SITA CEO: Airlines & Airports Will Adapt Technologies To COVID Needs

Credit: SITA

Airlines, airports and governments were tapping new technologies before the pandemic crisis to maximize the use of airport space as air traffic boomed. Now, airport space has become a priority in a new way, SITA CEO Barbara Dalibard says.

“One of the key topics in 2019 was how you manage bigger crowds at the airport with the same space,” Dalibard said in an exclusive interview with ATW. “Now this question is still very valid, but differently.”

Part of the air transport industry’s COVID-19 response involves using self-service technologies at the airport and artificial intelligence to manage crowds. “Basically, it’s the same technology [as before],” Dalibard said.

As an air transport communications and information technology organization, SITA went into the crisis in “good shape,” but began to feel the impact of COVID-19 early, in January when it impacted China and spread through Asia.

“A large part of our business is driven by volume: volume in baggage, volume in passengers and volume in messages between different industry partners,” Dalibard said. “We are very much impacted by this.”

With the industry at a standstill, these variable revenues, which normally account for 40% of SITA’s turnover, also came to a halt. In response, SITA rolled out a cost-cutting program, but Dalibard is working to avoid redundancies.

“We will have less work, so we need to adjust our cost base, but you can be a little bit creative,” she said.

Projects make up the majority of SITA’s revenue and the company’s new orders by value for January-May 2020 were roughly in line with those of 2019.

“We have been able to mitigate the risk, which is good news, because we are owned by the airlines. They want to make sure that we can survive without their support; they have other topics to address,” Dalibard said.

For the time being, she does not see airlines selling their stakes in SITA, which has some 400 air transport owner members.

A SITA rollout was underway at Seoul Incheon Airport when the crisis hit.

“We had to learn to implement differently,” Dalibard said. “We were absolutely on time, but through very different means of working together.”

The crisis escalated and, within a week, SITA moved staff at two major operation centers in Singapore and Montreal to home working. SITA then rolled out remote working setups for its customers, covering functions like call centers.

“We have been able to invent new ways of working that are very efficient,” Dalibard said.

Companies are now looking to the future, she noted. Some SITA customers delayed or renegotiated their contracts, including government-funded new airport builds. However, others are prioritizing technology investments, particularly around self-service, AI and biometric identity. As digitalization grows, Dalibard is also seeing greater demand for cybersecurity.

“These kinds of projects, they want to accelerate, while some other projects that were ‘nice to have’ they will postpone,” she said.

Among other trends emerging from the pandemic, Dalibard sees a shift toward greater standardization.

“We were in a world where things were very much customized. Every customer was different, asking for something special, to be different,” she said.

However, with the industry under greater cost pressures, the appetite for bespoke solutions is dropping. “They will have less money; they will have to make some compromises,” she said.

Greater backend commonality, via application programming interfaces (API) could be one such compromise. For example, SITA’s touchless-journey product, called SITA Flex, where passengers use their mobile phones as a remote control while traveling through the airport, is based on standardized APIs. The means an airline can customize what the customer sees on their phone while using a standardized background architecture. SITA Flex is active at San Francisco International Airport. Passengers can check in at a kiosk using their own mobile phone without touching the kiosk screen.

At the peak of the crisis, companies were focused on survival, but Dalibard is seeing a shift toward greater cooperation. Avoiding a fragmented patchwork of border-entry and data requirements has now become a focus for the industry.

“I think the sense of urgency will help,” she said. “When you look at the new normal, it’s all about exchange of data and cooperation. People will have to cooperate. If everybody's doing it a different way, it takes longer to implement and it will be more costly.”

Dalibard gave the example of health passports and supports the idea of passengers owning their verified biometric digital identity using blockchain technology.

SITA is working on its 2021 product portfolio, focusing on contactless technologies that will be most sought after in the post-COVID world.

“It's a question of acceleration,” Dalibard said. “It’s a little bit different, but the basics are the same. The question is really to prioritize all our means towards the products that were already there, or were in preparation, that answer this need.”

Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.