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I, Airports – Part 1

Published: 01/04/2015 - Filed under: Home » News »

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Airports have changed.  We can all see that every time we enter one.  This article will look at what’s going on today.  In part 2 we will look at how automation is tracking passengers and making visits more efficient. 

Over the past several years, airports have been undergoing a shift of tectonic proportions as the passenger’s experience is moving relentlessly toward automation and a self-service environment. Today it’s entirely possible at many airports to get from curbside to the gate without any interaction with any airline employee. At some terminals, you can even make it all the way to your assigned seat aboard the plane – if you’re lucky and the technology works right.

Much of aviation’s traditional model was drawn from the days of seafaring passenger ships – right down to calling the pilot a captain and the cabin attendant a steward. When it came to such matters as tickets and boarding passes, passports and visas, many of the same rules and processes were conveniently adapted.

But as aviation grew, the sheer multitude of hundreds of millions of passengers … rendered those time-consuming, paper-consuming, face-to-face procedures just too cumbersome. Fortunately as aviation has developed, so has the technology to handle all these people.

Today, travelers check in online or at airport kiosks. Carriers have traded in the old multi-part tickets and paper boarding passes for ones that exist only in the digital domain. Now technology enables passengers to tag their own bags and, in nearly 200 airports around the world, even bypass the gate agent.

According to research from SITA, the global aviation IT company, it’s a trend that passengers find appealing; the survey said self-boarding is a service that 70 percent would like to see, and almost as many would like to have the option to tag their own bags.   

Picking up on the consumer trend toward fewer human interactions at the routine ‘touch points’ of flying, the International Air Transport Association, launched an initiative in 2009 called Fast Travel. The program is aimed at coordinating and unifying the automated airport of the future.

Under the Fast Travel program, airports are developing technology for six key passenger interactions: Check-in, self-tagging bags (which IATA calls ‘bags ready-to-go’), travel document scanning at kiosks to avoid ID checks at check-in desks or gates, self-service flight re-booking, self-boarding and reporting of missing luggage through a self-service channel, such as web, mobile or kiosk.

The movement toward the automated airport is being pushed ahead by the airlines and airports and their respective industry groups. And it seems to be gaining traction; IATA reports that at the end of 2013, over 15 percent of all global passengers passed through airports that offered access to Fast Travel features in all six categories. Based on those numbers, the airline trade group predicts that a complete self-service airport will be available to 80 percent of the world’s fliers by 2020.

“That’s the beauty,” says Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International – World.   “It’s in line with what the airports want and need, what the airlines want and need, what the passengers want and need, and now the government wants and needs. And that’s magic. Because when you’re in alignment, all kinds of things are possible.”

Airports Self-serving?

Among the magical things that can happen is carriers and airports can save a bundle of money. According to figures from IATA, once Fast Travel is fully implemented in 2020, the projected benefit to aviation will top $2.1 billion a year, between cost savings and revenue enhancement.

The added revenue comes from a well known, but little understood human trait; when you’re happy, you tend to spend. According to JD Power’s North American Airport Satisfaction Survey, when passengers report high levels of satisfaction with their airport experience, they tend to spend more – up to 45 percent more in retail shops, on average. 

The idea is to get them through the humdrum basics of the airport so they spend less time sitting at the gate, and more time in restaurants and shops. According to FlightView, the travel data provider, giving passengers self-service options and real-time flight information, Tampa International Airport saw a 10 percent increase in airside concession revenue and 6.8 percent increase in dollars spent per passenger. 

The same formula led to a 30 percent drop in time-consuming questions to customer service agents at Kansas City International, while staff at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport reported 15 percent fewer customer service questions.

Self-service kiosks – the little ATM-looking screens with card readers attached – seem to be sprouting up overnight all along the air travel chain these days. The Fast Travel program calls for kiosks to be part of the process from check-in to lost luggage complaints.   

Perhaps the most conspicuous improvement brought about by kiosk technology is at customs. That’s why most major airports worldwide are scrambling to install the devices in their customs lanes.   

“Since the implementation of Automated Passport Control we have seen great results with more than 70 percent of all international customers automatically processed through the APCs,” says Sean Donohue, CEO at DFW Airport. “Working in partnership with US Customs and Border Protection, we have been able to shorten wait times for international travelers passing through CBP even with an 8.46 percent increase in overall passenger traffic.”

According to Craig Richmond, president and CEO of Vancouver Airport, one of the earliest developers of automated passport control, the technology has its roots in an earlier development intended to eliminate the redundancy of separate counters for each airline.

“Back in 1996 when we opened the new terminal, we were one of the first airports in North America to have common-use check-in, which then led to the self-service kiosks,” Richmond says “And then we took that technology and we went to our own customs agents and built these for Canadian citizens arriving back in Canada. So three years ago our team started working with US Customs and Border Protection.”

Although the components that go into the kiosks are off the shelf technology, Richmond explains the secret sauce is the software that bundles the information to send it to customs in the manner that they want it. And the demand from airport operators has been nothing short of phenomenal.

“When they actually see the stats and they see how it cuts the lines down, frankly, it sells itself,” Richmond says. “Everybody wants one. They didn’t know they needed them until they see them.” 

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