Martin Courtney looks at how adopting digital collaboration and consumer technology is key to improving operational efficiency for airlines, airports and ground handlers
Consumer technology moves at a bewildering pace that few industries can keep up with, but there are significant rewards for companies able to adapt innovative tools for specific business purposes. Social media tools have been used widely used in aviation to date for example, but primarily for recruitment purposes or as a means for passengers to express their dissatisfaction.
The latter trend has not gone unnoticed by airline and airport customer service and marketing departments, which now routinely monitor leading social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – on the one hand to keep track of their reputational status, but also as a foundation for advertising and marketing campaigns. Indeed there are aviation software and consulting firms like AeroSDB in Australia which specialise in offering aviation stakeholders advice on how best to exploit social media for their own purposes, particularly when it comes to identifying customers through business intelligence.
But while they may baulk at the prospect of using existing, consumer-orientated social media tools as an effective means of collecting and sharing information in real time, aviation companies are now coming to recognise the benefits that similar forms of digital collaboration platforms can bring if implemented and managed correctly.
Last year saw GE Aviation’s Digital Solutions division create a digital collaboration centre in partnership with French IT consulting specialist Capgemini, for example. Initially designed to provide GE’s own staff with a more efficient platform to communicate and collaborate on development projects, the Configuration Data Exchange centre was later made available for use by the company’s aviation industry customers later in 2017. The idea is to give airlines, manufacturers, component suppliers and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) firms, a way to facilitate two-way flow of data across their disparate IT systems using a combination of GE’s Predix analytics software and Capgemini’s implementation services.
Accenture, too, is focused on improving operational efficiency in the aviation industry by breaking down silos amongst airlines, airports, ground handlers and other stakeholders. Whilst most projects to date have concentrated on improving customer-facing communications like websites and mobile apps, Accenture recognises that enabling improved digital collaboration between those elements has been largely overlooked.
“When a plane has to be towed, we have mechanics working, flight attendants working, a gate attendant,” says one airline executive interviewed as part of Accenture’s digital readiness study. “Right now, they do not communicate as a team. I’d love everyone to have the same information and be collaborating”.
Deolan Logbook: digital collaboration potential
A good example of where that sort of information sharing is making a real difference comes from French air transport specialist Deolan, which launched a new interactive platform, Logbook, in November 2017. The plug-and-play tool has been designed to replace the numerous legacy systems still used in the aviation industry, including standard word processor and email applications, whilst providing the look, feel and real-time collaborative aspects of social media tools.
“We have created a sort of Facebook for operators, where all the different teams can put news about each event they are dealing with which can be shared instantly either inside or outside the team,” says Yves Tuet, Deolan founder and president.
“The growth of airlines depends on them having digital collaboration tools,” he goes on. “In airport traffic control [and] in ground handling operations, you have hundreds of thousands of flights a year to deal with but they are still low-tech environments where the stakeholders work in silos using telephones, email, telex and walkie-talkies to communicate.”
Six customers are currently using Logbook, including pan-European airline ASL, Biarritz Airport, Portuguese ground handling company Portway Group and Dutch airline Transavia (a subsidiary of Air France-KLM Group).
The ASL experience
ASL needed to replace the internal system it was using to keep track of delays and customer complaints, having previously relied on the ServiceNow IT service management (ITSM) platform which the airline’s IT department had decided to scrap at the end of 2017.
Presented with the option of either building its own collaboration solution internally, or bringing in an alternative solution from an external provider, ASL decided to trial Deolan’s Logbook application. Though Logbook was initially intended only to support ASL’s delay and customer complaint management process, the airline soon realised the SaaS proposition offered scope to provide more features, particularly in terms of centralising event information for its operations team.
“As the hub for all ground handling operations, the Operational Control Centre receives high volumes of information from all over the company and in turn must provide a similar volume of information to other parts of the business,” says Toni Pagliccia, operations support manager at ASL Airlines France.
“Previously all of this information was sent over email, which meant we were frequently overwhelmed by the number of messages that need to be reviewed and sent every day. Logbook has helped us to solve this issue, through giving us a single point where we can record all the information relating to past, current and future flights, for access by other departments across the business.”
Ten of ASL’s operational and control centre staff currently access the SaaS application from a mixture of desktop and laptop PCs, feeding the software with flight schedule information which is shared with the flight database via Deolan.
“One way that I have found Logbook particularly useful is in enabling me to log fuel information for future flights,” says Pagliccia. “Previously I would have saved that [fuel confirmation] document in my emails, meaning there is a chance that it could get lost or forgotten before the flight date. With Logbook, I can initiate a fuel log for a later date, with the document attached and all the confirmation details, include the correct tag, and that means that it’s there for anybody to check and verify the details.”
Bottom-up approach gets things done
ASL’s use of Deolan’s Logbook is just one illustration of where individual business departments and employees are becoming more confident in the provisioning and management of their own applications and services.
And many are attracted not only by the instant collaboration demonstrated by social media tools, but also by the simple, easy-to-use portals which enable access to a broad range of on-demand, pay-as-you-go IT resources that public cloud services like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google, to name but a few, provide.
Research conducted by analyst firm Gartner has found that this form of ‘shadow IT’ could account for 30-40% of total IT spending in large enterprises, with Everest Group putting the figure even higher at 50%. The bigger the company, the bigger the problem as staff struggle to access the resources they need to do their jobs without the approval and assistance of the resident IT department – which can often take weeks or months to scope and implement new systems, applications and services on their behalf.
Deolan’s Tuet is a firm believer that a ‘bottom-up’ approach to provisioning specific applications and services tailored for one particular task represents a much more effective strategy compared to the ‘top-down’ strategy of designing, implementing and managing a much larger all-in-one IT solution from a single supplier.
“The problem we have is that some potential customers – the big ground handling companies and airport groups, for example – are sometimes uncomfortable with trying and installing these individual tools within their organisation, and that slows down adoption,” he says.
But others, particularly the smaller and medium-sized organisations, welcome the agility that tools like Logbook can provide and are much more receptive to the idea given that they can deliver faster access to data. And once individual stations or airports start to realise the benefits, the solution can be rolled up the chain of larger organisations to encompass additional sites and business divisions.
SITA sees consumer influence
As a major supplier of IT and telecommunications services to the aviation industry, SITA is perhaps more familiar with this trend than most. Speaking in a recent interview with PhocusWire, the company’s chief executive Barbara Dalibord admitted that traditional technologies embedded in the air transport industry “which have been proven and reliable, have been overtaken by new consumer-led technologies”.
Like other IT suppliers, SITA is working hard to give IT departments the networks, systems, applications and services they need to keep centralised control over IT, whilst simultaneously satisfying end user demand for fast provisioning, simplified access and improved usability involving everything from laptops and desktop PCs to smartphones, tablets and other portable devices.
The cloud is an important part of that service delivery platform; it is well designed to host data collected from various points on the SITA networks in a single central repository that makes it easier to share information across multiple sources securely.
Logbook is hosted on AWS public cloud infrastructure with sensitive data stored locally on Deolan’s own servers to boost data security and comply with industry and government regulation on data protection.
“The cloud is now used in many sensitive industries, even banking, and is much less expensive [compared to licensed, on-premise software],” Tuet points out. “We manage all the profiles and people accessing the data, starting from the point where the information is initially shared. In many air transport environments there is no security at present because of the low-tech tools being used, and we are centralising information and secure access rights management.”
SITA is also using the cloud to offer a virtual store – a place where airline, airport and ground handling companies can go to buy approved business applications and services in much the same way they would go to an app store to buy and download Apple or Google apps for their smartphones.
Global Wi-Fi connectivity app iPass was added in August, allowing customers in the air travel business to buy secure, always-on access to the iPass Wi-Fi network through the SITA portal, for example. Since its launch in 2016, SITA has added 21 different applications and services from suppliers including CCD Airport Kiosk, GCR, CD Networks, Genaker and Dynatrace, as well as those offered by SITA itself.
Consumer-orientated devices are also making their way onto the ramp. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) worked with Asian ground handling and food solutions services company SATS to develop a smart watch solution for its technical ramp operations. The Technical Ramp Smart Watch is currently in use at Singapore’s Changi Airport, providing real-time job and task notifications to workers whilst reducing reliance on legacy walkie-talkie devices. Based on Samsung’s S3 device, the watch provides GPS tracking of the ramp agents wearing it and records the start and completion time of each job to provide performance analytics for supervisors.
At the end of the day, aviation IT suppliers have little or no chance of keeping up with the pace of innovation in the consumer IT industry – but they do have second mover advantage in being able to wait and see what works, and conducting limited staff rollouts before pushing new technology further up the chain.
Yannick Beunardeau, global head of sales and marketing, Airport IT at Amadeus IT Group, offers an alternative perspective on the implementation of collaboration solutions on a case-by-case, departmental basis.
“At the airport there are numerous stakeholders that all play a role in servicing a flight and boarding passengers, whether it’s the refuelling provider, the catering company or the ground handling agent serving passengers,” he says. “That’s why we believe in creating a common situational awareness amongst all actors at the airport, and in our view partial solutions at a departmental level can only ever be viewed as iterative when striving for this larger goal.”
Amadeus’s A-CDM Portal provides any actor at the airport with a single, unified view into the current and future operating environment (both landside and airside). According to Beunardeau, by rolling out the company’s A-CDM Portal to over 300 different users, London Gatwick Airport increased its capacity to 55 flights per hour – which equates to an additional 2 million passengers flying from its single runway.
He goes on: “Shadow IT is an issue in almost every industry today, given that cloud and SaaS IT can be purchased and used quickly and simply. There’s a real distinction to be made, however, between ‘productivity software’ that helps address office-based objectives like accounting, and complex business process solutions that run an airport’s operations. It’s unlikely that shadow IT solutions would be appropriate for a use case such as collaborative decision making at the airport, which requires significant stakeholder engagement, deep understanding of the airport’s business and highly specialised technology.
“In addition to this, reliable and secure airport operations rely on secure and reliable data and IT. So shadow IT could pose a risk in that respect, given that the airlines and service providers would not take any liability for usage of shadow IT in the context of running mission-critical business applications.”
Passenger as driver
Overall, whilst there are technical challenges related to issues such as systems integration and legacy systems, the real issue is one of collaboration, Beunardeau feels.
“In our recent report ‘Strengthening the Airport Value Proposition’, Frost & Sullivan explored how airports can harness digital transformation,” he says. The report advocates an approach where IT affects the route choices airlines make, and therefore is a competitive differentiator for airports.
By considering how technology can improve the passenger experience and grow overall revenue for all stakeholders, it creates a shared incentive for collaboration, with shared KPIs between airlines and airports – and businesses cases for innovation quickly stack up, Beunardeau explains. “Collaborative decision making projects absolutely benefit from taking this type of stance.”