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‘Indian aviation is likely to witness some key technologies’

What are the new solutions that SITA is looking at offering the Indian for airlines, airports, GDS to streamline the business?

Maneesh Jaikrishna

Since its inception in 1952, SITA has been instrumental in bringing new technology to India and it has always been SITA’s endeavour to assist the Indian aviation revolutionise its operations and touch new heights. SITA’s current and future strategies are aligned with our commitment to play a critical role in the development of the Indian aviation sector.

SITA has introduced many innovations for India’s airlines, airports and passengers. These include the first check-in systems for common use by the country’s airlines; air-ground communications; and airport management systems. Today SITA is involved in all aspects of air transport in India – from check-in to the cockpit; from boarding to baggage carousel; from airline operations to airport management; from passenger facilitation to border management.

One of our major focus areas is to help Indian airports improve their IT infrastructure by implementing world-class airport systems and allied subsystems. As a result of SITA’s focused efforts together with the airline community, a number of airports throughout India have successfully implemented this strategy. In terms of our current operations, four years ago, SITA partnered with Mumbai International Airport to showcase India’s first modern airport management system. This was a significant step for us in terms of establishing a leading presence in the India airport sector.

It was also a strong signal to the world’s airlines that India was rising to the challenge of becoming a world-class player in the air transport sector through an extensive airport modernisation programme that continues to gain momentum. Everyone travelling through Mumbai has reaped the benefits. There has been an improved performance across the whole spectrum of activity, including the more efficient allocation of resources to customer airlines such as departure gates, aircraft slots, check-in counters and baggage carousels, and state-of-the art flight information displays for the travelling public. With many greenfield airport projects in the offing, SITA is poised to play a critical role in developing and modernising these airports as an airport systems integrator.

India continues to grow in importance as a market for SITA. As the community provider, SITA offers unique opportunities to India-based carriers. While the benefits of SITA network services are widely known and appreciated, SITA also offers hosted community applications.

With technological advances taking place rapidly, what is the next big thing in store for the travel industry?

As per the recent CAPA-SITA report on Innovation and Technology, Indian aviation is likely to witness some key technologies being deployed, which are expected to have a positive impact on the businesses and operations in future. However, this will need to be supported by favourable policy and industry initiatives. There has been sufficient progress in technology at the PPP (Public-Private Partnerships) airports since 2010. Technologies for passenger experience enhancement such as self-service kiosks, information exchange via mobile and social networking along with FIDS (Flight Information Deploy System) have gained importance during the period.

At present PPP airports are planning to extend self-service kiosks for the purpose of lost baggage and transfers. In the last two years, four out of five PPP airports established a social media presence. Currently social networking is being used primarily for customer relationship handling, though further plans include promotion of services and flight updates.

Airports Authority of India (AAI) is considering investment in solutions such as virtualisation, self service kiosks, FIDS, ERP, and RFID. Additionally, AAI plans to implement Baggage Reconliation Solution (BRS) at its major airports within two years. It is also considering limited implementation of biometrics to enhance security. AAI is evaluating server virtualisation along with the deployment of CUTE at 13 airports in the first phase and 25 airports in the second phase of implementation. Airport Operation Command Centre (AOCC) is planned to be implemented at 10 airports within the next two years. Key drivers for IT implementation for airlines are obtaining operational efficiency and bringing about enhancement of customer experience coupled with cost reductions. Mobility solutions are emerging as a key IT investment area for the future with 90 per cent of respondents planning some form of implementation in the next one-two years. Virtualisation, cloud computing, BI and multiple applications of social networking are being considered actively.

Furthermore, technology implementation for cargo operations will witness the deployment of RFID and bar coding solutions. This will be supported by applications for automating processes.

Ground handling agencies saw slow implementation of technology, on the back of rising competition impacting their bottom line. However, technological implementation has increased due to the privatisation of major airports. Automation of maintenance tasking and reporting systems has been implemented along with airline and airport operations systems.

Initiatives towards Border Management Solutions (BMS) have witnessed slow deployment since 2010 broadly on account of policy issues. Initiatives towards Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) systems at major international airports saw deployment towards increasing security and efficiency of border control. Solutions towards pre-screening of passengers and using PNRs for risk assessment have already been implemented. Plans outlined in 2010 for biometric systems and electronic documentation (bar coded boarding passes) in passenger processing have seen some progress but will take another three to four years to implement.

Air Traffic Management (ATM) in India has witnessed numerous technological developments since 2010. Key drivers pushing the pace of technology upgrading are rapidly increasing traffic flow and international compliance requirements. Implementation of GPS-Aided Geo-Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) by June 2013 will make India as the fourth country to have a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS). This will enhance India’s domestic ATC capabilities but will also improve the regional flow of aircraft with its wide coverage.

Has there been any change in travel sentiments by passengers lately?

Passengers nowadays prefer a smooth and seamless travel. Also there is a growing popularity of web, kiosk, and mobile check-in which has made travel easy. The 2011 SITA/Air Transport World Passenger Self-Service Survey found that the web check-in rate was higher in Mumbai than at any of the other airports included in the survey. At Mumbai, 70 per cent of passengers said they use it occasionally or frequently compared to a global average of 65 per cent. Mumbai passengers also have the highest user rates across several self-service options and the demand was high for new services, according to this survey which also found that the mobile phone is now an integral part of the passenger experience in India.

India is upgrading its existing airports as well as developing new ones. Are Indian airports heading in the right direction in regards to adopting and implementing right IT solutions?

Civil aviation in India is now entering a new phase of development after two decades during which the sector has witnessed both stagnation and unprecedented growth. The industry has experienced some natural growing pains, but numerous lessons have been learned and are being acted upon.

Despite the recent growth, less than two per cent of Indians travel by air in any given year, highlighting that we have barely arrived at the threshold of the growth potential of Indian aviation. India has 130 designated airports, of which 80 have scheduled services. It is essential that airport planning and infrastructure development supports safe, functional, capacity balanced and user-friendly airports. Over the next 10 years, the government has planned to invest US$ 30 billion to develop Indian airports.

The CAPA – SITA report on Innovation and Technology estimates that by 2020 domestic traffic will reach 180 million passengers per annum and international traffic will exceed 90 million. Airport infrastructure is critical for supporting this growth. Congestion at airports has resulted in significantly increased costs for Indian carriers. The airport modernisation programme that is underway is certainly delivering improvements. In fact, in recent years, IT has gone well beyond its traditional role as an infrastructure cost to become a strategic tool that can help both airlines and airports to reduce their operational costs.

PPP airports witnessed investments across three broad categories over the last couple of years covering enhancement of the passenger experience and facilitation, improving airport operations and strengthening IT infrastructure. Technologies for passenger experience enhancement such as self-service kiosks, information exchange via mobile and social networking along with FIDS have gained importance during the period.

All PPP airports have Common User Terminal Emulation (CUTE) deployed; while business intelligence gained management’s attention. Solutions such as baggage reconciliation (BRS), RFID, biometric identification solutions and handhelds for internal communication attracted attention. In terms of IT infrastructure, airports looked at implementing virtualisation and ERP solutions.

Passenger facilitation technologies saw increased roll-out of self-service functionality and its acceptance by passengers. Kiosk check-in has been the major focus area and saw widespread implementation at PPP airports. Moreover, most airports implemented FIDS systems and are also planning to automate the public announcement system to reduce noise.

Mobility solutions are believed to play a critical role among airport operators, but dependencies on other stakeholders such as security institutions are posing a hindrance in implementation and hence the priority allocated to mobility is declining when it should in fact be the opposite.

Indian airports could consequently be left behind. The adoption of RFID has been slow in India even for the sole purpose of baggage recovery, whereas other markets are already expanding deployment to redesign check-in, cargo handling, asset management and even passenger management.