Handling it

posted on 5th June 2018

Thanks to technological advances like online check-in and remote printing of boarding passes, air travel has changed beyond recognition over the past 10 years, observes Marcia MacLeod

The use of information technology (IT) in relation to airline ground handling can be split into four main areas: cargo, which we are not covering in this issue; passenger handling, mainly check-in and gate control; baggage, including global tracking and recovery of missing bags; and ramp activities, which run from load planning to push-back, and beyond.

Most passenger handling systems are grouped under the banner of the Departure Control System (DCS). A good DCS can monitor and mange check-in done online, through a mobile device or an airport kiosk, or at an airport counter. The means of checking in a passenger should be transparent to the ground staff; they are concerned only with the data on who is checking in for which flight, what baggage, if any, they are checking in, seat selection or allocation and whether there are any special requirements, such as a vegetarian meal.

Historically, a number of DCS options have been available from third-party suppliers. Some of them, like KLM Codeco or Ink Aviation’s DCS, which was developed by Menzies, were written by and for a particular company before being released to the wider handling community. Some companies, such as dnata, still write their own software, but most buy off-the-shelf packages, and the market has increasingly narrowed to include just a few main providers.

Chief among these is Amadeus Altea, although others include Codeco, Miriam from Trasvys, IBS, Damarel, Videcom, Flight Data Management, Crane, from Hitit Computer Services, and Sita’s own system. Most handlers use Altea at some point or another, and more are likely to in future. Although Swissport currently relies primarily on HP PSS (Passenger Service System), it, like all its competitors, will use any DCS its customers want.

“Altea is becoming dominant,” says Bruno Riesen, chief information officer at Swissport. “I think many of the other DCS options will disappear and in five or six years there will be only three or four DCS packages out there.”

The number of systems used by one handler can cause problems. “We use 16 airline systems at Dubai,” says Graham Parker, business IT manager, dnata airport operations. “This is in addition to our own system, Mercator. Using the airline systems enables us to meet their service levels for safety, security and customer experience. But this does mean staff have to learn a wide variety of systems. We have spent a lot of effort trying to find a common front end to all the DCS types our colleagues use.

“The benefits of more efficient training and more flexible staff allocation would be enormous if we could find one application that sits over the top of all DCS options and, more importantly, that all our customers would be happy for us to use. Unfortunately, whilst some solutions claim to offer this, we have found that either they are not fully functional or do not work with every airline we serve.”

Martin Gallington, senior vice president at Menzies, agrees. “The need to use a number of different systems is an overhead for us, as we need to train our staff on all systems at the airport so they can handle any of our carrier customers. One person may need to learn six systems at any one airport.” And as Menzies operates at 136 stations, that can add up to a lot of training.

There are technical developments meant to act as a front end to different types of DCS. CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment) is an IATA industry standard, designed to enable multiple airlines in an airport to use the same terminal equipment. A new standard called CUPPS (Common Use Passenger Processing Systems) is being developed as a replacement. A common language system – software put on top of the DCS to enable users to speak one language, such as iMuse from Arinc – is another possibility, but, says Riesen, they normally only handle about 90 percent of DCS functionality. In any case, some airlines will not allow handlers to put anything on top of their own software.

DCS platforms themselves are evolving, especially in the self-service arena. Again, most airlines have their own passenger check-in kiosk. The growth in airport-supplied or common user kiosks has been slow, partly because airlines are reluctant to allow wider access to their data.

“Some airlines believe passenger data is commercially sensitive and that they need to keep it safe,” points out Guy Manton, head of IT at Servisair. “There are issues around data protection, especially since information keyed into kiosks often includes credit card data.”

Airlines can be protective of their baggage handling systems, too. In fact, some low-cost carriers still control baggage via manual systems because they do not want to pay to buy a relevant package or to use the computerised offering of their handlers.

Most DCS options include a baggage-handling module although handlers serving a small number of stations often use airport baggage reconciliation systems. Goldair in Athens, for example, uses either its own DCS or Athens Airport’s Lyngsoe system.

“The procedures for control and monitoring of baggage are different for every airline and every contract,” emphasises Jaques Pierret, IT manager at AMC Group in France.

Some handlers have written their own systems. Menzies developed First Bag with software company Zafire, which now sells it to other handlers and carriers, while Baggage Excellence and Location Tool (BELT) was developed in-house by dnata.

For dnata airport operations, Parker says: “It is an end-to-end baggage management system. It has dramatically improved our KPIs regarding mishandled bags, which are now well below industry norms.” BELT is now being rolled out to dnata’s Singapore operation and may be expanded elsewhere.

Many baggage systems are connected to WorldTracer, a Sita/IATA product aimed at improving baggage recovery by keeping a record of all baggage checked on to any flight, anywhere in the world. It includes baggage recovery management and claims management applications. So far, 440 airlines and handlers are using WorldTracer.

Self-service is coming into baggage handling, too. Not only can passengers key in details of baggage they wish to check – and pay any fees associated with that – through the DCS, but Sky Assist has launched a self-service kiosk for misplaced baggage reporting.

Planning the load

“Load control takes information from check-in to plan the load,” Gallington at Menzies explains. “It knows how many people have checked in, including how many are men, women or children, where they are sitting, what bags they have checked in, and so on. This allows a load plan to be created, so the pilot can sign it off before departure.”

Load planning is now being centralised. This enables one central office to take all passenger, baggage and cargo data and come up with a load plan for any flight departing any airport anywhere in the world.

“We launched in 2007 for Finnair,” says Nick Yeadon, managing director of Air Dispatch, “but we now also work for Air Berlin, El Al, SAS and Qantas. We have dedicated staff working in units in Prague and Warsaw, producing 300,000 load sheets per year. There are electronic links from check-in systems to our load control software. We can calculate how an aircraft should be loaded on the basis of booked passengers and cargo and create a load plan.”

Yeadon goes on: “The benefits of centralised loading for a company with say 50 stations are immense. As load control is our only business, we have staff with the expertise to carry out load planning quickly and efficiently, letting handlers (or airlines) get on with their core business.”

In addition to the two main systems that support ground handlers – DCS and baggage handling –- there is a third: ramp activities, or flight management. Again, some handlers write their own software, while others buy off-the-shelf packages. Menzies’ own in-house Ramp Sheet Management captures all activities it carries out for an airline: cleaning, pushback, ramp power, toilet refreshment, and so on.

“We subscribe to Flight Explorer so we know when an aircraft is due to come in, if it is delayed, when it is 10 minutes away, and other details,” informs Gallington. “That allows us to get ready for the aircraft’s arrival. We also know how long it takes us for each activity so we can plan our operations.”

System integration

The problem with having so many different systems is that they have to be integrated in order to share information. If not, data has to be re-keyed in to every relevant system, which wastes time and leads to errors. “System integration is our main concern,” Pierret at AMC Group comments. “We developed our own model on a centralised database in Nice which contains core information and describes the way our activities are performed, the organisation of our stations, and so on. This then interfaces with different systems, including flight management, billing and accounting, training and human resources.”

Swissport also relies on data centres in Zurich and Washington. It is trying to standardise as much as possible to create one set of data that can be used everywhere. “There is no point in having 10 finance systems around the world,” observes Riesen, “All rules need to be the same. But it still takes a huge amount of work to build, monitor and manage interfaces and if something in the core system changes, staff have to check that all systems integrated to it recognises the changes and still work properly.”

Integration is harder when companies have small IT departments and buy most software off-the shelf. Dnata gets round some of the problems by writing most of its own software, some of which is then sold on through sister company Mercator. “In-house development is not a default choice for us, though,” points out Parker. “We always look at what products are available in the marketplace and select the best option for our requirements.”

Linking systems

Integration can become more complex when the handler tries to link to airport systems. “We are starting to integrate with airport systems so they can accept our information, for example on when a plane is ready to be pushed back,” explains Menzies’ Gallington. “We’ve completed airport integration at some of our stations and are about to do so at London Gatwick. Most airports are happy to give us their IT protocol to facilitate integration, but when they have older legacy system, it is harder to do.

“The industry needs more open standards, more integration. IATA’s standard messaging is expensive and antiquated. If we use our DCS for a passenger flying, say, London Heathrow – Barcelona – Prague on two different carriers, they want one boarding pass for the whole journey, but that isn’t always possible because we cannot access the second carrier’s system.”

At AMC Group, Pierret agrees: “There is no one package which can take care of everything for ground handlers from A to Z, including ease of use, mobility etc. Only small parts of the global solution are available. Integration is difficult and expensive and there are problems caused by lack of flexibility.”

And without an integrated, flexible, easy-to-use and cost-effective system, the handler cannot operate efficiently or provide the sort of service it wants to give to its customers.