Tata Comms: Airlines on digital transformation journey as IoT takes flight

IoT takes flight airlines on digital transformation journey

The sky’s the limit when it comes to the opportunities that the IoT offers airlines – but ensuring a smooth take-off for these technologies is going to rely on airline executives identifying those areas that offer the best chances for increased profitability.

Anthony Bartolo of Tata Communications

For Anthony Bartolo, chief product officer for collaboration, mobility and IoT at networking and cloud company Tata Communications, these opportunities principally lie in two areas: better passenger experiences and smoother behind-the-scenes operations. 

“We’re talking here about a hugely competitive industry,” he told Internet of Business. “Airlines don’t invest in digital unless they fundamentally feel they can derive very material benefits, either on the operations side or on the customer side. But we see very high levels of confidence in IoT, with the majority of airlines believing it will provide these clear benefits for them in 2018,” he says.

Air New Zealand, for example, has significantly increased its investment in digital in its corporate mission to “transform travel”, and in 2015, appointed former Google executive Avi Golan as its chief digital officer. The airline already provides young unaccompanied travellers with a digital bracelet, the Airband, so that their parents or guardians can track their journeys. Virgin Atlantic Airways has also experimented with wearables. Emirates has work underway on augmented reality and motion sensors

Read more: Air China chooses Panasonic to provide inflight entertainment and connectivity

In pursuit of profits

Running an airline as a money-making venture is, after all, a notoriously tricky business. Aircraft are expensive, jet fuel prices fluctuate. Bad weather can have a major impact on profits, as can industrial action at airports. Many costs are non-negotiable, in the form of fixed tariffs for access to airports and air traffic control charges.

In fact, when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted “record profits” for airlines in 2017, for the third year in succession, the organization’s director and general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac simultaneously conceded that, in this respect, aviation is still the poor relation of other industries.

“Record profits for airlines means earning more than our cost of capital,” he stated. “For most other businesses, that would be considered a normal level of return to investors. But three years of sustainable profits is a first for the airline industry.”

That said, the potential benefits of IoT in aviation are far-reaching and profound, with huge implications for future profitability, Bartolo claims. “When you look at what IoT does, it fundamentally brings visibility to areas that might otherwise be in darkness and that, in many cases, remain in darkness today.”

Read more: TUMI and AT&T launch tracking device for travellers

Real-time data

In particular, Bartolo says, the IoT brings real-time data into situations where the norm has typically been reams and reams of paper: passenger lists, seating plans, flight operations manuals, flight despatch information, crew rosters. That has huge potential for making operations faster and less costly, such as flight turnarounds times.

Similarly, it can propel passengers into a state of near-on constant connectedness, enabling them to access inflight Wi-Fi, use their own mobile devices to access inflight entertainment and stay notified when it comes to the progress of their own journeys and those made by their luggage.

In IATA’s 2016 Global Passenger Survey, the three top areas that passengers would like to receive notifications on were flight status and changes (cited by 85 percent); baggage status and waiting times for delivery (60 percent) and waiting times at security/border control (58 percent). They clearly want to receive that information via their mobile devices – 53 percent by SMS text messages; 22 percent via a mobile app; and 21 percent by email.

“There will definitely be airlines providing apps by next year that show passengers exactly where their luggage is at any stage of the journey,” Bartolo predicts. “But to truly open up the Pandora’s Box of visibility, airlines will need to have a very reliable network infrastructure underpinning a huge range of IoT-enabled sensors and devices, from sensors on the aircraft itself to baggage tags and everything in between.”

These are the layers that that Tata Communications is working with airlines to add, he says. These companies are effectively supply chain businesses, he adds, moving passengers, luggage, cargo and crews from place to place – but they have much to learn from parcels companies, for example, about identifying the locations of individual entities and assets, understanding what condition they’re in and digging down into what they experience between Point A and Point B.

There is, in other words, much work still to do, not least of which will be the widespread replacement of legacy technology, aging and patchy network infrastructures and paper-based processes. But with firmer technology foundations in place, made easier and more affordable for airlines by cloud, mobile and IoT, says Bartolo, airlines will be much better equipped to provide a safe landing for new technology initiatives and digital services that deliver greater business value and, hopefully, more reliable profits.

Read more: FliteTrak launches smart seating for aircraft cabins

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Serdar Gürbüz: How Turkish Airlines is implementing IoT and other emerging technologies

We’ve all heard the statistic, or at least one similar to it: if airlines achieved just a 1% decrease in fuel consumption, then the money saved could end up in the millions. It’s no surprise, therefore, that aviation is frequently cited as one of the industries with the most potential to be transformed by Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.

“The airline’s digital innovation department was launched last year, and Gürbüz is chiefly responsible for exploring new initiatives in five emerging technology areas; the IoT of course, but also augmented and virtual reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics.”

Serdar Gürbüz is Digital Innovation Manager at Turkish Airlines, having started working there in 2010 with a stint at national telco Turkcell in between. The airline’s digital innovation department was launched last year, and Gürbüz is chiefly responsible for exploring new initiatives in five emerging technology areas; the IoT of course, but also augmented and virtual reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics.

Naturally, several of these overlap, but IoT is at the heart of many digital transformation initiatives at the airline. “When we talk about IoT, the first thing that comes to mind are approaches to improve operational efficiency,” Gürbüz explains. “We have common examples, like predictive maintenance, fuel optimisation – these are huge use cases for IoT.

“Besides operational efficiencies, IoT also offers increased personalisation for the passengers – it may even have the potential to change business models as well.”

As is frequently the case, Turkish Airlines is not going it alone with these initiatives. A study from MIT Sloan Management Review (SMR) in September argued the importance of partnerships, even to the extent of sharing data with competitors. “The Internet of Things is not just about connecting things… it is also about the connections that IoT creates between an organisation and its customers, suppliers, and competitors,” David Kiron, executive editor of MIT SMR explained at the time.

One example of this is the Plug and Play travel and hospitality innovation platform. The list of partners includes tech firm Panasonic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), as well as airlines Lufthansa, TUI, and Turkish Airlines, selecting 20 startups for its second batch in October. The partners work side by side with the startups for three months, including mentor sessions, pilots, and potentially acquisitions. “We are acting like a bridge for them”, as Gürbüz puts it.

It’s not all about the planes when they are airborne – the aforementioned passenger personalisation includes helping customers around unfamiliar airports – but the innovation doesn’t stop at the consumer-facing end either. Turkish Airlines also engages in internal projects aimed at decreasing operational costs inside the company, such as employee tracking.

“Besides operational efficiencies, IoT also offers increased personalisation for the passengers – it may even have the potential to change business models as well.”

Gürbüz admits that changing the working culture is one of the primary challenges. Yet this is not unique to Turkish. Take the example of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, who in 2014 announced they had migrated to a bring your own device (BYOD) mobile policy. With fluctuating workloads – the headcount at Schiphol changes by approximately 25% during busy periods – it was another aspect to consider. Gürbüz adds in factoring legacy systems as another headache. “Most of the airlines are using systems [which are] 30, 40 years old,” he explains. “It’s very hard to integrate these new technologies, and it’s very hard to change the culture as well.”

Gürbüz is speaking at the IoT Tech Expo Europe in June around ‘connected aviation for the connected traveller’ – so given his interest in a wide range of emerging technologies, which does he see as the most exciting going forward? “I think it’s AI – the machine learning part,” he says. “The improvements in AI are exponentially impacting all industries.

“You see Google Translate for about 10 years, and it doesn’t work so well, but in the last year, they found a new way,” he adds. “With the help of artificial intelligence, the improvement in the last year is much bigger than the improvements in 10 years.”

istockphoto.com/ guvendemir | erlucho

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