Amadeus tells ground handlers: “The future is now”

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Ground handlers have long been a DCS afterthought. They have been users of – and even experts in – numerous airline IT systems for many years but, by the same token, they have had little control over the information they access, they have had a very small voice in terms of system design and ultimately their needs have largely been dismissed. Amadeus is determined to put those bad old days behind us and is planning the launch of the new Altéa ground handling module this fall. Jo Murray reports

“It is vital that airlines, airports and handlers have access to airline data,” insists Julia Sattel, Vice President Airline IT, Amadeus. Of course Amadeus is all about airline data with 109 airlines signed up to Altéa so far in 2011 (compared with 16 in 2004) and a 28% market share (headed towards 43% in 2013 based on contracts already signed and, of course, this may grow considerably).

“We have a very good track record of successful and low risk implementation,” she adds. The fact that 600 million passengers will be boarding via Altéa in 2013 shows the extent to which the airline industry has endorsed the Amadeus solution.

Departure control is critical to customer satisfaction, adds Christophe Tcheng, Director, Altéa Departure Control, Airline IT Development, Amadeus. He says that research shows that check-in and departure control is the largest factor affecting customer satisfaction. Of course the challenge is the smooth integration of airline systems to achieve these results. This means that the DCS, reservation system and inventory system have to work in harmony – Altéa takes this approach, says Tcheng.

So if the DCS is a mission critical application, and airlines put it at the centre of their strategies, it ought also be at the centre of every task their agents – the third-party ground handlers as well as the airlines’ own handlers – undertake on behalf of the airline. So why are ground handlers so often left outside the IT loop and are forced to access these systems as if they were an airline even though they have a very different function?

The answer is probably to do with history, protectionism, poor investment, a lack of understanding and general supply chain ignorance which has led to the formation of information silos between airline, airport and handler applications.

Yannick Beaunardeau, Director Airport IT Solutions, Amadeus, says that the very take up of the Altéa system has formed an IT community and this is a powerful position for Amadeus to be in. Beaunardeau adds: “We have changed the paradigm to a customer centric DCS rather than a flight centric DCS,” and this is at the root of Amadeus’ success in capturing such a large portion of the market. Of course it helps that Amadeus is now able to offer the same system at all touch points – even if there are different graphical user interfaces.

To illustrate the penetration of Altéa, Beaunardeau says that by 2015, 74.7% of all passengers travelling from Frankfurt Airport will be managed through Altéa by various airlines – and that percentage is based on contracts already signed, let alone those that may be signed in the next four years. With figures like this, it becomes clear why it is no longer enough to concentrate on the needs of the airlines alone; it is time to pay attention to the many ground handlers that are logging on to Altéa as if they were client airlines. Why continue to make them access a new screen for each airline when Amadeus has the power to present all their airline clients’ data through a single viewpoint?

It is exactly this single viewpoint that Amadeus is bringing to the market to ensure that the needs of the ground handlers are met through Altéa. Ground handlers can now view all the flights he is handling through a single screen – he will no longer have to keep logging on as different airlines. On top of this, the handler will be able to add in non-scheduled airline work such as private jets and ad hoc charter.

The technology has been developed and testing is complete. In fact, as far back as October 2010 a contract with Qantas was signed for the use of the ground handling module.

In May 2011, three ground handlers began piloting Altéa DCS for Ground Handlers, handling airlines already using Altéa Inventory and DCS. The three handlers in question are Aviapartner at Nice Airport, MAP Handling at Nice and Fraport Ground Services for the handling of Montenegro Airlines.

The next step takes place in November 2011 when handlers using the Amadeus solution will be able to handle non-Altéa airlines – albeit that they will have to be IATA members with a two letter code. This phase will also include what Beaunardeau refers to as an “Operational Update Data Management” which will allow airline inventory updating. “This step is not just about software but also about data management,” says Beaunardeau.

By April 2012, the system will have the capability to handle non-IATA airlines as well as private jets and charter operations in addition to everything that was introduced in November 2011.

The final phase in the development and market introduction of the ground handling module will follow in November 2012. This will include airline requests, particularly for airlines who are also acting as a ground handler.

The introduction of the ground handling module will – points out the team at Amadeus – expand the penetration of Altéa even deeper into the aviation industry. “There will be a massive simplification for the ground handler if the airline agrees to be handled in the Altéa rather than the airline’s own DCS,” says Beaunardeau. “Or the handler will be able to take the PNL [passenger name list] and convert it into the Altéa DCS,” he says. “Of course some airlines will simply continue to be handled through their own DCS.”

So why has the ground handling module from Amadeus been so long in the making? Given the extremely difficult conditions under which the handling industry has been labouring, why the wait? “A ground handler cannot impose a system on the airline,” responds Jérôme Letissier, Director, Marketing and Portfolio Management, Airline IT Business Unit. “A ground handler has to follow the airline’s rules.” Letissier points out that progress comes when the relationship between an airline and a handler becomes steady and commercial. He adds: “The penetration of the Amadeus DCS is now so high that the ground handler can leverage this position.”

Although handlers are so often treated as the poor relation in the airport environment, Letissier is at pains to point out that this is not the case here. “We have not lowered the offer to the ground handler,” he states categorically. “And the handler can adapt the ground handling service to the airline according to their business rules.” The aim is to be cost-effective, more productive and deliver common use between airline systems.

When it comes to delivering training for the ground handling module, Patrica Simillon, Strategic Marketing, Airlines Operations, Airline IT Business Unit, says that the “train the trainer” approach has been relegated to the history books. “Now we are training the user,” she states. “We are using in-house training time to do the training in the user’s language. We are training the people using the service every day. Training is done rapidly and every year.”

Letissier points out that the ground handler will have the opportunity to earn further revenues through getting deeper into airline activities in terms of reservations. For example, a handler will have the opportunity to charge for off-site check-in through an agent and then the passenger will enjoy expedited VIP access through the airport. This could be a nice little revenue-earner for the hard-pressed handling industry.

“Now,” says Simillon, the ground handler can concentrate on serving the passenger rather than spending his time trouble-shooting.” She says that Altéa will push the concept of the collaborative community between the airport, handler and airline much further. “It is a question of collecting data, leveraging it and delivering a dedicated service to the passenger,” she says.

“At Amadeus,” says Simillon, “we want to put the passenger back in control. We want to empower the passenger at the airport.”

And Amadeus is ideally placed to pursue this bold ambition. With almost one-third of its company shares in airline (Air France, Lufthansa and Iberia) ownership, it has forged a solid track record since 1992 as a global distribution system and transaction processor for the travel and tourism industry. Amadeus also truly understands the travel agency and passenger servicing industry. It is the 100% owner of European travel website Opodo. However, Amadeus has agreed to sell Opodo to funds managed by AXA Private Equity and to Permira Funds. The sale was approved by Amadeus’ Board of Directors on February 25, 2011 and is subject to approval by the competition authorities.

Since its inception Amadeus has diversified its operations by focusing on information technologies to deliver services spanning beyond sales and reservation functionalities, centred on streamlining the operational and distribution requirements of its diverse customer base. It is this very transition from distribution system to technology provider that has enabled the accommodation of the ground handling slice of the aviation industry.

And the Amadeus approach to commercialising its technologies should sit very nicely with the ground handling industry’s approach to capital investment – that is a very cautious approach. Sattel explains that for its DCS products Amadeus charges the user per passenger boarded and this will apply to the handler too. “We have a community approach,” she reiterates. “And the platform just keeps getting richer.”