Departing innovation

posted on 5th June 2018

Technology is transforming the departing passenger experience – Marcia MacLeod charts the latest trends and developments in this fast-moving sector

Frequent flyers and other savvy passengers are not only getting used to using modern technology – from the Internet to airport kiosks and, most recently, smartphones – for carrying out travel-related activities, but they are increasingly demanding these new channels be provided. In order to meet this 21st century requirement, however, airlines have to employ the most efficient, up-to-date departure control systems (DCS).

Traditionally, DCS were used by counter staff to check-in passengers and control the flow of baggage. Today’s system needs to be able to accommodate a number of check-in options, including hand-held devices used by ground staff to reduce queueing.

“People processing is being put in the hands of the individuals themselves,” points out Duncan Alexander, VP at Mercator. “I see it as a win-win situation as the airline gets the passenger to do the work and charges extra for services such as seat selection, while at the same time, the passenger benefits from obtaining a sense of control. And by checking-in before arrival at the airport, if a passenger only has hand luggage, he or she can go straight to the gate.”

The growth in self-service check-in, along with the increase in pre-boarding sales of ancillary services, has encouraged some airlines to extend the check-in window from 24 hours before departure to 36, 48 or even 72 hours. Security regulations have also encouraged the provision of earlier check-in: if government authorities want passenger information 24 hours in advance of the flight, the carrier has to have a way to get that information in time.

Some airlines have started to pre-assign seats, too, based on a passenger’s past preference, pulled from customer records by the DCS. Of course, this only works if the passenger has chosen a seat with that airline in the past. New or infrequent flyers may not get a choice – and will be charged extra if they wish to change their pre-allocation.

“We see some carriers implementing automated check-in,” says Reinhard Augustin, sales director, transportation for Materna. “All passengers will be checked-in 36 or 48 hours before departure and boarding passes sent by email or SMS to each traveller. If they want to change it, they have to pay.”

Seat optimisation makes pre-allocation easy for the airline to give the customer what it sees as the best seat available every time. But this does not take into account personal preference. “And,” says Stan Boyer, VP solution marketing for SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service, “the person who gets punished is usually the single traveller – especially if they are flying on a discount ticket. They’re the ones who end up sitting in the middle, at the back, in front of a crying baby.

“If no one is allowed to pre-reserve a seat, seat optimisation works better – but then two people who want to sit together might not always get their wish. Our system gives passengers the chance to choose their seat, but once it’s allocated, it’s normally set in stone. We are putting new seating algorithms into our DCS to provide more choice.”

Seat selection – and check-in in general – can now take place over four channels: counter, kiosk, internet or mobile phone. In some regions of the world, like the Middle East, most travellers still seek personal, face-to-face service. Holiday airlines, especially charter and some low-cost carriers, want passengers to check-in at the counter so they can confirm the number and weight of baggage being presented.

But technology is improving the counter check-in experience, as some airlines are beginning to equip ground staff with hand-held devices so they can walk along the queue and check-in people before they reach the counter.

Kiosks offer an alternative in-airport option, particularly useful for returning passengers who don’t have easy or cheap access to the internet from their hotel. However, kiosks are rapidly being overtaken by smartphones – to the point where some airlines, like Singapore, are phasing out kiosks altogether.

“There are two types of mobile use,” says Yannick Beurnardeau, director airport solutions at Amadeus. “We don’t see much use of smartphones to carry out the check-in process – only about 10-20% of business passengers. But double that number is checking-in online and then having boarding passes sent to their phones.”

“Certain routes, such as Frankfurt-London or London-Paris, see a higher usage of smartphones than others,” says Augustin. “Technology-oriented business travellers all have smartphones, which they use for so many functions in their daily lives; it becomes natural to use them for check-in, too.”

Mobile phones may be the fastest growing technology used in the check-in process, but if their use continues to grow at the same rate, kiosks may well disappear – or be turned into a retail outlet selling passengers upgrades, meals and even on-board duty free purchases before they step foot on the aircraft.

Amadeus has taken the use of mobile boarding passes further. “Most DCS are aircraft-centric,” explains Beurnardeau. “Ours is passenger-centric. We create a PNR – a travel dossier – for each passenger, starting with the reservation. This is then enriched by different components, such as whether the passenger books a car or hotel, and ends at the end of the journey, regardless of how many flights or aircraft that journey entails. All information concerning the passenger – i.e. if the first airport upgrades, downgrades or off-loads the individual – is recorded.

“The PNR also contains the boarding pass, offering another way to identify the passenger. We are piloting the use of the PNR in fast-track check-in, including processing through security, with Qantas for their domestic flights. Security staff checks the PNR to ensure the person in front of them is the right passenger. I think within the next five years, our customers won’t need to issue boarding passes at all.”

One of the problems with boarding passes sent to mobile phones is the need for readers – and that means standardisation of bar codes on boarding passes. IATA is working on a standard 2D bar code to facilitate use of mobile check-in. However, not everyone has smartphones and some places, such as Australia, prefer to use encrypted text rather than a 2D bar code, to enable more passengers to obtain boarding passes on their phones.

In any case, mobile phones could well be superseded by fingerprinting, iris recognition and even radio frequency identification (RFID). “We will see the transmission of passenger biometric data, as the world of mobile explodes and data security issues are sorted,” Boyer forecasts. “Near field communication is also emerging, relying on RFID chips embedded in a passenger-held device, similar to contact-less payment. An individual can walk by a transmitter, possibly contained in a kiosk, which picks up check-in information.”

It could also be used to enable passengers to self-board at the gate: passengers, probably frequent flyers, place their bar coded boarding pass against a reader – or walk past an RFID reader which picks up the details held in the microchip. Dubai already has an ‘e-gate’, allowing passengers with a bar coded boarding pass and micro chipped passport to check themselves through the gate.

Security implications may delay the growth of this technology, though, as without ground staff, it becomes easier to substitute another passenger – unless e-gates are combined with fingerprinting.

Security issues have already been overcome for another aspect of departure control: baggage tagging. Self-tagging was first talked about a couple of years ago but could not take off until governments were convinced self-tagged bags were safe. The way the industry got round this was to have ‘passive’ and ‘active’ tags: a tag is passive until the bag enters the airline/airport baggage system, after it has been x-rayed.

So far, bag tags have been printed at airport kiosks, but some airlines are working with their DCS supplier to enable passengers to print out tags at home, fold them and insert them in a plastic sleeve sent by the airline. Again, IATA is developing a standard tag to facilitate self-tagging.

A good DCS can deal with self-tagged bags by flagging any anomalies. “Our Express Drop can either allow passengers to walk up to a counter, check themselves in and drop their bag, or check-in at a kiosk and then drop their bag at a drop point,” explains Simon Critchley, global product manager at Arinca. “If someone checks in with one bag but tries to drop two, or vice versa, the system alerts the user that something is wrong.”

Self bag-tagging has its problems, though. For a start, holiday airlines, in particular, want to weigh the baggage and ensure it’s not overweight. And, as Boyer asks, how much time do you want people to stand at a kiosk – and how much is the passenger prepared to do themselves? At the very least, for self bag-tagging to grow, airports need more bag drops and better signage telling passengers where they are.

At least the next step – self bag-tracking – offers proactive customer service. By integrating the baggage reconciliation and lost baggage systems with the DCS, passengers can be notified on arrival, by SMS, if their bag has made a connecting flight, has been off-loaded for some reason, or has been otherwise delayed or misplaced. “The airline can have a representative at the gate waiting to deal with the passenger whose bag has been delayed or misplaced, even offering compensation, before they spend hours in the baggage hall waiting for their luggage and then trying to find someone to help them when it doesn’t turn up,” suggests Boyer.

The enhancement and extension of DCS is helping to increase efficiency and reduce costs connected with passenger handling – but it creates a major challenge for ground handlers who have to use numerous different systems employed by their many customers.

Amadeus now offers a common-user DCS for ground handlers to overcome this problem. The handler’s staff use one system for all its customers, but in the background the DCS prompts the agent, depending on pre-programmed business rules for each airline. For example, it could tell the agent to ask for a passport number for passengers travelling on one airline, but not for those on another. Amadeus piloted this system in Nice and Brussels in 2011; it currently has 12 ground handlers using it, and plans to expand it this year.

The increasing reliance on DCS has encouraged more companies to join the supplier base. Damarel, which has long provided re-branded DCS through retailers, now sells direct to customers, particularly low-cost and charter carriers. Its low cost departure system has been bought as a back-up by legacy carriers, but its main aim is to help low-cost and charter airlines create the sort of passenger experience for which legacy carriers are known.

DCS has traditionally concentrated on passenger-facing activities; seat reservation, check-in, and now baggage tagging. But there is a very important aspect of DCS which connects those functions to aircraft operations by helping achieve the optimum weight/balance for each flight.

“An airline’s DCS should enable it to optimise pressure on the tail and wings,” says Beurnardeau. If an airline does not calculate accurately, it can lead to greater fuel consumption – and with the cost of fuel, and the environmental implications of using it, no one wants to do that. In the past, airline staff calculated manually, but now people rely on IT. So, if a passenger has brought an extra bag, or an overweight one, the airline can re-calculate and re-optimise.”

Operational staff knows how much baggage has been checked in and can decide whether the flight can carry more cargo. “When it comes to planning, the more advanced information an airline has, the better,” emphasises Alexander.

“Sometimes it’s down to the wire as to whether a carrier can take last minute freight or mail – an important revenue stream for a lot of airlines.”

They also know if someone hasn’t turned up at the gate and where their bags are, if they have to be taken off. Or if passengers have pre-ordered all their bottles of duty-free champagne so they can get some more on board to meet any further demand – or if someone has requested a vegetarian meal at check-in.

All of these features are transforming DCS from an airline-focused tool to one that helps improve the passenger experience, while at the same time improving and speeding up all aspects of ground handling in the most cost-effective way possible. What more can anyone ask?