Airports, airlines and baggage handling companies are busy upgrading their IT systems to support a wealth of new applications and services, including greater mobility for staff and passengers, improved automation and self service options, and better collaboration between themselves and their aviation industry partners in an effort to improve the passenger experience, reduce their own operational costs and open up new sources of revenue.
Common use systems
Many of those upgrades rest on Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) and Common Use Passenger Processing System (CUPPS) platforms which help airlines, airports and baggage handling agents to share the cost of IT infrastructure by enabling staff to work at any desk, gate or workstation.
Heathrow Airport plans to install ARINC’s iMUSE CUTE application at Terminal 2 in time for its opening in 2014, where the software will support 378 check-in desks and boarding gates, eventually processing 20m passengers per year.
Heathrow AOC chair David Wilding highlighted the software’s ability to help the airport process passengers faster and more efficiently ‘through sharing airport infrastructure and resources’ as ‘pivotal’ to Heathrow’s mission to improve its customer service levels by helping passengers get to their flights as quickly as possible.
“Airports may provide CUTE systems for free, but in reality airlines might be paying for them through passenger fees and aircraft landing fees, or billing functions which basically charge the airline for using the system,” said Nick Gates, portfolio director at aviation industry IT supplier SITA.
Alongside common use equipment and cloud based applications and services which remove the need to have full feature desktop PCs for staff use, the increased use of self service platforms for passengers is also key to reducing operational expense of all parties, especially when it comes to the use of mobile applications for check-in, boarding and baggage tracking.
“You will always need something for old fashioned style travellers, but anything supporting automated check-in and to replace aging kiosks and check-in desks [will be widely implemented],” said ServiceTec site support manager for Heathrow Airport, Chris Newman.
“If you think about the old way of travelling, the paper used for boarding passes, bag tags or passenger lists does not cost much but printers do,” said Gates. “You have to maintain printers and change ink and so on, so there is quite a large maintenance overhead – support costs which [increased use of] mobile phone apps could reduce.”
Ground handling and baggage systems
New baggage reconciliation systems designed to automate the baggage tracking, loading and management, both to improve the passenger experience and remove cost and complexity from airport and ground handling service operations are also being widely installed.
Amadeus announced an agreement with Icelandair which will see the two companies jointly develop a baggage reconciliation system that provides real-time, automated loading, tracking and management of passenger luggage set to be deployed on all Icelandair worldwide flights at Keflavik International Airport in 2014. The new system is expected to reduce or even completely remove the need for ground handlers to teletype digital messages to manage baggage processes, including check-in, tracking and loading.
“The repercussions will be immediately felt by all stakeholders in our hub, including passengers who can expect an improvement in punctuality and quicker baggage delivery, while ground handlers will have a much more efficient and user-friendly system,” commented Icelandair ground operations vice president Ástór Ingason who expects to see ‘heavy’ savings on teletype messaging costs.
Precise details are yet to emerge, but the platform will be integrated into Amadeus Airport IT portfolio and Altéa DCS platform with all data required to manage baggage hosted in Amadeus’s Data Centre and available via an application interface.
“I would say baggage handlers are lagging a bit behind [airports and airlines] when it comes to the adoption of IT,” said SITA’s Gates. “But there is a lot more use of baggage verification systems which make sure bags are going on the right aircraft … [plus] operations and systems for resource management to make sure they [baggage handlers] have the right people in place, [and support] task allocation and management for mobile devices.”
Ground handling company Servisair announced in October 2013 that it would deploy Damarel’s LodeStone weight and balance solution for Thomson Airways 787 Dreamliner aircraft flight departures from East Midlands Airport, with the Dreamliner’s complex mix of container sizes allowed in each section of the aircraft’s hold demanding software which load controllers could use to optimise weight whilst complying with regulations. Azzura Ground Handling Services used the same company’s Babel GUI Common Language Front-End and Embark Automated Gate Boarding solution on its CUTE systems installed at London Heathrow’s Terminal 4, which will gradually expanded to cover Malaysia Airlines, SriLankan Airlines, Gulf Air, Air Malta, Uzbekistan Airways, Azerbaijan Airlines and Romanian Airlines (Tarom). Babel and Embark provide a graphical user interface that links disparate airline DCS check-in systems under a single application to give staff access to multiple
Cloud hosted, SaaS model
Damarel’s L-DCS and LodeStone passenger check-in, boarding and weight and balance applications are also provided under a cloud based software as a service (SaaS) model. Norwich International Airport is a customer, accessing data and applications hosted in Damarel’s UK data centre, with airport facilities manager Mel Gray citing the relatively low cost of the pay as you go licensing model compared to a client based, on-premise equivalent.
“Every one of our customers is using browser based apps – people are now much more comfortable with the term ‘cloud’ but there is a bit of a catch up [with the rest of the IT industry],” said Peter Ball, head of aviation development at Zafire which provides a range of cloud based applications and services to the aviation industry, including departure control, baggage reconciliation and management, and bag tracking systems. “But the organisations which bring a lot of legacy, hardware orientated systems are less willing.”
A-CDM boosts information sharing
Cutting their own costs in tandem with speeding up passenger journies relies in no small part on improved collaboration and information sharing between airlines, airports and baggage handlers.
Amadeus is currently working with Munich and Copenhagen airports on the development of two new airport IT solutions based on its Airport Sequence Manager and Airport Fixed Resource Optimiser applications as part of a broader airport collaborative decision making (A-CDM) initiative. The Airport Sequence Manager optimises flight departure runway sequencing, sharing data between airport operators, ground handlers and airlines to improve departure and arrival predictions and assess the impact of adverse weather conditions on flight times to speed up aircraft turnaround and make the best of available airport capacity.
“Munich was a pioneer of A-CDM, but before putting an IT system behind what you want to do you need to implement the process defined by your control, which are about the milestones when you report to the airport management team, like different readiness for each aircraft, for example,” explained Yannick Benardeau, commercial director for airport solutions at Amadeus.
“It [Munich Airport] developed the IT to support this by itself based on what they did in past years, but in the meantime they needed to refresh the technology behind that and re-engineer some of the components. And we are getting some manual processes automated, such as the departure sequences for the runways, de-icing management and other functions.”
Elsewhere global security company Northrop Grumman is to provide the analytics module of its Airport Realtime Collaboration (ARC) service to Dubai Air Navigation Services (DANS) – software which provides historical analysis and reporting on airport operations to help improve resource allocation and predictability whilst supporting A-CDM initiatives.
FIDS and displays
Many vendors are currently installing large format displays for use in digital signage systems within airports, including Samsung which also manufactures a range of smartphone and tablet devices that airports are beginning to issue to staff in greater volumes.
Sacramento International Airport’s Central Terminal B, which opened in October 2011, features 250 flight information display system (FIDS) with 32-57 inch Samsung monitors, for example. Samsung has also harnessed its mobile tablet technology as a replacement or supplement to FIDS systems at Gatwick Airport, where its Samsung Galaxy Tab device has replaced traditional large scale matrix information screens which are generally more expensive to operate and maintain. Over 160 devices – dubbed ‘info tabs’ – will be placed at strategic locations within the airport’s north and south terminal’s during the course of 2014, providing passengers with access to relevant flight information when flight details are keyed in, with plans to add Google Maps for terminal navigation and games to entertain those suffering flight delays at a later date.
“These Samsung devices provide a much simpler tool for our passengers. They have really low maintenance costs as we manage them remotely through a web browser,” said Gatwick Airport chief information officer Michael Ibbitson in a statement.
Tokyo is another airport to make use of digital signage for passenger information, with around 100 installed throughout the airport. The digital signage interacts with information fed to it from customer smartphones, like estimated queuing time based on how long previous passengers have taken before holding up their phone to have a barcode read by security check-in systems.
Mobility playing increasingly important role
Mobile devices are certainly taking an increasingly active role in the IT systems being deployed by airports, airlines and ground handling companies, with both passenger and staff facing systems coming to the fore. Australian regional airline QuantasLink installed Zafire’s FirstFIDS flight information display system in 2013 as it looked to improve communication between its ground handlers and ramp managers in airports including Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. The software was live on 50 mobile devices used by staff as of December 2013, with further rollouts planned for 2014. FirstFIDS is a cloud hosted platform which constantly updates flight arrival, departure, terminal and departure information on mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.
Elsewhere Acciona Airport Services (AAS), the airport handling services operator present at eight airports in Spain and Germany, introduced a mobile communication system from INFORM in May 2013. The AAS platform at Palma de Mallorca Airport was upgraded to support the GroundStar Mobility & Web Solution in the same year, with staff accessing real time baggage handling task and status information from their smartphones and/or PDAs using a customised INFORM mobile app.
In many cases, airports are contracting a single vendor to supply a multitude of different systems in the hope that this approach can foster more efficient data sharing, integration and collaboration. ARINC supplied a range of systems at RAK International Airport in 2013, with a core suite of airport passenger processing solutions which included operational systems, the vMUSE CUPPS system, AirVue FIDS and AirDB 7 AODB system going live in October of that year. The AirVue FIDS system provides real time flight information to passgners blended with multimedia content including TV streaming and advertising.
And Ultra Electronics is currently installing a range of hardware and software platforms at Viracopos International Airport in Brazil as part of its terminal renovation project, including CUPPs, baggage reconciliation, FIDS, resource management and airport operational database (AODB) systems after securing a subcontract from Johnson Controls in September 2013.
Biometric border controls speed travel
Part of the broader shift to passenger self service systems involves border controls, with airports currently installing biometric systems – eGates, automated passport control or global entry kiosks – that enable passengers to scan their passports and answer customs declaration questions using self-service kiosks.
In many countries sovereign border control agencies are not yet ready to endorse completely automated passport check-in processes, and kiosks will issue receipts before passengers are directed to offers for final verification.
“It is challenging but there is lots of work going on to try and alleviate the system by sharing data in advance of passengers travelling,” said SITA’s Gates.
North American airports have installed systems able to process US and Canadian citizens only include Seattle-Tacoma, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago, DFW, Montreal, Miami and New York JFK with Pittsburgh set to go live in the Spring of 2014. Orlando has gone one further by installing biometric enabled kiosks which can be used by International passengers who have received Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to flying – the fruits of a collaboration between SITA, Vision-Box and the US Customs and Border Protection Agency. The kiosks allow passengers to have their passport automatically read, submit their fingerprints and have their facial image captured using its touch screen.
Facial recognition technology
SITA’s iBorders platform also powers Dublin Airport’s automatic border control at the newly built Terminal 2 which uses NEC’s NeoFace facial recognition software to check that a passenger is not on any border control checklist. The system put in place by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) and the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) in May 2013, only handles passengers which have pre-registered their details as part of e-Visa schemes, however.
Automated passport control kiosks are also being integrated with digital signage options that provide passengers with additional information or marketing/advertising opportunities that deliver additional revenue streams for the airport itself, as happened with the installation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in partnership with technology providers GCR and Houston Airport System (HAS).
Even where border control still relies on manual inspection at the insistence of local authorities, facial recognition can still play a part in broader security initiatives. Sochi Airport in Russia recently used images supplied by Broadway’s 3D Face Recognition System to identify athletes, fans and dignitaries visiting the 2014 Winter Olympics, but also as a way of verifying system access for its own employees.