Flying Start: Taming SITA’s Vast and Complex Payments Set-up

As a specialist in air transport communications and information technology, SITA is present in just about every country on the planet. With on-the-ground support for its airline and airport clients an essential part of its service, SITA’s payments infrastructure is necessarily extensive. Determined to bring order to the proceedings, the firm called upon Unifiedpost, and its cloud-based PowertoPay corporate payments hub, for help.

If you’ve ever been to an airport, literally almost any airport, you will have benefited from the presence of SITA. It is the global leader in air transport communications and information technology: what SWIFT is to financial messaging, so SITA is to the air travel industry. Indeed, SWIFT is owned by banks, SITA is owned by airlines and airports – and both enable vital, secure communications between participants.

Like SWIFT, SITA also has the kind of reach of which others can only dream. With services provided to around 200 countries and territories, ‘truly global’ is no exaggeration. But such an expansive reach comes with its own set of challenges, notes Guillermo De La Fuente, Senior Manager at SITA.

With technical services provided to airports and airlines in every corner of the globe, and the nature of air travel and safety being 24/7, remote problem-solving and maintenance of SITA’s systems is not an option. Every location must have its own team ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Thus, with an employee roster to match its global spread, SITA’s payments set-up is certainly complex and subject to external conditions. Wages and taxation, for example, must be paid domestically in many instances. As a result, the use of multiple and specific currencies makes process centralisation financially untenable and, often, extremely challenging or even impossible from a regulatory perspective.

Add to the mix a fully centralised treasury, a shared services centre (SSC) handling accounts payable (AP) and disbursements, and around 120 different banking relationships spread across the world, and it becomes easy to understand why SITA’s payments were developing into a real pain point.

Even with several global banks on its panel, full coverage of SITA’s vast footprint is still only possible with the addition of multiple domestic institutions. Indeed, it is worryingly apparent that at least 65 countries on SITA’s map have no international banking presence.

“Simple and smart”

The decision to leverage SWIFT connectivity set the team on a mission to analyse its different options. This included hosting it in-house, using a service bureau, and working with a third-party technology provider to help with the implementation.

Although the in-house option, via the treasury management system (TMS), may have seemed a logical fit in terms of existing system connectivity, SITA was not convinced of the flexibility of that platform. “We wanted scope for improvement and change,” he comments. This was found in abundance in the PowertoPay platform from Unifiedpost.

“In a changing global environment, a system needs to improve continually,” explains De La Fuente. “We saw Unifiedpost as a fintech that was willing to learn and to develop its own technology with us.” Indeed, Unifiedpost is not short on ambition. The firm went public in September 2020, listing on Euronext Brussels. This is part of the vendor’s plan to be seen as “the cloud-based administrative and financial solution platform for SMEs, large corporates, and governments,” says Hans Jacobs, Chief Commercial Officer Unifiedpost Group.

Its three pillars of operation – documents, identity and payments – are aimed at delivering its core objective, that is to make administrative and financial processes “simple and smart”, she explains. Even with multiple clients across the segments, Unifiedpost’s aspirations are nowhere better demonstrated than in the vast geographical scope and complexity of its work with SITA.

Planning progress

With the contract signed in June 2018, the first step was to set up an internal project unit. This necessarily included a range of stakeholders, including Treasury, IT, and the AP and disbursements teams. “There were a lot of people involved, especially at the beginning when we were granting Unifiedpost access to our network,” recalls De La Fuente. “Many doors needed to be opened in terms of security, and this required close scrutiny.”

Once this had been accomplished, the focus shifted to payment file mapping. Working with the now embedded Unifiedpost team, SITA opted to use XML standardised payment formatting across the board. “We were very clear from the beginning that we were not going to use proprietary bank payment formats,” states De La Fuente. “We wanted to be sure that if there was a problem with one bank then we could move easily to another.”

The key driver, of course, has always been process simplicity, notes Hans de Wit, Business Development Manager, Unifiedpost. “SITA remains very enthusiastic about us taking care of the complex technical mapping process, realising simple and standardised formats and converting and mapping them to every domestic format used by its partners.”

Points of departure

With mapping underway, SITA’s Treasury called upon its AP and disbursements colleagues to help select the most critical starting points for the early roll-out. This was based on locations where most manual intervention was evident. De La Fuente recalls that the initial list included some of the more challenging countries in South America and Asia that required some “very particular payments specifications”.

The team developed a phased approach, implementing in groupings of just two or three countries – not banks – at a time. This is a deliberate choice. Where a banking partner covers a number of jurisdictions for SITA, the prospect of tackling a host of different regulatory and documentary requirements – and frequently different legacy systems, each requiring separate payment formats – was deemed inefficient.

With so much territory to cover, the project continues, taking an average of two or three months per country to connect, test and go live. It’s been a challenge at times, admits De La Fuente. “We’re having to manage a wide range of situations,” he notes. “Working outside Europe has proven quite difficult at times, but then every country has generated different challenges.” This was not unexpected: in some cases, banking partners are implementing SWIFT for the first time.

SITA currently has more than 30 countries (and 12 banks) live on PowertoPay. With the second roll-out phase well underway, a third is now being drafted and this will add a further 10 countries.

True partnership

The project is bringing much-needed process automation to most of SITA’s manually intensive operations. “It’s reducing fraud risk, but most importantly it’s reducing the whole administrative effort,” comments De La Fuente. “Payments can now be made automatically, with approvals no longer requiring a separate e-banking login. It’s quicker, more secure, and we have a view of all payments in a single platform.”

Of course, the advantages of automation are precisely what SITA had expected from the outset. But the team was also well aware that there would be challenges on the way, and it is often the manner in which these are handled that distinguishes the good from the great.

Unifiedpost undoubtedly has the knowledge and experience to be able to resolve issues as they arise, but more than that, says De La Fuente, it has also been willing to listen to and work with the SITA project team.

That journey continues. As one of the first corporates to engage with the SWIFT G4C project, SITA has the global ‘track and trace’ payments tool firmly on its radar. It’s currently working with Unifiedpost to develop the right gpi integration approach for the very-far-reaching PowertoPay platform.

With the collaborative nature of this partnership evident, more will follow. “We’re keen to find other ideas to make our lives easier, and we’re comfortable asking our Unifiedpost team to help us develop solutions that can benefit us, and other treasuries too,” comments De La Fuente.

It is, he notes, one of the advantages of partnering with an ambitious vendor that still has time for its clients. Indeed, he adds, “one of the reasons why we selected Unifiedpost was that we saw in it a fintech that was willing to share the journey with us”.

Guillermo De La Fuente
Senior Treasury and Risk Manager


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