Airport IT trends 2008

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It has taken a long time, but advances in making the traveller's journey through the airport less painful are being made, according to the latest Airport IT Trends Survey produced by ACI, Airline Business and SITA

Airports are preparing to ­marshal a battery of new ­technologies geared to ­streamlining the progress of passengers from kerb to gate and to enable as much self-processing as ­possible. Within the next two years half or more of all airports will have ­implemented remote check-in, passenger notification services, common bag drop ­locations and bag tracking services with ­automated boarding gates and registered ­traveller programmes coming up fast behind.

The Airport IT Trends Survey 2008, commissioned by Airline Business in partnership with the Airports Council International and SITA, reveals that over the next two years self-service will be the primary means for ­passenger processing in check-in areas at about a third of all airports, growing to nearly two thirds within three-to-five years. Now in its fifth year, the Airport IT Trends Survey 2008 attracted 85 responses, representing the views of over 163 airports worldwide and accounting for 55% of revenue within the ­Airline Business Top 100 Airports Financial & Traffic Ranking and 43% of the traffic.

However, the self-service ambitions of ­airports will be subject to buy-in from airlines and passengers alike. And while airports themselves are in a fairly comfortable position in terms of investment in IT and telecoms, they are sensitive to the squeeze their ­customers are experiencing. Results from the survey, presented at the ACI World and North American Annual Conference in Boston in September, show that in the last financial year airports pumped 3.4% (weighted to revenue) of their total revenues into IT and telecoms. This represents a small increase on 3.2% (revenue weighted) reported in the 2007 survey. Among 2008 respondents 56% (revenue weighted) say IT investment in the current financial year increased and 24% say it remains unchanged.

In line with the global economic trends, the IT investment outlook for 2009 is cautious - 44% (revenue weighted) are forecasting an increase and 30% (revenue weighted) suggest that spending will remain unchanged, with 26% (revenue weighted) preparing for a decrease, marginally up on the 21% (revenue weighted) who experienced a decrease this year, the Airline Business/SITA Airport IT Trends Survey, published this autumn, showed.

However, with improving customer service and satisfaction a key investment driver for 80% of airports (weighted to revenue) and passenger processing and services a high ­priority IT investment area for 72% (revenue weighted), projects to improve passenger processing and drive efficiencies look secure. Instead airports are spending money more cleverly and rescheduling timescales to ensure major projects are unaffected.

At Florida's Orlando International, director of information technology for Orlando Greater Aviation Authority John Newsome, says: "Our relationship with airlines has always been good and working hand-in-hand with them we are not only seeing their pain, our ­passenger forecasts have also taken a down turn." As a result Orlando has reduced its draft 2009 IT budget by about 20% and made timing ­adjustments to negate any impact. "There were not any investments we felt we didn't need to make or we cut entirely. We just ­repositioned it post FY09. It's a 20% ­reduction in 09 spend but the projects are still there," adds Newsome.

Economic pressures are driving efficiencies at Los Angeles World Airports. "We have already found a number of ways to achieve savings, simply through better management controls," says Dominic Nessi, deputy ­executive director and chief information officer at LAWA. "Obviously if our budget is cut substantially, it may impact services. However, our goal is to maintain our current level of support despite any budget cuts."

Elsewhere in the world, airports are equally resolved to keep IT investments stable - Hong Kong International Airport admits: "Airports and airlines worldwide are feeling the effects of surging fuel prices and economic ­uncertainties." However IT investment remains stable and in line with growth in business demands. "Despite the uncertain market outlook, we will ensure that our IT spending will be sufficient and timely to meet the long-term demand for air travel," says Hong Kong International.

Increasing competition - not just from rival airports, but from other modes of transport such as bus, ferry and train - means no one can afford to be complacent. "Airports are looking to differentiate themselves by offering improved passenger and tenant services and IT is the key enabler to providing them," notes Catherine Mayer, SITA vice-president airport services. Self-service in this environment is an unstoppable force, with a combination of economic pressures and customer empowerment fuelling its continued growth. "Economic conditions will force airlines and ­airports to find cost-saving measures," says Nessi. "And passengers will demand greater ability to manage their own travelling ­experience."

Common-use self-service (CUSS) kiosks deliver on both fronts, and while airports are keen, gaining acceptance from their airline customers is difficult in some regions. The vast majority of airports have a strategy of increasing kiosks, with 67% increasing them mainly for check-in use and 10% mainly for new uses.

Less clear is the rate at which respondents are implementing this strategy. Currently 32% (weighted to passenger numbers) of CUSS kiosks have been deployed, rising to 35% (passenger weighted) by the end of this year and 47% (passenger weighted) by the end of 2009. However, the expectation of last year's survey respondents was that 55% (passenger weighted) would be in place by the end of this year. This could mean a slowdown in ­deployments but equally that the number of planned deployments is rising.

Mayer emphasises there is no slowdown: "We firmly believe that kiosks will continue to play a critical role in the coming years both for passenger check-in and for other functions, for example in transfers and disruption ­management, and there will be a continued increase in the number of kiosks deployed at airports."

Yet in the US in particular the legacy of municipality-owned airports with one ­dominant carrier, plus powerful airline ­marketing departments demanding their own branding on kiosks are stumbling blocks. Los Angeles is focused on infrastructure ­improvements and is currently investing 5% of its overall IT operation in CUSS for ­international travellers. "Our experience is an increased use of CUSS as we determine how we can best work with our airline partners to make it viable at LAX," says Nessi, adding: "We have a number legacy carriers and ­existing leases, which reduce the ability to implement CUSS at this time."

Seattle-Tacoma Airport has had seven CUSS kiosks in place for just over a year - in the parking garage - and is almost at its target of 1% of passengers using them every day, which eases the pressure on the departure hall process. Airport operations director Mike Ehl's vision is to allow any passenger to check in wherever they want in the airport, using whichever check-in position they want and whatever security point is open. "We have 285 kiosks today and we would only need 205 to do the same amount of processing if they were all common use," he says.

Second-generation CUTE (common use terminal equipment) technology offering airlines full functionality rather than ­dumbing down their systems will go some way to help. "We think now with some convincing we would install common-use equipment at 81 gates at some point in the future, which makes sense for airports to own that equipment because our cost of capital is half what their's [the airlines] is," says Ehl. "We have made the offer to Alaska and now with the merger of Delta and Northwest to buy the infrastructure for them, rather than them having to buy it, because if you install ­common-use devices in a smart way you are not going to have to relocate airlines if there is a merger."

However, the tussle between airports and airlines over CUSS may become irrelevant in the face of internet-based applications and barcode technology on mobile phones. "CUSS kiosks have a limited lifetime," believes Ehl. "I think they will ultimately morph into ­barcode readers where passengers present the barcode reader with the phone and that will generate a bag tag."

With over 100 airlines operating out of the UK's Manchester Airport, lack of carrier ­dominance has eased the progress to ­eliminating virtually all of its single airline kiosks, but director of group technology and innovation for the Manchester Airport Group Martin Smith also predicts a changing role for kiosks. "They will be dispensing bag tags, ­selling upgraded services. Kiosks will be part of the overall mix, but the shape of it will be a little different."

Few airports have enabled additional ­functionalities for their kiosks to date but within the next two years 17% are planning to implement kiosks for transfer services, 11% kiosks for mishandled baggage and 7% kiosks for disruption management. Airports are also looking beyond the kiosks to implement new technologies to give passengers, as Smith puts it, "an experience of ease" within the confines of processes that have to take place at an ­airport.

Automated (self-service) passenger ­boarding gates look set to be installed at 45% of airports within the next two years. In the same time frame, implementing remote ­passenger check-in projects looks set to rise to 56% passenger tracking/flow management tools to 35% and registered traveller ­programmes to 38%.

Manchester is at the forefront of some of these developments, "We are looking at ways of tracking our passengers through the airport using Bluetooth mobile phone technology to work out where passengers' mobile phones are," reports Smith. This year the project is focused on the security/search process, next year it will roll out to the time it takes ­passengers to get through the door, security/checking, and how long they spend in the retail area, through to the gates. "It helps us to identify hot spots, track performance at key services like security search," says Smith. "It is an example of how we are investing in ­technology to enable the processes." And as this technology works on common infrastructure it would not be a problem to roll it out to the rest of the airports in the group.

Manchester already has self-service ­boarding pass gates at the entrance to the security area and Smith says the approach taken would also allow them to use the ­technology for the automated gating of flights. Manchester is also introducing self-processing gates in the arrivals area. In conjunction with the UK Border Authority, it has just started a trial for face recognition automated entry gates for people who have micro-chipped passports. So far the trial seems to be going okay, according to Smith. "I would anticipate that we will do more around the arrival process. Arrivals can be the Cinderella of the airport experience."

Automated checking of ID is a critical area for Orlando, which was the launch airport for the US government's Registered Traveler ­Program and it now has tens of thousands of passengers with biometric ID cards. "It is a way to speed them through the checkpoint - because the ID is verified at this kiosk they move essentially to the head of the line and get the next slot up to have their bags screened. That's worked extremely well for us. It is quasi self-service [as] there are ­attendants there," says Newsome.

He forecasts a big uptake in machine-readable media at checkpoints and then out at the gates, although this opportunity at the aircraft gate also presents a considerable challenge on the validation front. "Right now no one has that connection with the airline database," says Newsome. "It is an airline and airport [process] problem and I would like to see them tackle it like that. They have done with common-use passenger processes. We've got the first steps with things like 2D boarding passes, but there is a lot more work that needs to be done."

Another challenging area for ­airports and airlines alike is baggage processing. Currently 26% of airports have implemented baggage tracking projects and this looks set to grow to 56% in two years, with common bag drop locations on airports growing from 18% to 51%. As part of its Redesign Passenger Process initiative, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is trialling self-service bag drop - some 6,000 bags in six weeks - and so far, reports programme ­manager Betty Samola, the success rate is fairly high and most passengers have been very enthusiastic.

Schiphol's approach is to realise RRP projects in an incremental way. "Instead of developing a common-use product, we are now developing a customised approach by exploring all kinds of ways to set up co-creationship with all our stakeholders," says Samola. The pinch point impacting on progress is getting buy-in from stakeholders. "They are rather reserved in investing and resourcing because they all meet with difficulties in the aviation branch. Co-operation and participation is the key factor in the airport operational context."

This is echoed by Smith at Manchester: "Technology is not the answer - it facilitates the answer, but the issue is always working with people and having half decent processes," he says. "Technology without people and processes is guaranteed to cost you money and lead to disappointment."

Future challenges

  • The ability to move aggressively forward with industry initiatives (Fast Travel, Common Use Passenger Processing, etc) due to airline budget constraints
  • Getting all airlines to implement their web check-in systems and barcoded boarding passes
  • Airline buy-in for airport IT strategy, executive management buy-in
  • Mobile phone check-in, common bag drop, security technology (biometrics)
  • Improving the passenger experience while meeting modern airport security needs
  • To improve passenger and baggage processing using appropriate (standard) technologies
  • Funding to support new technologies and requirements

The above are anonymous verbatim responses taken from the 2008 Airport IT Trends Survey

Findings from the Airline IT Trends survey can be found here