IN FOCUS: Technology key in airports development

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Meeting future demand, be it increasing numbers of ­passengers and their ever-smarter mobile devices or airline business partners seeking to improve efficiency, is a critical preoccupation for many airport IT bosses.

Their vision of an integrated airport ­environment that offers a seamless customer experience is edging closer to realisation. Airports around the globe are reporting successes over the past year focused on IT infrastructure upgrades, common-use and self-service, and mobile services for both passengers and staff.

Combine these wins with, admittedly nascent, activity around in e-gates, passenger flow management, radio frequency identification (RFID) and the toolkit for enhancing ­performance is taking shape.

However, the pace of technological change is picking up all the time, so working out how to prepare for growth without creating logjams in the current service or boxing yourself into a technological corner is no mean feat.

Furthermore, the astute deployment of technology will never be enough to fulfil the vision. Meeting future demand will require a collaborative airport environment, which means bringing your customers, consumer and commercial, with you on the journey.

The challenge of growth cannot be understated. "The fact there will be over five billion arrivals and departures from airports this year alone means airports must manage growth," says Ilya Gutlin, vice president of Airport Solutions Line, SITA. "They can do this by leveraging the convergence of three trends: passenger self-service, mobility and collaborative decision-making to create a smart predictive environment for the most effective flow of passengers and cargo through an airport."

The first stage to achieving SITA's ­"Intelligent Airport" vision is a foundation of robust infrastructure and integrated systems. Systems and processes that have evolved independently, or with minimal communication, or inefficient overlaps of data and resources, "fail to address the airport as an integrated time-based supply chain", says Gutlin. No surprise then that 74% of airports will be pumping money into refreshing their IT infrastructure over the next three years according to the 2011 Airline Business/SITA and ACI World Airport IT Trends Survey.

Among those already reporting infrastructure wins is Spain's airport authority AENA, which earlier in the year set up AENA Aeropuertos to manage the country's 47 ­airports as a step towards part privatisation.

A key achievement for director of ­information systems Eloy Barragán has been adapting the enterprise systems to AENA's new model. At an airport level, the successes have focused on supplying the IT infrastructure, including data centre, airport operational database and flight information displays, to new area terminals in Alicante, Santiago and La Palma. "The benefits have been to increase ­capacity in these airports and adapt the ­systems to the new fares," he says, while ­conceding co-ordinating IT infrastructure activities with the builders to ensure there were no delays to the schedule was not ­without difficulty.

For San Diego International Airport, initiating a capital improvement project to upgrade the airport-wide network to ensure redundancy and move from a 1GB backbone to a 10GB backbone is already delivering benefits. "The improved network greatly enhances the airport network reliability and ability to ­handle newer technologies such as voice over internet protocol telephony and network-based cameras," says Howard Kourik, director of information technology at San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.

San Diego is in the throes of a $1bn "Green Build" sustainability project to construct new gates, enhanced kerbside check-in, plus other terminal improvements, which will increase capacity from nearly 17 million passengers last year to 27-33 million by 2030.

Common-use self-service is a cornerstone to the Green Build focus on more efficient use of resources and has proved a significant achievement for Kourik and his team, with the last year seeing them add low-cost carriers Volaris and Spirit into the existing common-use terminal equipment (CUTE) system at four gates.

But the greater victory has been gaining buy-in from the airport community to move to the IATA/ACI Common-Use Passenger Processing System (CUPPS) standard. The upshot is after the Green Build is activated in 2013, San Diego will provide CUPPS at 23 out of 51 gates. It will also supply a common-use infrastructure, which will mean the IT team providing a range of telecoms services directly to concessions and carriers that they currently only provide to airport personnel.

CUPPS is not difficult technically; the real challenge comes with the move from dedicated airline equipment to a common-use airport environment. But mindsets in the USA are evolving rapidly on both sides from the historic divide between government-entity-landlord airport and long-leaseholder airline.

"Times have changed. With airline mergers, bankruptcies, alliances, etc, the airports' perception is that it has to think long-term about providing service to the community, whereas the airline, of necessity, has to think short-term about profitability," says Kourik.

"I foresee airports taking more and more of the tasks traditionally defaulted to the airlines, and thus becoming fully engaged partners with the airlines in the business of processing passengers from door-to-door. We will also look very hard at using this technology to help generate additional revenue: CUPPS enables us to be more financially attractive to new entrants by reducing airline's start-up costs and personnel needs."

Top technology projects overall, according to this year's Airport IT Trends Survey, are providing mobile (data capable) device-based services for staff and offering mobile device-based services for passengers, attracting resource from 84% and 80% respectively.

Mobile services are establishing themselves as a vital tool for airports to communicate with customers in a service-centric environment, even more so when, like Dallas-Fort Worth International (DFW), you are working through a seven-year terminal renewal programme. Construction has been underway at Terminal A since May and in September work started to add 54,000 square feet of landside interior space to Terminal E. But a focus on the hospitality to enhance services to all customers, passengers, airlines and concessions, combined with imaginative application of mobile technology is helping DFW go several steps further.

Upgrading DFW's mobile site this year has increased visits by 31% to 4,000 per day. A touch-screen digital signage pilot in Terminal D, which allows passengers to pick and choose the various places in the airport they want to find and see where they are, has now been rolled out onto iPads and smart phones via an app developed in-house.

"One of the things we are focused on is how to communicate with these customers and to co-operate with them, with their devices and needs every day," says William Flowers, vice president of information technology systems and chief information officer at DFW.

In August, DFW added social networking into the mix for the 84% of its passengers using smart phone devices. Location-based apps Foursquare and Facebook Places are now integrated with offers from DFW concessionaires. This allows customers checking into these social networks in any of DFW's five terminals to receive special deals on an offer within a few yards of their location. In the first five weeks, there were 5,000 active check-ins taking on concession deals.

"The current media interest is smart phones and the next generation, that's all they do. And the way that information is dispersed across the world will be through these devices. That will be the change of the future," says Flowers. He observes: "One of the great things about technology when it's done well is it is completely ubiquitous and invisible. So we try to make sure when we install technology is to enhance the customer experience."

Mobile devices for operational staff offer considerable potential for generating efficiencies. "Mobility will impact four million employees working for airport operators and other companies at airports, and these solutions deliver operational efficiency while reducing costs," says Gutlin at SITA. "In airport ground operations, the major cost driver is employee related; 65% to 75% of the overall cost is tied to salaries and time compensation so productivity can be enhanced using mobile work solutions."

DFW senior staff have iPads to enable them to access information and make decisions rapidly, and now the airport is piloting a project with its customers service airport ambassadors so they can quickly call up information to share with passengers, do surveys or take images to allow colleagues to immediately make decisions about situations.

Doha International Airport is already ­reaping the customer service benefits of ­equipping ground staff in Qatar Airways' Premium Terminal with mobile devices to provide individual information on first and business class passengers.

Akbar Al Baker, chief executive for the airport and Qatar Airways, says: "This new technology significantly personalises the service and increases business efficiency as staff will always be able to access the latest flight and passenger information. It will also help to cut down on printing costs."

The airport has been juggling making IT improvements including mobile-based boarding cards, off-site check-in, automated baggage handling, in-line baggage scanning combined with RFID, with readying the first phase of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) for completion in 2012 with an initial capacity of 24 million passengers a year, rising to 50 million when it is fully operational in 2015.

Nevertheless, upgrading on two fronts ­generates challenges. "With the NDIA project in the advanced stage of completion, it is a challenge to balance spending efforts and costs between strategic and tactical initiatives to ensure smooth operations at the current Doha International Airport," says Al Baker.

A smooth migration of operations to NDIA will be a focus in the coming months. And ­ongoing initiatives at Doha International will improve operational efficiency via collaborative decision-making tools, ­biometric technology, staff mobility and management information systems.

Doha is also among those airports ­pioneering the way with more nascent technology, making a significant investment in automated self-service immigration gates for Qatar residents to support seamless travel.

In Europe, Vienna International this autumn began installation of self-service common-use electronic gates for self-boarding throughout its terminals, including the new Skylink terminal project, with 92 e-gates in operation by the time Skylink opens in 2012. These initiatives are all part of Vienna's agenda to handle future growth. "One of our main strategies is to increase our service quality and passenger travel experience," explains Vienna's chief operating officer, Julian Jäger, adding, "This new boarding solution will substantially contribute to our objectives."

SITA has been the airport's partner on the project and Gutlin sees e-gates as yet another element of the intelligent airport vision to "shorten queues and take the hassle out of the passenger experience". He adds: "Our research shows that 70% of passengers are willing to use self-boarding."

Hong Kong International Airport pioneered the integration of RFID baggage reconciliation and management and is now planning to review its use of RFID to identify further improvements.

"In future, this RFID technology may have much wider application in the aviation field such as cargo handling; freight management; asset and inventory control; passenger services and passenger tracking etc.," the airport says. Hong Kong International Airport is investigating a number of nascent technologies including GPS and wireless triangulation for improved understanding of the location of both passengers and physical assets. A real-time decision support system, based on the latest business intelligence platforms, is under evaluation with the aim of allowing operations staff to make critical decisions based on more data.

"The use of technologies will help to realise the vision of an intelligent airport through which operational stability and efficiency can be enhanced and increase passengers' satisfaction," the airport says. "In the future, we have plans to use more new technologies in meeting the airport's community needs."

SITA's Gutlin observes: "Whether for ­tracking passenger movements, end-to-end situational awareness of key assets and resources, or rapid real-time collaborative decisions, new technology combined with passengers' desire for more self-service options has the power to unite the operational practices of airlines, airport operators, ground handlers and others within the airport."

IT TRENDS SURVEY: Verbatim comments

What have been the major successes and challenges over the last 12 months?

Major IT successes:

  • Self check-in and drop-off implementation process. Sorting baggage process automation
  • Network upgrade, completion of construction and shared-use systems, mobile website
  • The launch of the instant feedback system for customer service
  • Bar-coded boarding pass processing for security and airport fee collection

Major IT challenges

  • Payment card industry data security standards compliance
  • Cost cutting exercise, which resulted in many IT initiatives being deferred to 2012
  • New projects being started without adequate information systems input
  • Mobile device connectivity - so many different devices now and coming