Interview: Hani El Assaad – SITA (Intl Society of Telecommunications and Aeronautics) RVP

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Photo - Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA)

Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA) was founded in 1949 by eleven airlines: Air France, KLM, Sabena, Swissair, TWA, British European Airways Corporation (BEAC), British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), British South American Airways (BSAA), Swedish A.G.Aerotransport, Danish Det Danske Luftfartselskab A/S and Noweigan Det Norske Luftfartselskap. It is a pioneer in international telecommunications for the air transport industry and has continued to operate at the forefront of technology.

SITA aims to bring together airlines’ existing air transport communications facilities and allows organisations and the wider industry to take advantage of shared-infrastructure cost efficiencies.

SITA presently serves over 550 members worldwide, including more than 500 airlines, airports, aerospace companies, air freight organisations and governments.

Arabian Gazette’s Suneethi Raja spoke to Hani El-Assaad – SITA’s Regional Vice President, Sales and Relationship Management, Middle East – to find out more about the advancement of airport information technology and SITA’s future ventures.

Mr. El Assaad, please tell us a bit about your connection with SITA.

I joined SITA in 1995 as Sales Manager for the Middle East, as I have a strong background in sales, business finance and marketing. I have a Masters degree in economics from St. Joseph University, Beirut and an MBA from Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), Montreal. I am currently based in Beirut, Lebanon, and working as the regional vice president of SITA.

SITA is a pioneer in airport Information Technology (IT) systems automation such as self-check-in kiosks, airport IT system automation. The Airport IT Trends Survey 2011 predicts 49% of airports to increase their IT&T (IT & Telecom) spending for the year 2012. What new products and solutions are you planning to launch in the near future?

SITA is an innovator, always striving to create a seamless travel experience for all passengers. To realise this, we have our Intelligent Airport vision which leverages the convergence of three technology trends: passenger self-service, mobility and collaborative decision-making.

SITA Lab, our technology research arm, addresses the needs of the global aviation community and is in line with the rapidly changing market needs and shifts in technology, with existing services refreshed in key areas, especially those that deliver more efficiency to the industry. For example, common use platforms, mobility, airport communications, virtualization and cloud computing, and community solutions in the area of passenger facilitation, border management, and new generation aircraft communications. Development in these areas will bring benefits to operators worldwide, inclusive of those in the Middle East region.

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The adoption of e-gates is still in its infancy, with current implementation under 10%. However, airports continue to show interest in introducing e-gates. How do you see this business in the coming years?

E-gates may still be in their infancy, but they are firmly in the sights of airport’s operational management. Particularly so in Europe, where 20% of airports already have e-gates at check points and 43% more expect to have them by 2014.

In the region, examples are the UAE Airports, where self-service kiosks have been established to shorten the boarding process, while the ‘e-gate’ system has become a popular option to complete immigration. There will be further developments in the near future, with technology now available for passengers to complete the whole process without any human intervention. The cost reduction benefits as a result of these IT developments will be invaluable for airports in the Middle East and beyond.

More than 75% of airports plan to increase the number of kiosks they deploy for services such as e-gate boarding, flight transfer, common bag-drop locations, etc. Does this mean less manning at airports in the future?

Improving customer service, reducing the cost of doing business & enhancing operational efficiency are the key drivers behind the development of the Intelligent Airport vision. The new technology trends don’t necessarily mean reduction of staff but rather re-organization of those staff in order to respond better to passengers’ needs and to the continuous growth in traffic in airports.

Whatever way you look at it, there will be more jobs created by airports and airlines, while the technology is aimed at providing the industry with maximum efficiencies whilst improving customer service & experience.

About 60 % airports want to target passengers with retail promotions. What solutions does SITA offer to help airports tap into this lucrative segment?

Our [email protected] service uses the latest in geo-localization technology enabling airports to target passengers wherever they are in the airport by pushing retail promotions & offers. Some airports have invested also in mobile applications that passengers can download to their smart phones & tablets allowing those airports to deliver customized content including duty free deals based on passenger profile or time of travel.

SITA is taking the air transport industry a step closer to adopting near field communication (NFC) technology with the unveiling of a first proof-of-concept which uses the NFC chip inside smartphones. The travel industry is actually looking closely at the many possible uses of NFC. Electronic boarding passes is an especially promising area. These could be stored on the phone, allowing the passenger to board via a touch of the phone to a reader rather than the traditional paper boarding pass or a barcode on the mobile handset screen. NFC can be read more easily than the barcode on a screen, and it can still work when a phone is out of battery life or turned off.

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The survey cites that airports are likely to invest in Business Intelligence solutions for real-time visibility and planning of resources. According to you, what are the challenges for introducing real-time resource visibility and planning? (with focus on Middle East)

In short, the challenge comes from the lack of a unique and common situational awareness of available airport resources which, if managed properly, could take the airport to the next level of efficiency and customer service.

The limitations that Airports experience are related to systems and processes that have evolved independently or with minimal communication amongst the various stakeholders involved in airport operations.  This is where Collaborative decision-making (CDM) can help. It is actually about sharing operational data in real time among all stakeholders to enhance decision making while optimizing the efficiency of airport operations

IT systems need to be better integrated, real-time information needs to be shared, and communication infrastructure needs to be ubiquitous, because all stakeholders need to work together intelligently and coherently to avoid strains.

Recent focus has been on servers & storage virtualization technologies and cloud computing. How are these latest technologies helping airports remain competitive and offer newer solutions?

Over the next few years, the maturing of cloud-enabled technologies will provide a compelling value proposition for the air transport industry to divest itself from the legacy IT infrastructure that is dragging on its operational efficiency and ability to innovate.

Next generation data centres optimized with virtualization technologies will enable a different paradigm for delivering infrastructure, application platforms and software in a service oriented way. New opportunities to increase agility, lower costs and reduce the IT footprint will help airlines and airports achieve their business goals better, faster and cheaper.

There is a significant demand for Cloud computing services from the Middle East Aviation industry and we are looking to conduct two to three cloud computing pilot programmes in the MENA region. Cloud computing services can only be built on modern infrastructure, so in this aspect the region has the advantage to have, to a certain extent, advanced infrastructure.

What are some of the benefits that air travellers and airlines gain from these airport technologies and solutions?

Passengers at airports will have all the travel information they need in the palm of their hand through a mobile device/smartphone. This will reduce anxiety because they know whether or not their flights will depart on-time, and have confirmation that their bags are safely loaded on the flight. Their mobile device will direct them to the shortest path to their gate.

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