IATA Type B – Legacy Data Format Adapts to the Internet

Before the early versions of the Internet (originally known as ARPANET) ever existed, the airline industry had developed a means to perform data transfers globally via proprietary networks. This need was driven not only by the expansion of airlines and operators moving into every corner of our ever-shrinking world, but by the need to manage their operations and interact with their business partners better. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) assigned the name Type B to the format of the messages. Type A is the real-time interactive communications based on IATA legacy protocols, and the transmission of this has become known as messaging.

The use of Type B messaging predates e-mail by several decades, and is still very much in use today (despite numerous predictions that the Internet would obsolete the need for such proprietary mechanisms — other industries also maintain similar networks such as the financial industry’s SWIFT network). Type B is primarily used by the air transport and travel-related industries. Type B is primarily communicated over private networks operated by ARINC and SITA, but in recent years, various third-party solution providers have developed Internet-based Web solutions which interconnect to the two legacy providers.

What exactly is ‘Type B’?

The initial form of Type B has been around since the early 1960s (evolving from teletype technology initially developed for railroad use more than 100 years ago ), and is used heavily within the aviation ecosystem. There isn’t an airline/operator, aerospace manufacturer, civil aviation authority, caterer, ground handler, application service provider or global distribution systems for airline ticketing which hasn’t used it during the decades. The system is in no danger of being mothballed any time soon. There are simply too many legacy processes tied to this mechanism, with the costs of change being exorbitant. Type B messages are renowned as highly reliable and secure (due to the closed networks and use of a technology in which data packets sent are acknowledged and have error detection) and support mission-critical applications such as:

• Cargo tracking and manifests

• Aircraft maintenance information and ACARS messages

• Airline industry’ procurement and repair transactions for aircraft (ATA’s Spec 2000 standard depends heavily upon Type B messages)

• Passenger booking/reservations and check in and departure control data

• Aircraft flight plans and air traffic control data

• Weight and load-balancing information

• Baggage tracking and tracing information, including RFID tag support

• Advanced passenger information (API) which is communicated to governments

• IATA clearing house data

ARINC and SITA are the two network providers dedicated to the air transport and travel industries, reporting the following daily volumes of messages handled:

• ARINC: ~20 million

• SITA: ~25 million

• Others: negligible (mainly need to integrate into either ARINC or SITA to handle messages which need to be sent via Type B)

Anatomy of a Message

Being a legacy format, Type B has a strict layout as opposed to more recent types of data and formatting (like XML which carries message payloads, HTML which primarily is concerned with the visual representation of a webpage or application, and SGML which concentrates on how markup languages are used to structure documents). Type B is deliberately restricted to a maximum “message” length of 60 lines of 63 characters each, with a limited set of allowed characters (only capital characters A to Z, the numbers 0 to 9 and the three signs /, - and . — this restriction was driven by the early teletype character sets from which Type B emerged. While this rigidity is detrimental to expanding the capabilities of the standard, it also provides the industry with a convenient short-hand means of distributing data around the world easily, making it ideal for mission-critical processes. Users need to trust such data, so the trade-off is well worth the drawbacks. In fact, without such a trustable form of global data exchange, it would be nearly impossible to operate a modern airline in today’s business environment.

A message itself is not difficult to decipher once you master the lingua franca (and there is really not much need to do so, since software and service providers handle the creation and conversion of data as needed).

So, like other electronic data interchange (EDI) types of message used in various industries, once you understand the rules of how to read such data, it becomes second nature, but, then again, there is no need. Internet-based messaging using new data formats such as XML are building upon the legacy Type B formats, and this is discussed later in the article. The key reason that these newer formats are needed is that emerging processes (RFID, eForms, EFB applications, etc.) require larger, more flexible data structures and greater bandwidth data communications (e.g., to enable faster response to requests).

Type B in itself is a “store-and-forward” mechanism in which message senders transmit their data via their service provider, who in turn archives the message for X days (typically seven, but this depends upon your service contract) and sends it off directly to the recipient you specified, or to a gateway provider if the recipient is not on their network. The service providers have contractual agreements to guarantee message delivery in such instances, and if for some reason the message fails, it can be re-sent a number of times (hence, the store-and-forward feature). Internet-based e-mail systems have copied this, but ISPs typically have much shorter retry periods.

Transmitting Type B Messages

Once you obtain investment capital to start your airline, one of the early major decisions to make (after you procure aircraft, hire personnel and create a cool corporate logo and tagline) is which network provider you plan to use, ARINC or SITA. This is comparable to having to choose which wireless provider you will contract with once you decide to get that Apple iPhone 5. It was only ARINC and SITA for decades but now, due to third-party Internet-based service providers (i.e. ,T-Mobile in our wireless provider analogy, competing with the two titans, AT&T and Verizon), you have choices. Before we delve into the third-party choices, let’s go over the standard proprietary networks.

One of the reasons that ARINC and SITA have maintained a large market share in the industry is the incredible costs which new entrants would face to enter the market and provide similar network coverage. Each of these two service providers operates a private network on which each creates specific nodes, which are then given a unique identifier and rented out through a service by the aviation customer. Since network access is restricted to identified customers only, cybersecurity issues are largely diminished but not eliminated completely. Most companies procure multiple addresses for use by their personnel, so most anyone who sends Type B messages can usually be tracked down to the company which contracted to that particular address used, which is essential for mission-critical processes. The Internet could not only dream of being so secure and dependable!

SITA claims to have the larger of these two networks due to complete global coverage, and ARINC is seemingly slightly smaller in regards to this service coverage (exact totals for these networks are not available publically). If you need to reach a business partner who is on other provider’s network, your provider will use a ‘gateway’ to reach this on your behalf and send the message over to the competing provider, who in turn would send this over to the final recipient. This is like how the worlds’ post offices operate, or, e-mail service providers.

There is usually a gateway fee charged for such transactions, since the other provider needs to get paid as well. This duopoly has served the air transport industry well for decades. It has also provided a secure platform, since it has heavily controlled access to the closed networks.

The More Things Stay the Same, the More They Change

With the Internet changing the face of the world, the air transport industry would not be immune to the seductive siren song of open networks and their dynamic data formats. Due to market pressure, IATA, ARINC and SITA have been developing a XML-based version of this, which is referred to as Type X. Newer applications which require more capabilities demand greater functionality than Type B has typically supported, so this has forced the industry to move forward.

Type X was designed to be fully backward compatible with Type B (at the message header level) and to replicate as many features and functions as possible. It caters to the old format due to its widespread use (similar to how Microsoft supports old formats of Microsoft Word every time it releases a new version of Office, but new features are not supported in legacy Office document formats). Basically, extensible markup language (XML) is a markup language that defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both readable by both humans and machines, and is intended to be used over Internet protocol (IP) networks. This will allow the industry to utilize legacy processes and data formats as it will migrate to the expanded functionality offered by IP-enabled XML functionality. Everything old becomes new, and then will eventually change once the legacy processes become obsolete (which will take decades for the risk-averse, safety-first aviation and aerospace world).

What this means is that ARINC and SITA are opening up access to the private networks they run to the world. The aftereffects of this will not be evident for years, since it will take time for the market to make use of this and find ways to take advantage of opportunity. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of this shift may not even exist yet. New companies will step forward as the industry evolves its communication needs as new on-board aircraft and ground-based services will demand functionality not currently supported. Who the heck could have predicted the use of GPS applications in a cockpit via a consumer product such as an iPad even three or four years ago?

The promise of using Type X is not only to support new applications and processes over the Internet, but to reduce costs to users by allowing direct peer-to-peer communications (possibly bypassing ARINC and SITA), among other benefits. This will allow more third-party network solution providers to compete with the two legacy network providers, and this process has already begun. Not all processes and applications are suitable to be Internet-enabled (at least until we can provide assurance that mission-critical data is completely secure and trustable), so do not expect many of the legacy processes to support Type X for some time, if ever.

XML which is not “compliant” to IATA Type X has been used for many years by various OEMs, service providers and other industry participants for various Internet-based transactions. While much of this can probably be attributed to e-commerce/supply chain/aftermarket activities, this has mostly been on an ad hoc basis using generic or vendor-specific XML. While it remains to be seen if Type X can bring together industry efforts to standardize on a single set of XML (as Type B did for messaging use), only time will tell. Perhaps the industry does not need to do so — who knows?

An interesting analogy to this situation occurred in the 1990s, the early days of the Internet opening to the general public where AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy provided closed ecosystems which were only available to their paying customers. Each of these also provided you with a means to e-mail over the Internet as well, or browse to Web sites outside of their protected ‘moats.’ While many customers had no real need to ever leave the protected moat since few interesting Web sites were available, outside of sending e-mail to their few and cool friends who also used e-mail, newer entrants such as Earthlink emerged, offering faster connections to the Web and access to open information on the Internet, rather than building its own ecosystem. Over time, as more and newer entrants emerged (and the large network providers such as AT&T, MCI, cable companies, etc., entered the market to provide services to consumers and small businesses), the entire business model of what became to be known as Internet service providers (ISPs) shifted away from protected moats provided by AOL and others to more of an open network.

This is not a direct analogy to ARINC and SITA and the Type B network, since mission-critical processes are rarely transmitted over the open Internet today. (They use use private network communications instead.) However, with the opening of the legacy air transport networks, expect that new solutions will impact the legacy solutions we use today over time, and some interesting parallels to the lessons taught to us by AOL and Compuserve may be applicable.

One of the main reasons Type B and its proprietary cousins in other industries are still in use is the elegant simplicity of the messages. A 100-byte Type B message when translated to XML and transported over IP will morph into 3,000 to 4,000 bytes. If bandwidth is no concern, then this isn’t an issue. In lots of places it still is, and paying for thousands of messages per month can be economically challenging in these parts of the world. Since aviation is a global business which needs to have a common format, Type B, in form or another, will be around for some time.

                                

Choices Choices Choices

How do you choose which type of network provider suits your needs best? Let’s go over key points illustrated in the chart above:

NOTE: Services shown in the chart are illustrated generically, and each vendor/service provider has differing terminology and types of services. This chart is intended to illustrate the flow of information and how it is (generically) handled by service providers.

Explanations:

1. Any of the ARINC or SITA Type B customers can reach other Type B customers, either directly via the network provider, or, via a gateway (e.g., illustrated by GDS 1 connected via SITA being able to reach Airline C on the ARINC network)

2. Other Type B or XML messaging providers connect to either ARINC or SITA (or both) to allow their customers to reach those outside of their own network (e.g. illustrated by Service Provider 4 needing to reach a customer, Airline D, on the ARINC Type B network)

Basically, the air transport industry is a complicated set of business relationships, so choosing a suitable network provider needs to be analyzed carefully. Gateway costs need to be identified prior to entering into contract, since if most of your business partners are on competing network, this may drive up your costs.

Internet connectivity to the Type B networks has opened myriad processes, supporting SMS messages, access to Internet-based application providers and greater use of commercial non-aerospace industry technologies. These considerations should also be accounted for when choosing a service provider, and be part of your scorecard as you rate potential business partners.

When making a choice of service provider, the following questions will be relevant:

• Does the available service support the business process I’m interested in with defined standardized templates and schemas?

• Can I connect to my business partners directly or indirectly, and how much does this cost?

• Will I have to invest in my own IT to use messaging, or is the Internet acceptable?

• What level of security is required?

• What degree of delivery assurance do I need?

Future Directions

Driven by myriad new updated industry standards (from IATA, ATA/A4A, ICAO, EUROCAE, ARINC AEEC and AMC, etc.) emerging in baggage tracking (RFID), air traffic control (NextGen and SESAR driving new ATM processes and data communications), satellite communications, electronic flight bag integration and many other such developments, expect network service providers to continue expanding and modernizing their products. With the rather recent arrival of third-party solution providers competing with ARINC and SITA, the industry will benefit from a coming wave of innovation.

These innovations will be driven by one all-encompassing need: “big data.”

Analytics and business intelligence are driving data needs in a big way. In the connected world in which we live, access to data is vital, becoming a pre-requisite for the development of “services” among airlines, OEMs, airport operators and ground services providers alike. This trend is evolving due to a number of factors, including e-enabled aircraft entering service in the coming years, greater use of cloud computing-based applications and data, further adoption of XML-based processes (e-commerce, e-forms, project collaboration) and continued expansion of new communications technologies onto and within aircraft. The more applications and devices which demand precious network bandwidth, the more innovative network providers will need to be to expand their offerings to meet market demand.

Such developments will also force aircraft maintenance departments and MRO shops to become more network and data savvy, further converging those involved with aircraft support activities into information technology. Maintenance staff will need to become more familiar with not only communication-enabled devices in a more in-depth way, but also in how these devices interact with various networks. New skills in debugging network connectivity will be required.

Such new developments will create new opportunities for those who can adapt to this changing environment, and leave a few behind who cannot.

Conversely, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take that, Bon Jovi. 

 

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit OPMResearch.com.

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