The air transport industry has changed beyond all recognition over the past few months and will continue to do so amid the ongoing threat from COVID-19. Airports are still unusually quiet in many places and many airlines fear they may not recover their losses from seeing thousands of planes grounded.

The knock-on effect is already causing huge job losses with fears of greater future potential redundancies, including at major airlines, travel companies and ground handlers globally.

This is according to Mohamed Amin, Head of Data and APIs at SITA – information and communication technology (ICT) provider to Africa’s aviation industry – who says that while some holidaying passengers and business travellers are gradually returning to airports, many others are still unsure when they will fly again.

“It is clear that a return to normal is still very far off. In fact, the old normal will likely never return. As the entire industry reels from the fallout of Coronavirus, this once-in-a-lifetime crisis offers everyone in travel the chance to examine new opportunities for increased digital transformation, cultural change and technological innovation.”

Amin adds that much of this could well come via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). “APIs specify how software components should interact in standard ways – enabling software developers to access and process data from a wide range of sources relatively quickly and easily.

“This information is then used to provide deeper insight and reporting as it can be displayed in easy-to-read dashboards, to power smartphone apps or be analysed with artificial intelligence and machine learning to find patterns and make predictions. It also connects applications and services together to allow greater collaboration between new partners or competitors who were previously data-siloed.”

He believes that aviation has yet to take full advantage of the potential of APIs, and that the aviation industry lags behind many others such as Telecoms and Fintech. “Telecommunications and finance are more advanced than aviation when it comes to API usage. This is a massive wasted opportunity. Our industry is tremendously data-heavy but there is still a reluctance to share this information with each other, even though the industry realises the importance of this data.

“Not doing so inhibits progress, growth, and innovation and with the current crisis the industry is facing, we need that more than ever.”

With this in mind, Amin outlines ten ways in which APIs can benefit aviation and revolutionise how airports and airlines, as well as suppliers and passengers can work together to help air travel recover in a post-COVIDworld.

  1. Data from multiple sources… in an instant

APIs work like a plug-in to absorb and collate data from numerous different sources, such as real-time take-off and landing information, the length of turnaround on stand or at a gate, how long it takes passengers to board, the exact location of the luggage and much more. A dashboard then shows at a glance the full 360-degree picture of what’s going on and this can be used to offer faster insight into issues immediately as they arise, while offering automated predictions on how to improve in the future.

  1. Waiting times will be reduced

One of the biggest historical aviation complaints from passengers has always been how long they have had to wait at an airport – in security queues, for boarding or to get their baggage. APIs have the potential to dramatically reduce this by allowing everyone working across the industry to learn where the jams are, what gaps exist and how time can be saved in all touchpoints of the passenger journey. By collating data related to external providers such as hotels, taxi firms and airline lounges means that travelers can be offered new solutions to minimise disruption.

  1. Reduced costs and increased productivity

APIs distribute information instantly and seamlessly in real time meaning everyone knows what is happening alongside who, or what needs to be where. This can make airline travel far more efficient, convenient and enjoyable. It also has the potential to allow airports and airlines to save time, increase capacity and make the most of a variety of resources from staffing to ground handlers to security operators. Aviation is also exploring a number of use cases around efficiency and seamless passenger journey for consumer functions like mobile boarding passes to web services for businesses.

  1. Unparalleled industry collaboration

Many barriers exist in data sharing across the world. Different nation-states have their own compliance and data privacy rules such as GDPR in the EU. APIs harness data that is correct, up-to-date, cleaned and also harmonised with all regulations. Pulling this data from multiple sources and stakeholders will only need to be done once, embedding the API and then serving the entire industry with the results.

  1. Better decision-making and planning

APIs can give airports and airlines the tools to make better decisions, do more efficient resource planning, enable good time management and make optimal use of limited infrastructure. Better informed decision-making could prove vital at a time when the aviation industry is going through such unprecedented change. APIs can decrease processing times and help to accommodate differing levels of traffic – or at times like now, focus more limited resources and staffing into the most important areas.

  1. The next-generation of app development

Software developers are the lifeblood for the aviation industry’s future. By researching and developing new API use cases centrally within the industry, developers can be challenged to harness the data streams offered into new apps for both internal use by airports and airlines and external use by passengers and suppliers. First-hand feedback is then crucial to improving the quality of the API data, with continual work done to adapt or enhance these models so that the data flowing through them is as relevant and accurate as it can be in real time. SITA Flex for example allows airlines to introduce their own APIs onto a platform where travelers can access multiple airlines for check-in and services.

  1. An end to outdated legacy systems

Aviation currently does not possess a single framework through which data can be shared in a way that gives peace-of-mind to each participant in the process. Information is currently exchanged through SITA’s core messaging network but there is still a huge reliance on data exchange in a legacy way using Type-B messages. This is the pre-internet telex format that industry members still use and it has a lot of limitations including the small sise of a message, the types of data being transmitted and the limited set of allowed characters. APIs can help transport messaging to more modern standards.

  1. Increased reach and revenues

The issues thrown up by the current pandemic crisis has shown just how many aviation companies are able to ride out unplanned disruption. Digitalisation and shifting from being a traditional flight supplier to a digital travel provider have long been on many airline’s agendas and APIs can facilitate this process. They allow the industry to reach global customers, increase efficiency through better supplier information and ultimately allow passengers to learn from their travel habits and change them too – making their journeys and experiences more enjoyable and efficient.

  1. Artificial intelligence will drive transformation

The rise of AI and machine learning, alongside 5G networks, will give rise to the fastest and most disruptive change the aviation industry has ever seen. With 5G allowing connected data points to be placed across airports and planes – collecting and sending information through APIs – the opportunity for change has never been more present.

Reliable and accurate algorithms will go on to make smart and accurate predictions, for example by studying historic flight information for a route and detailing far in advance where delays or cancellations will occur based on weather conditions, air traffic, the availability of runway slots and more – bringing fewer errors and wastage as well as a decreased carbon footprint.

  1. Happier passengers means return business

There are already many touchpoints through which passenger data can be gleaned, starting with when they book a flight through to check-in, dropping baggage, clearing security, boarding a flight, in-flight experiences, clearing border control and claiming their baggage at a destination. This can also be taken on a few more steps in the chain to the hotel they are staying in, their transfers to and from an airport and their reasons for a stay. Currently, these are fragmented. Each stakeholder knows what is happening but is not yet joining up with the others in that chain to be in a position to share the data for the wider good of the passenger – and ultimately for each of their own businesses to ensure greater satisfaction and repeat bookings.

As travel begins to increase again after the pandemic has passed, this sort of joined-up thinking will be vital to its recovery, provided passenger data is handled securely and APIs adhere to strict privacy and ethical standards.

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