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IT Last modified on September 9, 2015

Making IT happen

The Apple Watch, robots, social media, flight tracking media and drones were all on the agenda at the Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels, writes Joe Bates.

One constant about new technology is that change and development is inevitable, and few industries appear to understand this more than aviation, which continues to innovate and embrace new IT trends.

One such example of this is Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport, which has become the first gateway in the world to introduce the Apple Watch as a tool to assist staff.

Employees now use the watches to connect to the airport’s management systems and push regular operational alerts to duty managers in a bid to ensure operations run smoothly.

“We are always looking for new technology to help enhance our operations, and ultimately better serve our passengers,” says the airport’s vice president for information technology, Marc-André Bédard.

“Wearable tech is one area of interest to us and with the Apple Watch and SITA’s Airport Management solution our duty managers will receive important notifications at just the right time to take action as needed.

“For example, they may get an alert to say that two planes are arriving simultaneously and have been assigned to the same gate or that there is a delay at a certain gate. 

“Previously, they would have checked their tablets regularly for updates. With the watch, a vibration alerts them to an update so they receive vital information just by glancing at their wrist. They can then take immediate action.”


Robots, flight tracking and drones

Other technology driven firsts to be debated at the summit included Geneva Airport’s Robbi the robot, a new flight tracking system and the use of drone technology to inspect aircraft on the ground.

Talking about Robbi during a session called ‘Travellers & technology – it’s an emotional journey’, Geneva Airport’s innovation manager for airport IT, Gilles Brentini, admitted that some people loved it while others hated it!

Its robot is actually a mobile information screen designed by Bluebotics that automatically moves around the airport providing information and directing passengers to where they want to go – sometimes literally by taking them there.

He noted that the information supplied by Robbi could be regularly updated to incorporate the latest commercial offerings/promotions provided by the airport’s shops and F&B outlets.

It is also just one of the many ways the Swiss airport is using technology-based initiatives to make life easier for passengers, said Brentini.

“Innovation is a very important ingredient to the customer loyalty recipe,” he told delegates. “It can bring a new dimension to the customer experience and doesn’t have to be complex, as we showed on May 4th this year when we announced ‘May the 4th be with you!’ on our digital signs to celebrate Stars Wars Day.”

His airport has also introduced an App for the Apple Watch and was one of the testing grounds for drone technology that lets airline engineers/maintenance workers inspect an aircraft without having to climb all over it.

In other news from the summit SITA OnAir revealed that its ready-made solution for tracking airlines in flight is beginning to gain traction with the airlines. 

CEO, Ian Dawkins, said: “This system is available now, doesn’t involve any new hardware and for the 90 plus airlines already using AIRCOM FlightMessenger can be implemented within in a couple of days.

“No new equipment has to be installed onboard the aircraft, which is important, as is the fact that it exceeds IATA and ICAO requirements.”

The new technology, developed in association with a number of airlines, uses existing Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS–B), Future Air Navigation System (FANS) and ATC radar information systems to pinpoint the location of aircraft.

More than 40,000 aircraft are already equipped with the above technology, said Dawkins, who revealed that Malaysia Airlines is among its latest customers for the software.

According to SITA OnAir the fact that it uses multiple sources of data ensures tracking intervals of 15 minutes or less, with intervals of just 60 seconds theoretically possible. 

It was developed after ICAO and IATA called for global tracking technology that uses existing equipment and procedures as much as possible. And although like existing GPS technology AIRCOM FlightMessenger could be turned off, Dawkins said that if it happened with this system it would immediately and automatically alert the airline to a problem.



Airport Apps 

ACI Europe’s director for media and communications director, Robert O’Meara, revealed that Europe’s airport operators have developed
51 apps that currently cover 164 gateways while 292 had official twitter accounts and 289 were on Facebook.

And he flagged up some of the highlights of ACI Europe’s Digital Report 2014-2015, pointing out that by the end of 2017, some 54% of Europe’s airports expected to have implemented mobile-based services and 65% of these would provide personalised information to passengers.

He insisted that social media was a key enabler for airports to provide support and reassurance to passengers.

When asked whether he felt social media was the ‘silver bullet’ to stay connected with travellers, he replied: “I don’t think it is the silver bullet, but it should be an instrumental part of any airport’s passenger experience strategy.

“I believe that there are a certain amount of people who think that social media is a fad or that it is just too shallow to be useful, but in the airport context it is genuinely useful.”

He noted that KLM has invested hugely in social media, employing around 130 staff to work purely on its social media themes. Such actions, he stated, had “raised the game” on what can be done via social media and caused other airlines and airports to sit up and take notice.

“It has made many think about what they can do and how far they want to go in meeting customer expectations through social media,” added O’Meara. “There is certainly a lot more to come from social media and room for more exciting developments.”


Airline IT survey

A common theme throughout this year’s Air Transport IT Summit was how new technology is making air travel easier and helping restore the ‘fun’ at airports, and the world’s airlines seem to agree as they continue to invest in passenger enhancing IT solutions.

Indeed, according to SITA’s 2015 Airline IT Trends Survey, almost a third of airline IT spend is on innovation, with increased ‘personalisation’ appearing to be the goal of many airlines.

It also predicts that a “major revolution in the passenger experience” is set to emerge over the next three years as airlines invest in the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

According to the survey, the vast majority of airlines (86%) expect that the IoT will deliver clear benefits in the next three years and already more than one third (37%) have allocated a budget to it.

SITA explains the Internet of Things as being when physical objects are connected to the internet, enabling tracking, data collection, analysis and control.

As part of this revolution, it says, more things in the airport are being connected up including buildings, equipment, bags, trolleys and tugs – basically all the ‘things’ that could emit a status.

One of the first manifestations of the IoT in the air transport industry is the use of beacons and this is where airports have a key role to play with some, such as Dubai and Miami already installing thousands of beacons across their respective sites.

Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, said: “The abiity to track and trace and optimise operations has huge benefits for the industry. It will make airports, airlines and passengers happy.”

He noted that IoT would improve an airport’s on time performance, transform airport design and increase the capacity of existing facilities.


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