Rising above the challenges of COVID-19 to propel aviation industry forward

Rising above the challenges of COVID-19 to propel aviation industry forward

Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aviation industry has experienced a huge set-back which has ultimately forced it to become more resilient. We hear from Pascal Buchner, CIO, International Air Transport Association (IATA), who discusses the core values behind the company, and how it has managed change during a pandemic.

Please could you provide an overview of your role and what this looks like day-to-day?

I’m the CIO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). IATA is a trade association representing 290 airlines in the world. We are dealing with 100,000 travel agents globally. Our job is to set all the standards for the commercial civil aviation and to act as a clearing house for all the indirect sales of tickets by travel agencies.

Can you tell us about the core values behind IATA and what a good technology posture means for the business?

The main value for IATA is about partnership. We are a trade association; we are representing the industry, so collaboration and partnership is really the main value and our objective is the safety of the passengers – all the aviation industry as a safety culture, so we at IATA are representing this industry. Of course, we are trying to push the safety culture everywhere in the world.

How would you describe the current state of the technology landscape in Europe and how does this affect the aviation industry?

I would say that technology plays an important role in many areas. First, in the e-commerce part of our industry – so the selling and the management of the airline. And so, the relationship between the passenger and the airline but also including the travel agency and the airport. Technology’s been an important role in order to facilitate a smooth and pleasant customer experience. But technology is playing a big role in the aircraft itself and also in all air traffic management. Without technology, our industry would not exist. We make the difference between IT and OT. All of the technology that is embedded in the aircraft is also a big part of what we do.

And finally, the technology is also there to facilitate the transaction and the experience of our customers. For example, currently, due to the COVID crisis, we are using technology to facilitate a touchless experience for the passenger at the airport. Technology is important everywhere. It’s really an opportunity to improve our industry and we are also using technology to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. We have to become sustainable and technology will help us to achieve this.

What are some of the main challenges you face as a business and how does technology help to overcome these?

The biggest challenge we face is that we are a global industry – we have to reach everybody in the world. We have to reach alignment between all the parties. For example, when we are talking about safety measures, we have to work with the civil aviation authorities in all the countries. And so, when you realise that we are representing about 290 airlines and about 150 countries, you can understand that requires a lot of advocacy.

We are a global organisation like ICAO or EASA in Europe, or the FAA in the US that are civil aviation authorities. But these organisations can only provide standards and best practices, so everything ends up at the nation level, which means that we have to deal with all the member states of ICAO. The diversity of our supply chain and the fact it’s not only beyond the airline area of responsibility means we have to deal with airports, we have to deal with air traffic management systems, to give only two examples. The complexity and the spread of the players in the industry are really the challenge that we have to face and technology is helping us in terms of communication and collaboration.

How do you manage change, such as that brought about by COVID-19, and how does this enable you to improve in your role?

The change is the essence of what we’re doing. So, for example, when we introduced the electronic ticket 10 years ago, this is the standard that we are using to give you an electronic boarding pass on your mobile phone. It took us only six months to define the standard, but it took us nine years to implement it. We had to push the change across the industry and we had to make sure that every player was able to deal with the new standard.

What we have learned is that if we want to push change in the industry, we need to find consensus. We need to find the common ground where everybody will find their interest because it is very difficult to push a change when only a few parties are really winning. Trying to identify where all the stakes are in order to identify where we have a common interest is what we’re doing to create a foundation that we foster in order to change.

How is data, or technology more generally, enabling airlines to plan for the year ahead, given the challenges surrounding travel due to COVID-19?

We are helping them because we are defining the standards that they can use everywhere in order to implement this technology change. One of the challenges airlines have is that they cannot afford to implement something different in every country they operate in, so this is why they rely on IATA. The work we’re doing in terms of setting up standards is helping airlines to push the change and to have this change implemented the same way in all the airports worldwide.  

This change also has to be accepted by the regulators, because sometimes it will impact the security and safety of operations. We have a lot of regulations that are driving aircraft operation. And when we’re bringing a change, we have to make sure that the regulator will accept it, and that the risks, brought about by the technology, are well mitigated and accepted by the regulators.  

How far will good-quality data allow the industry to respond and survive this crisis?

Everything is in the quality of the data because whether we use data to do Incident Management or for passenger loyalty, the analysis of the flight data is a critical continuous improvement process in order to assess if the procedure is optimal, to understand the potential impact and to assess the level of safety and the risk.

For aircraft operation, data integrity is key. For passenger data, compliance with data privacy obligations is a must because airlines are handling a huge amount of personal data. Another example is that since the crisis, the capacity forecast that we have is less accurate. Why? Because the historical data handled by the aircraft is not relevant because of the crisis. An example: when the aircraft are flying, they are sending this data to ground stations and this is helping everybody to build the weather forecast. Since we have less aircraft flying, the accuracy of weather forecast has been reduced.

Our industry is only about data. When a modern aircraft is flying, it can generate 1 Terabyte of sensor data every 24 hours. Of course, older aircraft generation are creating far less. And all this data is used after to verify the safety of the operations and to try to improve operations such as the consumption of fuel.

How do you work with the wider C-suite to ensure technology is given strategic priority within the organisation?

The good news is that more and more C-suite members are tech-savvy, or they understand the benefits of the technology for their operation. There is also a big concern in the industry about cybersecurity. It is really important and we need to go back to the board members and to the C-level executives also, to make them aware of best practice in terms of cybersecurity. However, it’s not just about technology, it’s about people behaviour and understanding and about educating people, implementing the right process and the right control. 

Where are you looking to invest moving forward, and does the current uncertainty have an impact? 

Yes, it does. We currently don’t have a lot of money because our industry has been largely impacted by the crisis, so all our investment at the moment is going into business intelligence and into predictive analytics, because one of the biggest challenges airlines are facing at the moment is that all their historical data is no longer relevant. And so, they are asking us to come back with new models where we can predict the future with a limited set of historical data. So, with one month of operation, can we predict something? In the past, you needed five years of operation data in order to build a reliable model. Now, they are asking us to build the models on only the last month of operation, and of course every month, the model has to auto-adapt.

We have to offer airlines visibility because this is the biggest issue they have at the moment. They don’t have visibility on the operation, they don’t have visibility on their capacity and it is impacting the operation. This is therefore having an impact on customer satisfaction because there were a lot of cancelled flights.

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