Even people with creative jobs occasionally wonder what they might accomplish if work didn't get in the way.

SITA, the airline-owned information technology company, is unleashing the power of "What if?" with SITA Lab, a new research and development facility based in Geneva, Switzerland, that is liberated from day-to-day product development.

The company said the goal of the SITA Lab is "to drive innovation for the air transport industry working both independently and in partnership with others."

"It will allow much more speculative technological research," Jim Peters, SITA's chief technology officer, said. SITA Lab will operate under the leadership of Peters, who said researchers will be able to explore emerging areas of technology.

It won't be an unstructured endeavor. "We can say, 'Here's a new area and here are some questions about what this means for the airline community,'" Peters said.

The lab will look beyond the nitty-gritty of booking engines and reservations systems.

Mobility is "a big area of interest," Peters said. Mobile phones' implications for the airline industry have been hyped since the introduction of wireless application protocol in the late 1990s, he said, but penetration has been low. Last year's debut of Apple's iPhone and the unveiling of Google's Android mobile telephone platform have sparked new interest in the technology.

The management of a trip could be "mobile across the whole journey," Peters said, and mobile devices can be especially useful in the event of trip disruptions.

"Getting in line, being out of touch, wondering where I'm supposed to be, trying to find a network connection . . .. Just being able to get online using my phone would be nice to do," he said. Another area of interest is extreme transaction processing (XTP), a new term for grid computing.

When IBM and the airlines developed the mainframe-based systems that would become known as GDSs, TPF, or transaction processing facility, was the gold standard for dealing with high transaction volume.

In the world of Internet-enabled applications, high volume is handled by the use of smaller computers working in collaboration for business-critical applications.

Companies like Google, Amazon and eBay have deployed XTP, and the implications for the airline industry are obvious. Desktop virtualization is a third area that SITA Lab will explore. It allows a computer to run more than one operating system, such as Linux and Windows, for example.

"It slices up your hard drive and allows you to put it on a network so that you can walk up to any device and pull it up," Peters said.

Companies like Google have taken the concept a step further with so-called "cloud computing." "All the work you need to do is out there on the Internet," Peters said. "It's sort of a 'MySpace' equivalent of a place in which to do your work."

For SITA Lab, a first logical question is: "What does this mean for the new airport environment?"

To the casual observer, the new technologies raise questions of data security. "That's always an issue, but the technology exists to get over that," Peters said. "That's something we'll be doing in the lab."

SITA Lab has a permanent staff of five engineers and a program manager. The remainder of the $5 million initial budget will go toward project funding. While SITA is open to customer participation and cost sharing, Peters plans to be very careful in selecting co-investors.

"We don't want to dilute the effort," he said. "Too many chefs can spoil the broth."