ANALYSIS: Collaboration key to improving airport experience

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Travelling through an airport in the future will be a vastly different experience for passengers. It will be fast and seamless, with no inconsistent or unpredictable processes and no uncertainty or stress.

The check-in process will be eliminated as passengers will be considered checked in from the time of booking, and options will be available to self-process other elements of the journey from kerb to gate. Passengers’ own smart mobile devices will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to self-processing. At the same time, these devices will provide real-time travel information and interaction with travel providers, giving passengers more control over their journeys.

As IATA director general Tony Tyler remarked at the World Passenger Symposium in late October, this is not science fiction. Making this journey a reality and bringing value to the airport experience is a crucial component of IATA’s vision for travel by 2020, expounded in its updated Simplifying the Business (StB) programme.

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But how does IATA’s ideal play out with the airport community and the visions airports themselves have for the future? In fact, it dovetails with Airports Council International’s (ACI) goal of helping airport operators achieve excellent service to passengers by not just meeting but, where possible, exceeding their expectations at the airport. It also rather neatly exemplifies some of the opportunities and challenges that airport chief information officers are helping their own businesses and airport partners to address.

On the passenger-facing side there is a requirement not only for more self-service, but also increased flexibility. A key focus is connectivity and mobile technologies. Behind the scenes, there is widespread recognition that greater collaboration between all the stakeholders at the airport will be essential. The technology discussion is already considering a future in which better sharing of information will enhance the passenger experience.

Transition towards IATA’s 2020 vision is under way. Penetration of IATA’s Fast Travel initiative to give passengers more control over check-in, bag-check, self-boarding and document checks is forecast to cover airports serving 45% of eligible passengers by 2015. Looking at the priorities of airport IT bosses, revealed in the 2013 Airport IT Trends Survey, the overwhelming majority will be making investments in mobile technologies and self-service processes in the coming three years, with over half of airports funding major programmes.

This mass engagement is vital for the overall airport experience to become seamless. “In the passenger experience area most of the technology exists, but in the airport community it is hard to get them out there because of the requirement to invest at individual airports, and that takes time,” says John Jarrell, head of airport IT for Amadeus.

“What will be more relevant from now till 2020 is the proliferation of technology, so it can be more seamless and I can use that technology across the entire journey.”

Looking at just one aspect of that proliferation, how does IATA’s StB plan for passengers to be checked in ahead of their arrival at the airport stack up against the massive investment airports continue to pump into self-service check-in technologies, and will there be any future requirement for traditional desks?

It is an issue that Gerry Luttrell, head of IT at Dublin Airport Authority, is debating. “We are at the point of renewing equipment at the check-in desks. How far do we go in this space? What will be the take-up of this facility?

“Even if only one passenger wants to check in [using] the traditional mechanism, the airport still has to accommodate that, regardless of the preference of the airport and airlines.”

Offering choice will still be important, according to Paul Behan, IATA’s head of passenger experience, who says that for this reason IATA programmes are rarely designed to be 100% global. IATA estimates that 5-6% of passengers each year are flying for the first time, so inevitably they will require a greater degree of hand-holding. “If people are older or travelling with families or have special needs, desks can be as efficient as five people standing around a kiosk,” Behan acknowledges.

For ACI, it is about investing in technology that facilitates flexibility for passengers.

“There still needs to be a way or channel provided to the passengers to retrieve their travel token, change their preferences in seating, provide and receive additional information, rebook or cancel their ticket, purchase additional services and, of course, drop the bags. And that is why infrastructure and systems are still needed, not for doing the legacy check-in process, but to provide ways for the passengers to do so,” says ACI assistant director facilitation and airport IT Arturo García-Alonso.

IT investment at Miami International airport is geared towards providing that flexibility. The airport’s $6.4 billion capital improvement programme includes implementing SITA’s AirportConnect Open passenger processing platform in a virtual environment across the airport. The virtualisation will enable the airport to run the latest technologies and keep them efficiently upgraded, while allowing its 88 airlines to operate seamlessly from any desk, gate or work station.

The airport’s director of information systems and telecommunications, Maurice Jenkins, predicts that check-in will evolve into something more responsive. “As the design and footprints of airports have changed minimally, increased traffic with less brick and mortar to work with will necessitate a change in how best to utilise space,” he says. “The traditional ticket counter will change, if not virtually go away, and make way for portable configurations and common bag-drop locations.”

But while the onsite check-in process can be eliminated for passengers, if they are travelling with luggage then their bags must be checked in at some point. The ideal StB scenario would see passengers dropping off bags even before they reach the airport, but the pragmatic, shorter-term goal is a fast and simple common bag-drop.

Common bag-drop initiatives are gathering momentum across the airport sector. By the end of 2016, the Airport IT Trends Survey reveals that 90% of airports are expected to have implemented assisted bag-drop, 68% will have implemented fully self-service bag-drop and 82% will offer bag tag printing at kiosks. In many respects the passenger-facing technology is the easiest piece of the equation; the issues for airports are around passenger acceptance and baggage sorting.

Sao Paulo Guarulhos International Airport is gearing up for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games by investing in end-to-end processes to ensure a good passenger experience.

The investment includes self-tagging, which was implemented in October, bag-drop and a sortation system that can handle 5,000 bags an hour, due to come on stream in March 2014. Chief information officer Luiz Ritzmann has put self-tagging first, even through it means fulfilling the back-office processes manually, to build up confidence among users. He estimates initial usage at 5% of customers, a number that will grow over time.

These cultural issues are not unique to Brazil, as Ritzmann discovered when he recently stepped into the shoes of an agent supporting self-tagging and bag-drop in Brussels. “They have been using that for six months now. It’s not that people are scared, they really don’t believe it will work,” he says.

“I stayed for four hours acting as an agent for Brussels Airlines. People were getting used to it, but it will take some time. When they have confidence that it is in their own interest, it will make life easier and faster. That’s then a good experience on the passenger side and efficient on the operational side.”

Against the backdrop of proliferating self-service, there is seemingly no end to the consumer love affair with smart mobile technology. Find a way of combining the two and real-time contextual interaction between customers and their travel suppliers creates a win-win situation. If the smart mobile device is enabled with near-field communications (NFC) technology, it can take on more of the self-processing burden, allowing passengers to be stress-free.

Interest in NFC among airports is growing – the Airport IT Trends Survey reveals that 60% are planning to invest in the technology over the next three years. Admittedly, most of these projects will be trials, but interest overall has increased from 2012 when 52% were committing to initiatives.

Miami is one of those planning some cutting-edge technology pilot programmes, such as deploying self-boarding gates and NFC to allow passengers with smart phones to move through airport checkpoints with a tap of their phones. “This is one of our envisioned concepts of the future of airports and simplifying the passenger experience,” explains Miami Airport’s Jenkins.

However, the always-connected passenger ideal is complicated by Wi-Fi availability, charging policies and roaming fees. As García-Alonso points out, one size does not fit all. “Connectivity is an area where airports are putting a lot of effort in serving passengers and stakeholders. It is important to say that connectivity needs and requirements are not just for passengers, but also for staff, stakeholders, operations, concessionaries, etc,” he says.

“A passenger waiting for boarding who wants to check their email does not have the same needs as an Airbus A380 that needs to update the inflight entertainment system.”

ACI is already working with IATA and other stakeholders to create guidelines and recommendations to facilitate choosing the right solutions and providing connectivity to suit different requirements, as well as cost-recovery options.

“Another aspect that we are interested in studying together with other stakeholders, [such] as the World Tourism Organization and World Travel & Tourism Council, are the roaming policies of mobile operators, to see if it would be possible to find a better and more affordable framework for travellers to be connected, not only at the airport but during their activities at their destination,” says García-Alonso.

Smart mobile devices and social media provide opportunities to give passengers information and services to improve their travel experience, but with every kind of travel supplier trying to get their app in front of the passenger, the challenge is one of fragmentation.

“The passenger still has to make the decision about which window do they look through for the information. Today they look at the airline app, airport app or car rental app and there’s a danger that we have gone app mad. It’s creating its own problem,” says Nigel Pickford, director market insight at SITA. “As a passenger going on a journey, what you really want is ‘my travel wallet’ where everything comes together.”

The experience will also quickly degrade from seamless to stressful if there are various information sources, each with a different take on how long a flight will be delayed by. “The single source of truth does not filter down to other users of that data instantly, so there’s a data latency problem and people get very frustrated,” says Pickford.

“This highlights the growing interest, and I think it’s more than hype. There’s a lot of serious thinking going on about how airlines and airports can better share and leverage the information that’s generated out of the management systems that sit behind the passenger journey.”

At Dublin, Luttrell is already considering how he can enhance the information provided to passengers with internal information. “We give queue times currently and we’re interested to give more information,” he says. “It’s using information we have from different stages of our processes. Once the system has recognised you as a passenger and you have checked in, the system will recognise when you are in security and knows how long it will take for you to get to the boarding gate. The question is, how do you provide that information reliably to passengers?”

Ultimately the challenges around creating a seamless, end-to-end experience cannot be solved by airports alone. “I think there is a recognition by both airlines and airports that there has to be real partnership to get the passenger experience better than it is,” says Luttrell.

To download the executive summary of the Airports IT Trends Survey - the benchmarking industry survey produced by ACI, Airline Business and SITA - visit the IT zone