What will check-in area of tomorrow look like? A bank of kiosks or a home computer?
Fly from Vancouver airport and instead of a line of check-in desks, you see 30 common-user self-service (CUSS) kiosks, a line of bag tag machines and five common-user bag drops. Is this how all airports will be in the future?
You can also find kiosks at downtown locations, including hotels, stations and car rental offices. In all there are 80 self-service kiosks around Vancouver.
But here is an alternative vision. You wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, switch on your computer and go to the web. You check in for your flight, supply some information for immigration and print your boarding pass.
Which of these visions can we expect in the future? Probably both. There is a consensus among early-adopting airlines and airports, as well from organisations such as IATA and SITA, that in five to 10 years’ time only around 20% of check-ins will be done at traditional check-in desks.
That 20% will consist of infrequent flyers; those who do not speak the language well enough to understand kiosk instructions; and, crucially, groups for which self-service is probably always going to be awkward. The remaining 80%, most reckon, will be split equally between kiosks and online check-in, although some think online could be even more important.
Both British Airways and KLM, for example, estimate that online will eventually account for than half of passenger check-ins. KLM says 45% of its passengers currently use self-service kiosks, and 12-15% check in online, but in two years it expects the majority to be online. Kevin Molloy, vice-president of IATA’s Simplifying the Business (StB) initiative and chief information officer at Vancouver International Airport Authority reckons as much as 70% of check-in could be online.
For the moment, however, the key focus is the spread of kiosks, and particularly CUSS kiosks, which are one of the five planks of IATA’s StB initiative. While many airlines have installed their own self-service kiosks at key airports in recent years, it is CUSS kiosks that IATA thinks should dominate the way forward.
It is airports rather than airlines that IATA sees installing such kiosks, and it has been targeting them in recent months. Since July seven airports – Doha in Qatar, Geneva, Lisbon, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and Toronto – have signed memoranda of understanding with IATA to install CUSS terminals, and Paul Behan, IATA CUSS project manager, says his team is working on a series of regional plans, which it hopes to get approved this month.
Self-service hit list
Divided into the Americas, Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Russia and the CIS, North Asia and the Pacific, these will offer a hit list of the airports and airlines most likely to support CUSS in each area. “We are now moving from trials of CUSS to widespread implementation,” Behan says.
Catherine Mayer, vice-president of airport services for SITA, also believes CUSS is starting to take off. “Airports and handlers are not interested in getting caught up in dedicated hardware, and I think airlines are beginning to see the advantages of shared infrastructure too,” she says.
The Airport IT Trends survey sponsored by Airline Business, ACI and SITA shows this. While 50% of airports say they have already had dedicated-use kiosks deployed, 48% say they have no plans to add more. By contrast, while only 2% have deployed CUSS terminals already, 66% say they plan to deploy them in the next two years.
The advantages for airports in deploying CUSS kiosks are clear, says Molloy. Apart from avoiding a clutter of airline-specific kiosks, he estimates they have improved throughput at Vancouver airport by as much as 250% during peak times since the airport installed the kiosks in 2002.
“Before CUSS, at the domestic peak hours of 07:00 to 08:00, we had lines snaking across the terminal. Since then we have had a 25% increase in domestic traffic, Air Canada is employing 30% fewer check-in staff and we have seen no lines in a year and a half.”
As a result, a planned $50 million extension to the terminal was postponed from 2004 to 2012. Sam Ingalls, assistant director of aviation information systems at Las Vegas McCarran airport, which has had CUSS terminals since October 2003, also sees similar benefits. “It has enabled us to make a more flexible use of the existing terminal space and not expand to the extent we would have had to,” he says. “Our investment of $1-2 million in kiosks, which is not a small amount, pales in comparison with saving $20 million on building expansion.”
In theory the benefits of CUSS for airlines ought to be clear too. Las Vegas has 15 airlines using its CUSS system and Ingalls says those with proprietary kiosks at the airport are now also switching over. The reason, he says, is the cost of maintaining the kiosks. “Before we introduced CUSS, we had single airline kiosks here, but while airlines did good work to refine the kiosk process, none of them did a good job on maintenance. Because they didn’t have their own maintenance staff here, they had to fly someone in from headquarters, and that took a day out of their time. So they generally didn’t do that until more than one kiosk was down.”
When Las Vegas decided to install and maintain its own kiosks free of charge to airlines, Ingalls says, carriers were happy to switch. “We had an agreement that they would all remove their own kiosks when we installed CUSS. We did not have to tell them to do it, because they all saw no reason to have to continue to maintain their own units,” he says.
Whether all airlines would be so happy to switch from their own kiosks to CUSS is open to question, however. Most will probably prefer to keep their own kiosks at hubs, and some suggest they might keep them elsewhere too.
Northwest Airlines, which has 1,100 self-service kiosks in use at 210 airports worldwide, says it is “neutral” on the subject of CUSS. “There are many factors we would consider, including the location of the CUSS terminal, lobby traffic patterns, the hardware and peripherals, IT infrastructure integrity and maintenance,” says the carrier.
Kevin George, head of customer departure at BA, which currently has 225 kiosks, mainly in the UK and European airports, says the carrier is “actively engaged in trials” and plans to use CUSS kiosks a lot more. But he still sees a case for BA having its own kiosks at larger stations worldwide.
“We pride ourselves on our customer service and we want to be sure that it is maintained,” he says “The reliability of kiosks is improving dramatically, but customers are still apprehensive about using them and need reassurance and help. Who is providing this service in an airport-installed CUSS environment? And if there are people at a CUSS terminal from different carriers trying to assist passengers, that could be an issue for us.”
There is also the wider branding issue that proprietary kiosks carry the airline’s logo, while CUSS ones would not. Mayer points out that similar concerns were once expressed about shared flight display information systems.
Frank de Reij, executive vice-president of ground services at KLM, is also relaxed about this aspect. “For us branding on kiosks is not an issue,” he says. “There are always other places such as drop-off points or lounges where you can put branding.”
This assumes that bag drop points will be airline- or handler-specific. Mayer believes CUSS check-in needs a common bag drop as well. With terminals scattered all over the airport, passengers will not want to look for a specific bag drop, she points out. Both she and Behan at IATA say this area is being looked at, and Molloy is hoping to persuade IATA to adopt Vancouver’s existing common bag drop solution.
The whole issue of how to handle bag drops is another key issue for self-service check-in. Separating out check-in and bag drop is, everyone agrees, much more efficient than having the two processes done together.
As well as two-step systems already in place at Vancouver and Las Vegas airports, BA is planning a three-wave approach to check-in at its new Heathrow T5 building – first 55 kiosks, then bag drops and then customer service counters for those who need more assistance.
The carrier also says that T5 is being designed on the basis that 50% of customers will check in either online or using kiosks from day one. “We will be at maximum capacity almost immediately, so we need these efficiencies,” says George.
But there are still different views on how to issue bag tags. Should they be issued by the kiosk – in which case the time each passenger spends at the kiosk is increased – and can the application of the tag be done before the bag drop or do the two need to be combined?
Regulations complicate this issue further. In the USA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that once the tag is on the bag, it must be held secure by airlines. In theory, that means that if tagging is done before the bag drop, it must be done in a secure area, something that Vancouver is currently wrestling with. “We don’t want to put our self-service tag kiosks behind a wall, so we are working on a electronic solution, perhaps using radio frequency identification tags,” says Molloy.
BA and KLM, meanwhile, still have staff printing tags. “So far, our bag drops are still manned, because of the importance of having the right label on the right bag, but that may change in future,” says de Reij. George says BA tests have shown that the current bag tag is just too complicated for the average customer to attach to a bag correctly. “Until such time as radio frequency identification tags are accepted for baggage, then we will need staff to do it,” he says.
There is also the question of ensuring that passengers are not over the baggage limit or that they do not try to sneak two pieces of hand luggage on board. “These are examples of where we are having to rethink our processes end-to-end with self-service check-in,” says George. “We also need to check the customer’s ID to make sure they are who they say they are, and we don’t want to do all this at the gate, so we are looking at how we can do this landside, before the customer goes through security.”
The bag drop question becomes even more interesting when check-in is carried out at kiosks outside the airport. Las Vegas has sited six of its 76 CUSS kiosks at the Las Vegas Convention Center since October 2003 and is now looking at extending them to hotels. Vancouver put its first kiosks off-airport in April 2005, and is rolling them out in hotels, the convention centre and a busy transport hub.
The question arises, however, what to do with baggage at these remote check-ins. At present passengers have to take their own bags to the airport, but both airports are exploring the possibility of having bag drops at these sites.
Ingalls for example, points out that many passengers check out of hotels at 11:00 and then spend the day at a convention, meeting or casino, leaving their bags with the hotel concierge. So the airport is looking at having bag drops in hotels with a shuttle collecting them and delivering them to the airport. The TSA is in favour of the idea in principle, says Ingalls, because bags would be more secure under airline control than in a hotel luggage room.
Another idea Las Vegas airport is pursuing is the location of self-service check-in and a bag drop in a new car rental facility it is building. “This would be an opportunity at any airport,” Ingalls points out. “It is between on-site and off-site and allows you to extend the reach of the airport and give the consumer a single touch point.”
Airlines tend to agree that off-airport check-in could be an option, but both BA and KLM wonder if internet check-in will not by-pass such off-airport applications. “The optimum off-airport check-in is definitely online in our opinion,” says George.
Online check-in has a problem too, in that it requires the customer to have access to both a computer and a printer. While many travellers may have that at home, it is harder to come by in a hotel environment. George therefore expects online check-in to be more popular for outbound passengers, with kiosks more used on the return.
In the longer term, mobile phones or personal digital assistants (PDA) may also have a part to play in check-in, with a barcode put on to the phone, which could then be used as a boarding card. Mayer says that this technology is starting to generate interest, with two carriers due to test it early next year. However, most airports and airlines think the technology is too new to comment on yet.
One thing that does seem clear, however, is that in the airport of the future, there will be a lot more people who check in in advance, and a lot fewer standing in queues. Ingalls has an optimistic view of the result. “Passengers will still get to the airport an hour or two ahead of their flight, but they will now be footloose and fancy free, which will translate into extra concession income for us,” he says.
An alternative view might be that more passengers will turn up for flights at the last minute, and airports will see concession income go down. Faster passenger throughput could be a double-edged sword. ■
MAJOR PLAYERS IN GROUND HANDLING 2004-05 BY RANK
Revenues 2004 ($m)
|| Parent group
||Fraport Ground Services
||Go Ahead Group
||Verougstraete family (75%)
NOTE: Change is in local currency except for total change. Revenues for 2004 at average exchange rate. Servisair and GlobeGround are combined in the airport services division of Penauille Polyservices although they operate as separate market brands. SATS financial year ending March 2005. Aviance UK year ending July 2005.