Check-in: automated, technology-led and future-facing

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ARINC is poised to launch mi-Flight, a mobile check-in and travel management iPhone application, this summer. But this is just one of a raft of check-in solutions that ARINC is trialling, bringing to the market or supporting as the world of check-in becomes automated, technology-led and future-facing. Jo Murray speaks to Tony Chapman, Senior Director, Integrated Travel Solutions, EMEA, at ARINC

Aimed at both smaller leisure and charter airlines, and airline passengers who fly with many different airlines, mi-Flight provides users with a range of services to manage their air travel. The information collected through mi-Flight check-in then links up with airline DCSs, thereby facilitating fast and efficient data capture and management.

“We believe the mi-Flight product has customer legs but we are looking for feedback before we build the final version,” points out Chapman. “There are two possible market streams for this. The first is airlines who do not currently have a mobile application – we would brand mi-Flight as theirs.” This route to market is more straightforward.

The second stream is an application that is downloaded by the travelling public – and this is illustrated in the screen shots displayed here. The beauty of this application is that it can handle check-in for multiple airlines’ flights. “The consumer would have just one application to use, irrespective of the airline the passenger is flying on,” reiterates Chapman.

He explains further: “In our data centres, we have the ability to speak to multiple airline DCSs at the same time to give the passenger one user interface – or one travel portal if you like – to support all their boarding and handle all their flying, irrespective of the airline that they are flying with.” It is this second stream that continues to undergo market testing.

As can be seen on the screen shots, passengers can select seats where airlines provide this function and manage their APIS information. They can store the bar-coded boarding passes for check-in flights on the phone as well as receive airport information, such as the location of gates or restaurants. Frequent flyer accounts can also be stored and managed through data capture from a photo of the frequent flyer card – it is all very clever stuff. Next, ARINC expects to include m-payment of airline charges, such as excess baggage costs, and retrieval of bookings by frequent flyer number. Social networking will also be a feature of mi-Flight so passengers can share information without having to wait for airline announcements.

While beta testing continues on mi-Flight, ARINC is actively bringing other check-in products to the market. “The first relates to hosted services. vMUSE is our check-in product and we now have vMUSE Enterprise which runs from a data centre so that the customer airport does not have to have servers or local infrastructure,” Chapman explains.

With vMUSE Enterprise, airlines and airports of any size can launch check-in service in minutes – in the airport or at off-site locations – using only a PC, laptop, or thin-client device; an existing printer; and a standard Internet connection. vMUSE Enterprise connects check-in agents to ARINC’s Global Processing Center, where they access a virtualised workstation. The first customer – Belfast Harbour Airport – has already been announced.

The second product that is gaining substantial market recognition is ExpressDrop by ARINC – a self-serve baggage solution. “We’ve been running a trial at Narita for the last nine months with the Star Alliance. There’s been lot’s of interest so far,” says Chapman. “ExpressDrop uses the same interface and the same technology back-end that we’re using for mi-Flight so that we can talk to multiple DCSs. The check-in agent simply scans the boarding pass and enters the number of bags, and then prints those bag tags irrespective of the airline that the passenger is flying on. The system talks to the correct host in the background.”

This type of technology is becoming increasingly desirable because, as ARINC points out, over 80% of check-ins now take place away from airport check-in counters, and common-use systems are dominating the way passengers travel. ExpressDrop can easily be incorporated into common-use systems, kiosks, and remote check-ins such as vMUSE Enterprise. It can be installed at a regular workstation or as an independent bag drop location for kiosk and Internet users. Of course, ExpressDrop also delivers to check-in agents a common language to check baggage from passengers on multiple airlines.

In terms of the broader picture, Chapman says that the pressing issues are twofold. “One is making the situation easier for airports – and hosted services allow us to do that. In addition to the technologies discussed, we’re also offering a local DCS but hosted from a data centre – again, there is no infrastructure at the airport,” says Chapman. “What we have been kept busy with recently is kiosks.” Of course any regular air traveller cannot help but be struck by the regional nature of kiosk uptake. “It all comes down to the passenger profile in the region,” points out Chapman.

“We now have a number of RFPs for CUPPS. The last 12 months have been somewhat quiet as a result of financial impacts and airports making the infrastructure they already have last longer; but now it is reaching the point where many of them have to do something about upgrading it,” says Chapman.

CUPPS standards were published back in November 2009. Essentially, CUPPS is the new CUTE. Chapman explains that the main difference is that technology providers previously had different ways of managing peripherals and the interface to those peripherals was proprietary to each provider. CUPPS dictates a standard interface so that a CUPPS application will run on any platform. Chapman is quick to point out that CUPPS offers a multitude of other features and benefits but it is the method of interfacing with printers and gate readers that is the main area of progress.

What has been noticeable is the slow speed at which CUPPS applications have been developed. “The challenge for us as a platform provider is to support both technologies – legacy applications and CUPPS applications. But what we do see now is that any RFP that does come out mandates CUPPS, which is in line with IATA and ACI guidelines.”

Today’s device-enabled lifestyle in developed economies plays very much towards the way things are moving on the passenger and baggage check-in front. NFC-enabled phones are the next step for airside access control but, at present, there is no IATA standard for this so we are purely seeing technology demonstrations so far. IATA has now produced a White Paper so we can be sure that NFC will be a technology associated with the next generation of boarding.

But what about the ground handling agent? “ExpressDrop is very much developed with the ground handler in mind,” points out Chapman, adding that the facility for a ground handler to handle multiple airlines through the same system is a huge benefit. Of course, baggage, ramp and PRM handling remain technology-resistant; it is just passenger check-in that is moving away from manual processing.

Perhaps, future opportunities for handlers lie largely outside the airport for baggage rather than passenger check-in – maybe on cruise ships, at holiday resorts and other locations where there is a critical mass of airline passengers. Of course, where to locate handling teams remains the big question – but over time, these locations away from the airport will reveal themselves, the technology to assist with this new business model will be put in place and the landscape for check-in will continue to evolve in line with passenger behaviour.