European Business: Mr. Bakker, what is the role of SITA in the airline industry?
Dave Bakker: Basically, we enable people to fly. Everyone involved in air travel needs to be able to communicate, and SITA provides the hub, a digital highway into an airport. However, it is not enough just to transport data. We also provide the applications to use that information. We supply these to airlines, airports and government authorities. We transport billions of messages about luggage, checkin, boarding and delays as well as pilot information every month. Data is critical for government departments too. Before a plane takes off, passenger information is sent to the destination authority so it has advance notice of who will be entering their country. We also enable in-flight communication for passengers. On many routes with Emirates, you can use your mobile phone to text messages via the antenna we install on top of the aircraft, which operate via ground satellites.
European Business: It sounds very complex. How is it controlled?
Dave Bakker: Airports are designed to be efficient so that passengers can pass through quickly on a just-in-time basis. There is no leeway for things to go wrong. We have two command centers, one in Singapore and one in Montreal, where we monitor the technology and address issues before they become a problem.
European Business: What is the extent of SITA’s operation?
Dave Bakker: We are present in 200 countries and around 1,000 airports, which have 13,000 flight connections. We serve almost every airline in the world. We are split into different regions: the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
European Business: Where did the idea for SITA originate?
Dave Bakker: SITA was founded in 1949 with the advent of commercial air travel by a group of eleven airlines who wanted to improve communication. Effectively we have developed from a telex-based network into a global operations company. We are still owned by the aviation industry, and our board includes CEOs from within the sector. We now have 5,000 employees plus 3,000 in a partner organization who work exclusively for us.
European Business: Where do you see the focus for innovation in air travel technology?
Dave Bakker: There are two activities with which travellers are currently most unhappy: baggage collection and security. By 2018 you will be able to track every step of your bag’s journey using your smartphone, so you will know exactly where it is at any time. Security will also become more automated through biometrics. We have already launched a solution called Single Token Biometric. You just scan your passport, boarding card and your face when entering the airport. Then you can put your documents away, and you only need to show your face at checkin, security and the departure gate, where our system connects your face to the data. A quick selfie is all that is required. There is a lot of interest in this system. Robots will also feature heavily in the future. We recently launched a baggage robot called LEO in Geneva, operating in the Kiss and Fly sector, where you can be dropped off without the driver needing to park and LEO will take your bag and put it into the baggage system for you. LEO is currently on a world tour to demonstrate the opportunities presented by robotics. Another robot in development is a parking assistant where you will be able to drop your car off and it will be collected, parked and returned to you at the right time by a robot, all operating through an app. Technology is changing our lives; the world is already very different from ten years ago. Air travel in 2025 will be unrecognizable in comparison to today.
European Business: What makes SITA successful, and what are your priorities for the future?
Dave Bakker: Innovation enables us to grow. The significant changes that we have seen in the industry in recent times will continue. We will see as much growth in the coming 20 years as we saw over the previous 100 years. I spend a lot of time with air industry CEOs, and biometrics, connectivity, robots and self-service are hot topics. Our vision is to support all parties involved in air travel to collaborate by sharing data, which will be a crucial theme in the future. Collectively, the industry can provide a better service to passengers than if each element operates on a standalone basis. I believe that travel as a concept will be very different in ten years’ time. As far as the technology is concerned, everything will be controlled with an app, and people will use smartphones for everything. The moment you arrive at the airport, you will have all the information you need for your journey at your fingertips.