luggage?
Dalibard: Everybody knows luggage tracking is an anxiety for passengers. We’re all working on it in our industry.
Everyone’s dream is that, at the airport, the technology will enable systems to follow the luggage everywhere and provide the right information to the passenger about bag status every part of the way.
What we need, and it’s part of the question I have asked the teams here, is, of course, it’s about making sure that the technology we provide is compatible with the systems that airports and airlines already use.
I know how difficult this is. I was in charge of the passenger experience at SNCF. I’ve given a lot of thought to multi-modal and how the industry eventually needs to integrate plane connections with métro, train, bike, taxi, ferry, whatever.
When it comes to the logistics, it’s the same issue. Making sure that you don’t have 200 different systems.
If you want to track the luggage from A to Z, you need to make sure that you have cooperation. I think at SITA we are uniquely placed to push this kind of environment.
We are working with IATA [the International Air Transportation Association, or airline lobbying group] to help.
It is going in the right direction. But it will take the industry time.
Check out other articles in Skift’s Travel Tech CEO Series, including interviews with the CEOs of Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport.