IN FOCUS: Airports look to IT to help share the loads

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There's a quiet mindset change under way in airport IT departments. It is a fresh, customer-focused approach to enabling and integrating business for their airport colleagues, and it is an increasingly important factor in the way IT strategy is developed and implemented.

In the near term, airport IT strategies continue to focus on projects to improve operational efficiency via self-service and automation. But chief information officers are also preparing the ground for their airports to engage and communicate with all their communities, including greater information sharing and collaboration between stakeholders.

Hand in hand with these tactics to facilitate airport growth, there are signs of an evolution under way in the skills of the IT teams to better support these changes.

Take three airports: Quebec City International in Canada, Brisbane International in eastern Australia and London Gatwick in the UK. Each has different levels of traffic, ranging from Quebec's 1.3 million passengers in 2011, Brisbane 20.4 million and Gatwick over 33 million passengers. Nevertheless, all three have ambitious plans and the preoccupations of their IT bosses and their strategies have much in common.

Enhancing the customer experience and getting the airport in good shape for the future has been the immediate concern for all three airport IT departments. "Our IT strategy is and always has been to make the passengers' journey through our airport a positive experience," says Quebec's president and chief executive officer Gaëtan Gagné. "To this end, several organisations at the airport need to be able to work together efficiently. IT plays a major role here."

Investment in common-use terminal equipment and common-use self-service (CUTE/CUSS) and promoting its use across the airport has been key in improving passenger processing and their overall experience.

"Self-service kiosks have been monumental in considerably reducing line-ups in the check-in area by freeing up airline agents so they have more time to help passengers who require assistance," says Gagné. "We're convinced the CUTE/CUSS kiosks have been instrumental to the increase in traffic of over 68% over the past four years."

Gatwick is also working to improve the efficiency of its check-in processes. To reduce queues, chief information officer Michael Ibbitson has plans to ensure that any check-in can be used by any airline at any time. He is also looking at creating some terminal areas where any passenger can arrive to use the check-in, and installing a common-use bag-drop zone to relieve pressure on the airline-focused areas.

One of the successes of this efficiency strategy has been the implementation of a biometric security system to identify and track domestic passengers using Gatwick's South Terminal. As passengers approach security and their boarding cards are checked, the airport takes a quick iris scan and converts it into a bar code and this is checked again at the automatic gate to ensure the passenger is in the right place.

AIRPORT IT TRENDS

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"Potentially we could have a ticketless travel environment where your iris scan becomes your ticket. I'm not talking about a traditional iris scan where you stand in front of an awkward piece of equipment. We are talking about technology that does it at a glance. We are working with some of our airline partners to see how we could extend that to check-in and boarding," says Ibbitson.

The next stage will be to extend the technology to an airline in the North Terminal that operates international services to check the technology with airline processes at check-in and boarding.

"Biometric has been really successful and a lot of airlines are telling airports if you want to know how to do security well, take a look at Gatwick. It has reduced queue times and dramatically exceeded the Civil Aviation Authority's targets," reports Ibbitson.

For Brisbane, the focus on passenger-processing efficiencies and service improvements has included a common-use self-service bag-drop trial in its domestic terminal, allowing passengers to drop off their luggage in as little as 25 seconds. The goal is to extend the service across the domestic terminal in 2014. "It's a finite building. It's not going to be expanded, so we need to put technology in there that gets the best out of the building, and that includes common-use processing and dropping of bags. That can mitigate having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on capex," says IT services manager Duncan Murphy.

His team has also worked extensively with the airport's car parking business group to overhaul and consolidate three car parking systems down to one, introducing a tolling system for ground transport operators, with camera recognition integrated with car parks. Noting car parks are an important revenue contributor, growing at 12-15% per annum, Murphy says: "The system is more robust, so they have more uptime and generate more income and the reporting is much cleaner so they are able to analyse what's going on."

His team has also been working on an online car park booking system, which is part of a broader initiative to actively engage with the airport's passengers. "We don't have a lot of information on passengers so the online booking system is a first attempt by us to gather loyalty information about customers travelling through Brisbane. It is not traditional for an airport to gather the information. We are hoping to develop that so repeat car parking customers could be getting a discount or an offer of a fast-track lane when they are being processed," says Murphy.

Behind the scenes, his strategy this year has been to strengthen the technology stack, including reinforcing the airport's WiFi capability. There is public access to free WiFi and the plan is to extend the corporate WiFi network for staff. The team are also working on a mobile app to provide passengers with way finding and flight information. "There has been a lot of interest from our retail people with providing retail information. It goes hand in hand with a strong WiFi environment."

With an eye to a collaborative decision making environment getting traction at Brisbane around 2015, Murphy is thinking about the data-integration plan, adding a data-management tool to the technical foundation "so we are ready when the business starts talking more seriously about sharing data".

Both Gatwick and Quebec are further down this road. Behind the scenes at Gatwick, work is under way to automate the turnaround of aircraft, although the legacy systems inherited from the airport's previous owner posed some challenges. The solution has been to replace the old integrated technology with an enterprise service bus, which allows data to be passed between applications or data services in a commonly understandable format.

Within a few months, Ibbitson hopes to have established integration with key ground handlers, allowing them to share data, and in the longer term he is looking to integrate with airlines. "So if airlines change route, we get the information in real time and so we can change our plans. That helps with airport collaborative decision making and makes the airport more efficient and increases capacity."

He previously led the IT team at Abu Dhabi Airports Company, which operates the home hub for Etihad. "We had direct integration with Etihad, so we had detailed information of their booking loads to help with detailed planning and stand rotation. So we hope we will be working with key airlines, such as EasyJet and British Airways, to do that level of integration here."

Quebec too has a vision of extending its IT services and data sharing to all organisation on the airport site, recognising that this is the key to improving operational efficiency and a better airport experience for passengers. But as Gagné acknowledges, data sharing is a challenge and demands trust to be established between organisations.

"To improve data sharing between various organisations at the airport, we are working on using our unique position of infrastructure provider at the airport to gather all types of local operational data and offer data that could make a difference for these organisations in exchange for the information they have," he says.

This autumn Quebec completed the implementation of SITA's next-generation airport management system, which Marc-André Bédard, administrator IT strategic planning, says is the base to start working on collaborative decision making and allows the airport to use its resources more efficiently. The next steps will be standard setting between the various organisations and putting some effort into promoting data sharing within the air transport industry.

"It gives us a better vision of what happened at the airport in the past, thereby giving us a better view of what is happening now, so we and our partners can be proactive and resolve issues hours before they occur," explains Bédard. "It also gives us a better vision of the future so we can optimise resource usage."

The strategies and projects under way at Quebec, Gatwick and Brisbane demonstrate how the role of IT in their business is changing. "More and more, IT has been a proven business enabler for our airport," says Gagné. "Years ago, it consisted in simply providing IT services and systems that enabled us to manage our growth as an airport. Today, IT plays a major role in practically all airport processes by connecting the different business units that are on site."

Gatwick even has guidelines written into its strategy about what the IT department has to be to the rest of the company. "The key words are 'trusted partner to the business'," says Ibbitson. "When the business has to do something new and innovative, we want them to be calling the internal IT department first. The focus is on building internal reputation."

As IT departments become more customer-focused, so they are also rethinking how they work and what they provide, moving away from big infrastructure investments to concentrate on service. Gatwick is looking at a remote-site data centre and providing new systems as cloud services.

"The focus is on making sure we have great wireless and wired networks at the airport, but we won't need to focus on large computing rooms," says Ibbitson. "We need to become a great integrator and let other people do the server and infrastructure technical work."

At Brisbane, Murphy is also wrestling with the challenge of IT gaining greater acceptance as the first-port-of-call partner to the business and evolving the focus of their activities. The successful delivery of projects such as the ground-transportation tolling system and this summer's implementation of a new airport operational database are bringing IT and the business closer together. Board endorsement of the IT strategy has allowed Murphy to recruit people with specialist skills to beef up change control. They will authorise all IT services, manage the contracts/vendors and review designs for changes within the context of the environment.

The vision is to contract out specialist resources like systems and network engineering to allow the IT team to focus on the needs of the business. "I still think we are on a journey, but one of the things that has changed is that the IT group is building more capability to be focused on doing more analysis with business managers to understand the business," says Murphy.

The next three years will see Brisbane engaging with this transition. "We will have contracts with five or so vendors and they will provide us with the services we need in place of the other 100 and it will give us more time to go in and talk to the business about how we can help them. We are partnering with the business and that's our desire."

 THE FUTURE FOR AIRPORT IT STRATEGIES

Business intelligence and collaborative decision making look set to play critical roles in driving improvements in customer satisfaction, operational efficiency and productivity over the next few years.

SITA's vision is that airport IT strategies will evolve around tracking, managing and sharing real-time information about all airport assets and capacity to optimise the passenger journey, airport processes and decision-making for all stakeholders.

"Airports are finally understanding that they are not in this alone," says Catherine Mayer, SITA vice-president airport services. "They have airline partners, navigation providers and they have got the government and authorities. The best way to run an airport efficiently is to have access to information entering into a dialogue and get sharing of information early on in real time is what's going to make them operate efficiently in the future."

A key issue will be finding the best way and establishing relationships to access the data opportunities available. "On the strategy side of it we have seen a lot of airport interest on getting their hands on the wealth of data out there collected through third parties, third party mobile, third party social media apps and through hundreds of systems at the airport," says Mayer. "There is a hunger to get access to and understand all this data."

This spirit of greater communicativeness will also see airports evolving their customer services strategies, with mobile apps and social media helping to improve interaction with passengers and personalise passengers' journeys. In fact, rather than thinking of the passenger as someone else's customer, direct engagement with these customers is already providing some early wins.

"Airports are now dealing with a virtual community, a physical community and they are dealing with passengers. Airports are embracing technology to enables themselves to communicate effectively with these groups," says Mayer. But, some elements of IT strategy will continue to be a challenge to implement. A perennial difficulty is budget. "It's justifying the business cases because of a lot of times they don't exist in our industry. Benchmarking against other airports is difficult to do," says Mayer. "So justifying the budget and getting enough to keep the airport ahead of their competitive market."

The full 2012 Airport IT Trends Survey, published by ACI World, Airline Business and SITA, is available to purchase now. For more details or to download the Executive Summary visit the IT zone