The Vancouver 'Experience'

Technology, passengers are the drivers

“We sort of pioneered those types of issues, as well as a lot of technological breakthroughs that reduce staff – NEXUS; on-board check-in with the cruise ships was pioneered here. You leave your bag outside your door and the next time you see it it’s in Duluth or Kansas City, or wherever.”

The airport was one of the first to put in and manage a common use kiosk check-in environment, which initially met with airline resistance.

Recalls Molloy, “In 2000, we started to talk with the airlines that it was time to upgrade the equipment with a $10 million investment, and we believe that the airport authority is better positioned to actually manage that environment. The airline people have as a primary focus to get planes on time with all the passengers and bags, not to run a technical environment. Many don’t have the expertise, and it’s certainly not the top priority.

“We told them the airport authority has a whole team that looks after technology, and there are many symmetries and economies of scale available to you. For example, the airport has a network that runs our flight information display system, our access control system, and various other systems. The airlines were running basically a duplicate infrastructure for the check-in.

“So we said, we can save $3 million just by putting it on one network. The airlines were starting to see economic benefits and better management benefits, but they still had this issue of control. It took us probably a full 12 months to say to the airlines, all the control issues you care about, we will give to you in spades. Your opinion of common use is it’s most expensive; well, we’ll make it the cheapest option available to you. Your opinion of common use is that it’s the lowest common denominator and an inhibitor to innovation; we the airport authority will run common use as a platform for innovation. So, when any given airline has an innovation we will bring it into our environment immediately.

“We did this system in 2001; two months later, Alaska Airlines came to us and said, in our proprietary environment where we do the check-in ourselves, we need touch screens. We had that up and running in three weeks.”

Airline opposition also centered around branding, says Molloy, echoing a common complaint heard from carriers in the U.S., notably Southwest, to common use systems.

“That was a big issue for them,” he explains. “I asked them the simple question, how does it strengthen your brand to own a piece of computer hardware sitting in Vancouver airport, thousands of miles away from your I.T. department and corporate headquarters, when that piece of hardware is only deteriorating and depreciating? Surely, the strength of your brand is in the quality of service that you offer your passengers. You should put all your energy into the actual application that runs on it – whether they can change their seats; order special meals. Surely, that’s your brand.

“Some airlines bought that right away. Some bought some of it; some despised it altogether. But over the course of 12 months they all came to realize that while they may not agree with everything I said, the economic and efficiency benefits that the airport was bringing to the table warranted it.”

“At the time we were ready to make the final decision, 9/11 came. That was the final nail in the coffin because the airlines started to worry about if they even had the money to operate the system. It became a window of opportunity. It’s fair to say that in the five or six years since that, each of the airline brands has been strengthened by the decisions that we made.”

That initial success led to expanding the system for processing to passengers to cruise ships that provide tours to Alaska, led by an inquiry from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The success of the program led Royal Caribbean to approach Disney for a similar system at Orlando International, as well as airports in the Mediterranean, says Molloy.

Common use brought other benefits as well. Explains Molloy, “Without the airport authority running on a common use environment, we could not have convinced the 50 hotels in Vancouver, Richmond, and Whistler that we should put check-in capabilities in their lobbies.”

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