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, many airlines fear they may not recover their losses from seeing thousands of planes grounded and there have already been huge job losses for major airlines, travel companies and ground handlers globally.
Right now, some holidaying passengers and business travelers are slowly and cautiously returning in small numbers, wearing the appropriate and mandated masks and PPE for safety.
But many others are still unsure when they will be in the skies again despite several countries talking about so-called travel bubbles or air bridges for non-restricted travel.
It is clear, though, that a return to normal is very far off. In fact, the old normal will likely never return. So as the entire industry reels from the fallout of the 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.
Much of this could well come via APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, to use their full title. 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.
Better informed decision-making could prove vital at a time when the aviation industry is going through such unprecedented change.
This information is then used to provide deeper insight and reporting as it can be displayed in easy-to-read dashboards, used to power smartphone apps or be analyzed 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.
Mohamed Amin, head of data and APIs at SITA, believes aviation has yet to take full advantage of the potential of APIs – he says the industry lags behind others such as telecoms and fintech.
The latter has used APIs widely as part of Open Banking, which since 2017 has given consumers and businesses a simpler but more comprehensive single-view outlook of their financial position. It does this by bringing together data from each of their different accounts, no matter if they use a wide range of separate banks and institutions.
Mohamed said: “Telecommunications and finance are way more mature than aviation when it comes to API usage. This is a massive wasted opportunity.
“Our industry is so data-heavy but there is still a reluctance to share this information with each other, even though the industry realizes the importance of this data.
“Not doing so inhibits progress, growth and innovation, and now with the crisis being faced by aviation, we need that more than ever.”
Here are 10 ways APIs could revolutionize how airports and airlines work together as well as with suppliers and passengers. We also look at some of the current challenges and perceptions limiting the rollout of APIs more comprehensively.
1. Data from multiple sources ... in an instant
APIs work like a plugin 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, how many meals were needed on a flight, the weather conditions at the airport, baggage numbers, 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 also spotting problems faster or making automated predictions on how to improve things for the future.
2. 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 touch points of the passenger journey.
By also collating data related to external providers such as hotels, taxi firms and airline lounges, for example, travelers can be offered new solutions to minimize disruption.
3. 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. But 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.
AirAsia, for example, has been using APIs since April for its cargo Freightchain arm to make it more efficient. Aviation is also exploring a diverse and growing number of use cases around efficiency and a seamless passenger journey, spanning consumer functions like mobile boarding passes to web services for businesses.
4. Unparalleled industry collaboration
Many barriers exist in the sharing of data across the world. Different nation-states have their own compliance and data privacy rules such as GDPR in the EU. But APIs harness anonymized data that is correct, up-to-date, cleaned and also harmonized with all regulations.
Current dependence on paper and legacy systems means data exists in silos, one of the key barriers to digital transformation. But 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.
5. Better decision-making and planning
In the years to come, artificial intelligence and machine learning will drive more efficiencies by analyzing data patterns. However, APIs can already 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. It is not easy to increase capacity by building a new airport, but APIs can decrease processing times and help to accommodate differing levels of traffic - or during times like now, focus more limited resources and staffing into the most important areas.
6. 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 both for 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.
7. 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. Across fintech and telecoms, these frameworks already exist. 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 size of a message (Type-B's message length is restricted to 60 lines of 63 characters), the types of data being transmitted and the limited set of allowed characters (alphanumeric only). APIs can help transport messaging to more modern standards.
8. Increased reach and revenues
The airline market is highly competitive. The issues thrown up by the current pandemic crisis has shown just how many aviation companies have very small financial comfort zones to ride out unplanned disruption.
Digitalization and shifting from being a traditional flight supplier to a digital travel provider have long been on many airlines' 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.
9. 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.
10. Happier passengers mean return business
There are already many touch points through which passenger data can be gleaned, starting with when they book a flight through to checking in, dropping baggage, clearing security, boarding a flight, participating in 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 grow 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.