Remote control: how technology will shape the check-in of the future

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New technology is enabling passengers to take more control of the airport check-in process. How will technology shape the check-in of the future?

The battle for customer satisfaction is moving from the aircraft to the first point of contact between the passenger and the airline - at entry to the airport or increasingly at the passenger's home. The increasing sophistication of airport self-service devices and the use of new means of personal communications, with devices like mobile phones or personal digital assistants, now allow airlines to overcome or outright bypass traditional check-in chokepoints, and in doing so let the carriers extend the portion of their journey over which they and not their suppliers have control.

While at new facilities such as London Heathrow's Terminal 5 or Singapore Changi's Terminal 3 customer self-service is the backbone on which the architecture depends, elsewhere, new technologies form the core of ways to repackage existing terminals in a ­different way, even in ageing facilities.

Much of the demand for more self-service stems from the passenger's desire for more control over the journey, to exercise power in a process that often leaves the customer, the purported centre of the process, feeling marginal. IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani says: "Passengers expect more options to control their travel experience, and self-service is part of their expectation of full service. The empowerment that people get from new technology has benefits for airlines as the ­carriers move toward the goals of simplifying the business, so it's a win-win."

Nearly 70% of world passengers have used self-service kiosks to check-in or alter their itinerary, and, according to the latest Airline Business/ACI/SITA Airport IT Trends Survey, more self-service kiosks will continue to roll out in 2008.

Common-use self-service check-in (CUSS) kiosks are behind the ability of airports such as Las Vegas McCarran to handle as many as four million passengers a month. The CUSS approach is ideally suited for an airport that is not dominated by a single carrier, says John Payne, San Francisco International Airport's chief information officer and vice-chairman of the business information technology committee of the Airports Council International-North America. At McCarran, 15 airlines share the 100 airport kiosks, plus check-in kiosks at remote sites including the convention centre in the resort and gambling mecca.

Payne says the technical complexities of a CUSS system are not always understood, and it is easy to underestimate the need for technical support. It is often the traditional technology of the printer that causes problems rather than the hi-tech IT functions, he explains. McCarran owns and operates the kiosks, which is the usual arrangement in CUSS situations, says Payne. It also maintains them and has a team of more than a dozen technical staff on hand almost 24 hours a day. It has developed a remote solution that resets a failed kiosk from a central location without making the technician go to the machine. That is great advantage for Las Vegas which, in addition to the 100 airport kiosks, has devices in garages and nearby hotels.

He says that common-use passenger-facing systems such as CUSS offer a platform that will meld easily into the next generation, dubbed CUPPS, or common-use passenger processing systems. CUPPS will integrate check-in with behind-the-scenes processes for all stages of passenger handling.

However, Payne adds that some carriers are reluctant to embrace the common-use infrastructure "because they see branding issues and want to be able to present their brand and their particular ways of presenting themselves to the passenger".

Mark Mitchell, managing director for customer experience at American Airlines, says: "Where we are required by the airport to use common equipment we will, but we have found that we prefer to offer our brand. We can get the product to market more quickly and offer a wider variety of options."

This approach has led to the rise of the branded self-service terminal. At the new British Airways Terminal 5 at Heathrow, set for a late March opening, the entire 30 million a year passenger facility will present the British Airways experience, and the carrier expects about 80% of its passengers to check in either online at home or at a kiosk when they enter the terminal. BA says the new facility will have about 100 self-service kiosks and over 90 fast-bag drops, which will be staffed to assist passengers with queries. The goal, says the carrier, is "zero queues". According to BA, the entire visual experience of the airport depends on openness, and that means fewer counters and other barriers.

In the USA, Anchorage Airport in Alaska, where Alaska Airlines is not only the dominant carrier but is in practical terms the only mainline carrier, has been a testing ground for self-service for several years, starting in 2004, says Jeff Butler, Alaska's senior vice-president for customer service - airports.

The $12 million layout makes check-in a two step process and virtually eliminates the conventional check-in counter. Passengers either check-in at home and print their boarding pass there, or collect their boarding pass at a kiosk, which Alaska dubs the Instant Travel Machine. If the passenger has a bag, he/she takes the boarding pass and the bag to a second stage, where an Alaska agent scans the boarding pass and then prints out a bag tag. The tags are then attached to the luggage and the passenger heads off to security. The airport still has a desk with service agents for passengers with special needs. Butler says the Anchorage project reduced passenger waiting time by half.

Solutions in seattle

But Anchorage was a relatively manageable sized project and it was at Seattle/Tacoma International Airport that Alaska faced a larger challenge in creating the "Airport of the Future", as it calls its project. At SeaTac, where Alaska carries about half the passengers, the project opened its first stage late last year with 11 check-in kiosks and 16 bag-check stations. At the bag-check stations, a newly designed conveyer belt system automatically weighs and then moves the baggage into the main luggage conveyor system.

One unanticipated benefit, says Butler, is a sharp reduction in on-the-job injuries among Alaska baggage handlers, because the customer actually hefts his or her bag up to the tagging station. "The airport staff has really been supportive because it has made their job easier", even though the number of Alaska workers needed has in fact decreased, he says.

Alaska has also been able to take out a number of counters and other fixtures and increase the size of the customer service area to about 14,000 square feet (1,300 square metres) from 9,000 square feet. When complete, the area will have 50 kiosks and 56 bag-check points, and will be lighter, airier and more open. "We have put some LED signage in to assist passengers, but by and large we think it is intuitive. People know visually where the next step is. They can see security as they get through check-in and they know where to go next," Butler says.

Alaska has shared its airport of the future concepts with other carriers, adds Butler. Delta Air Lines has adopted some of the concepts. Delta's new $26 million ticketing lobby at its Atlanta hub has 106 kiosks arranged in rows that are angled to the passenger entrance, in an effort to make the area look and feel more spacious. After the airline removed and relocated some office space, it "just made the whole area look a lot bigger", says Delta.

Mitchell of American says that self-service is not just for check-in. The airline has begun setting up self-service areas behind security for passengers who have missed their connecting flight or have another reason to rebook. Kiosks in these areas offer all of the steps need to get a flyer on the next available flight without forcing the delayed customer to wait for an agent. It has 70 to 80 machines at Dallas/Fort Worth, New York JFK and Los Angeles, and will expand this to other ­airports in its system.

It is security and facilitation, the entire immigration, customs and entry process, that makes the self-service process challenging, all the more so at airports where most flights are transborder services. For Alaska's SeaTac project, the vast majority of the seven million annual passengers are on domestic flights or transborder services to Mexico and Canada which, until recently, have required less onerous documentation.

But at an international hub such as Amsterdam Schiphol, an ambitious RPP or Redesign Passenger Process is being tested to study how an airport the size of Schiphol could integrate the basic check-in and bag-drop steps of the self-service process with the larger and usually more complex steps of passport control and other outward formalities. Schiphol is in the process of moving beyond its already ubiquitous self check-in and is testing self-serve bag drops. The goal of this is to ensure that passengers do not have to queue more than once, and that they only have to undergo two identification checks: one at the check-in and another at the aircraft gate.

Remote opportunities

But this is all within the airport, and remote self-service is very much an attraction for airports in such places as Singapore, where a $16 million common check-in system is almost ready for operation at all three terminals. By next March, airlines other than dominant Singapore Airlines will be able to offer kiosks (SIA already does), and officials look forward to more off-site check-in. Arinc's managing director for the Asia Pacific, Randy Pizzi, says that "with the advent of the integrated resorts, particularly in Singapore, there is great opportunity to extend passenger processing to hotels and convention centres".

Airlines have now begun to think out of the terminal, as it were. Just as they moved check-in from the airport to nearby hotels and resorts, and just they have been able to allow people to check-in and print a boarding pass at home, airlines are extending the self- service concept from new territory to new technology. In what IATA's Bisgnani calls a major breakthrough, airlines are bringing check-in and boarding to the personal communications device to the mobile phone. IATA member airlines have agreed on a technical standard that will allow the check-in functions to be read from a mobile phone's screen. The technical standard allows a barcode to represent the passenger name record and other identifying data. Because it can be displayed on the mobile's screen, this barcode can be read by most existing scanners and so allows a passenger not only to skip check-in queues, but to skip the printing process. And paperless travel is a key portion of IATA's "simplifying the business" initiative.

Continental is now testing the technology at its Houston Intercontinental hub, after airline and airport officials persuaded the US Transportation Security Administration that security would not be compromised.

Mobile solutions

Gerry Samuels of Dublin-based Mobile Travel Technology says most existing barcode readers at airports can also scan the mobile devices, so would not have to be replaced. His firm has developed software that allows mobile phones of any type to connect with the airline's website and then display a machine readable image of the barcode that accompanies the Passenger Name Record.

Other firms that have explored this technology include Useable Net, with which Delta Air Lines is working, and Mobiqua. Much of the technological progress to make barcoded boarding passes machine readable has already been accomplished by SITA. Although Samuels and others see mobile phone check-in as the wave of the future, Payne of ACI-NA thinks that the future will continue to be a blend of kiosk check-in, both common and proprietary, and mobile device check-in. "Regional differences are just too great for one mode or another to take over," he says.

"It is easy to underestimate the need for technical support"

John Payne

Chief information officer, San Francisco International Airport