Airports, airlines and ground services companies have continued to make significant investments in upgrading their information and communications technology (ICT) provision in 2014 as they look to increase their efficiency and reduce operational costs. A wide range of new implementations took place with greater use of mobile applications for tablet computers, smartphones and PDAs; upgrades to airport collaborative decision making (A-CDM) platforms; flight information display system (FIDS) rollouts; common use passenger processing systems (CUPPS) which use desktop virtualisation technology, interline billing software and new IP based fixed and wireless communications networks serving aircraft, airports and ground services all in evidence.
Modernising Legacy Systems
Modernising legacy planning systems remains a crucial focus for airports and their technology partners as they struggle to cope with greater passenger numbers and increased volumes of flights, with many only just revamping hardware and software first installed in the 1960s and 1970s.
2014 saw Japan Airlines (JAL) begin a migration from its existing passenger service system (PSS), originally deployed in 1969, to Amadeus’ Altéa software suite as part of a wider corporate modernisation programme and a requirement to meet industry standards and regulations. The airline was particularly keen to implement a single integrated system for both domestic and international routes and extend its co-operation and collaboration with other airlines, particularly fellow airline members of the oneworld frequency flyer alliance with which it will look to share information to drive new customer offers.
Altéa is a modular suite that includes a broad range of individual applications, including sales and reservation, schedule and inventory, codeshare, customer department control, flight departure control, revenue and data management and infrastructure and security elements, with the three JAL year migration programme supported by Amadeus’ local airline IT team based in Tokyo.
Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) in the US is an airport which is currently engaged in a four year terminal renovation and expansion project of its own, one that has necessitated the relocation of its resident airlines to a newly-constructed wing of the terminal during the construction of the building’s core. To reduce the cost and complexity of the relocation process, GSP deployed a common use system from Air Transport IT Services (AirIT) that combines desktop virtualisation technology with a dynamic visual display solution. AirIT’s Extended Airline System Environment (EASE) uses virtual desktop images hosted on a central server to enable airlines to download their own check-in and boarding applications to any terminal on demand without modification.
Axxicom Airport Caddy – a Dutch company which specialises in assisting disabled and reduced mobility passengers as they travel through the airport and which has supplied services to Amsterdam Schiphol since 2003 and Brussels airport since 2007 – found its ageing planning system had reached its limits in terms of scalability and replaced it with INFORM’s passenger reduced mobility (PRM) platform better equipped to handle mobile users in 2014.
Axxicom handles an average of 120 passenger reduced mobility (PRM) passengers at Schiphol every hour during peak summer months, including those who are blind, deaf, in wheelchairs and on stretchers as well as unaccompanied minors. INFORM PRM now delivers employee shift rosters, passenger pick up and drop off details and flight information pulled from INFORM’s broader GroundStar airport-collaborative decision making (A-CDM) and planning software suite, and to web based personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Elsewhere ARINC (acquired by Rockwell Collins for $1.4bn in 2013) completed the implementation of a complete take-off to touchdown advanced information management system for Cathay Pacific as part of an operational evaluation of the company’s eEnabled Aircraft Solution on three of the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. The platform uses ARINC’s AeroSync communications system to manage data delivery to the aircraft using a variety of network connectivity technologies, including wired Ethernet and wireless WiFi, 3G and satellite communications which are interlinked to the legacy radio frequency based aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) and VDL-M2 datalink systems already in situ on the aircraft. To date the eEnabled system has been installed only in Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ERs but ARINC is working with many other airlines and Airbus A330 and A320 aircraft are “in the pipeline” said the company.
“The airplanes of today lag behind in the technology stakes by decades so we try to use commercial off the shelf, but necessarily consumer, technology to do this,” Dan Pendergast, ARINC senior director of Enabled Aircraft Solutions told AGS Magazine. “These VHF, HF and satcom links are going to be in the airplane for a while. They will evolve and new technology will eventually be there and we are fine with that, but how do you try to drive more value out of what they already have within constraints whilst moving to new technology in the meantime? What we want to do is look at it on an airline by airline basis, look at what they have and then implement a system that works peacefully with what is already on the airplane and is interoperable.”
A crucial part of the Enabled system is the Aerosync tool which supports new applications to help staff expedite maintenance related information, fuel consumption records, cabin logs and passenger details that can be downloaded via WiFi for example and viewed on tablet computers used by cabin crew, pilots and ground staff, eliminating manual collection processes and the inefficiencies those processes create to support quicker data analysis and decisions. So whilst the system improves airline and ground service efficiency, it can also help to improve the passenger experience and improve customer loyalty.
“Say there is a service disruption in flight and passengers need to be rebooked onto an alternative flight at their destination,” added Pendergast. “Typically they get off the airplane and wait in a long line, but the concept here is to provide rebooking whilst the aircraft is in the air, so the passenger knows the route, gate and departure time when they land. Another scenario involves having more information about high value customers so the lead steward can approach them already knowing something about them – such as meal or drink preferences – before they sit down.”
Nor is it only aircraft to ground service communications systems which are being revamped – ServiceTec won a contract to supply voice over IP (VoIP) devices to Orlando International and Executive Airports in July 2014 as part of a broader IT consulting services agreement which will include handling user requested moves and changes to telephony provision within the terminal.
As they look to trim their operational expenditure and smooth their revenue streams, airlines are also looking to interline billing solutions to speed up payment processes associated with revenue sharing agreements. Gopal Shettigar is senior vice president for Airlines SBU at Accelya Kale. He estimates that out of annual combined global revenue of $750bn, airlines derive 10% from an interline channel that sees multiple airlines collaborate to deliver the best possible fares for passengers, then divide the revenue between them.
“There are two things that result in interline revenue realisation not being very efficient,” Shettigar told AGS Magazine. “One is delays in the billing. An airline needs to bill fast and realise money fast, but in the case of incorrect rejections for example, it has to go back and do a rebilling or that is working capital that is getting blocked. Generally airlines have a feel for this but they are not able to quantify the value of those rejections in dollars … to see the amount of cash blocked due that inefficiency or identify if it is a manpower issue [or something else], for example.”
Launched in April 2014, Accelya Kale’s eSpin interline billing platform is designed to replace the basic spreadsheet approach which many airlines adopted to try and keep track of interline billing transactions, with the software able to provide comprehensive snapshot of monthly processes, alongside cashflow information and more accurate revenue predictions.
Accelya Kale recently sold its eSpin interline billing solution to the LatAm Airlines Group, formed by a merger between LAN Airlines and TAM Airlines in 2012 and which owns majority and minority interests in multiple South American airlines located in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru.
“There will be a few more implementations in the next few months, three of which are the top 15 carriers in the world based in the US and Asia,” said Shettigar.
Mobile bag tracking and FIDS
Many airlines are also looking to improve their customer experience by making it easier to track baggage, using new mobile apps that link back to baggage handling systems now emerging. One example is Vanderlande Industries’ BAGMAPP application, launched at the Passenger Terminal Expo in Barcelona in March 2014. Whilst the application was initially designed for airport and airline workers and baggage handling agents themselves, it can also be extended to support passenger use according to the company. Available as a free download, users employ the camera or barcode scanner embedded in Apple iOS and Android mobile devices and the BAGMAPP application to scan the barcodes on the bag tag to get access to status information pertaining to either individual bags or groups of bags at any time during the bags’ journeys.
Damarel also launched its FiNDnet Viewer application, an addition to its FiNDnet suite designed to give ground handlers access to operational performance statistics, flight events, messages and other data from a variety of portable devices, including Apple iOS and Google Android smartphones and tablet computes alongside PCs and laptops.
Growing use of the latest Flight Information Display Systems (FIDS) in airports is also helping to drive down the cost of unnecessary hardware and power consumption whilst delivering more accurate, up to date information to both passengers and airport operatives in a more dynamic way. Alongside EASE, GSP has also deployed AirIT’s FIDS system to automatically distribute and control critical information concerning flights, gate and baggage data, advertising and back office processes on multiple displays for passengers, airport tenants and operational staff in the temporary terminal. Meanwhile another supplier of FIDS systems, Samsung, has negotiated partnerships with systems integrators and resellers Ikusi and Zafire Group to push its Smart Signage Platform (SSSP) into airports. The SSSP solution is based on high definition internet connected screens which do not require an external PC for the information feed, instead linking directly into resident FIDS systems.
IT needs to match business requirement
Whilst technology is important, the aviation industry operates on increasingly tight margins and must focus heavily on return on investment (ROI) and making sure that any new system can handle both present requirements, future expansion and be able to share information with more easily with business partners across airlines, airports and ground services companies.
“The challenge is not just the IT part – it is a combination of IT and the business, that is where we see the hole [in existing IT provision],” said Shettigar. “Airlines today have good IT [systems] but it does not necessarily map to business requirements.“