The Vancouver 'Experience'

VANCOUVER — In 2010, the Olympic Winter Games will be held here and in neighboring Whistler. It will be a fitting test for Vancouver International Airport — YVR, as it’s known locally — which for years has placed a huge emphasis on tapping technology to move passengers more efficiently while at the same time positively affecting their airport experience. For YVR officials, that has meant taking more control and becoming involved in cross-border processing technologies.

Nestled among bays and mountains on Sea Island, some 30 miles north of the U.S. border in southwest British Columbia, Vancouver International was taken over in the mid-1990s by the Vancouver Airport Authority under a long-term lease with the federal government. When Transport Canada operated YVR, it saw Vancouver at the far west outpost of its national transportation system. When the authority assumed control, it envisioned YVR as the Gateway to the Pacific, and the investment and related success to that strategy has been nothing short of impressive.

“The whole ‘Gateway’ concept was the right strategy and it’s working well,” comments Larry Berg, president and CEO of Vanouver International. “Our traffic year-to-date is up 7.8 percent; the Asia/Pacific sector is up about 11 percent, year to date. It’s very strong. New service added last year includes daily to Auckland; Sidney; increasing capacity to Hong Kong. Those are driving some of the growth here. And of course China; which remains strong.

“We have 63 frequencies a week into China, including Hong Kong. We have the most direct service service into China via a North American airport.”

The airport has also been a global leader in the implementation of technology in its operations, which has resulted in streamling the process for passengers while also reducing costs to the air carriers, according to Berg. NEXUS, U.S. Direct, the Disney Express at Orlando International — these are some big impact items in which YVR’s leap into technology has made its impact felt.

And the innovation continues, explains YVR vice president of simplified travel and CIO Kevin Molloy. The airport is embarking on EPIL — electronic primary inspection line — which will soon enter a pilot program before being implemented nationally. From there, Molloy expects it to be applied internationally and in time to become a significant component of a global passenger processing system being explored by the International Air Transport Association. [For more on EPIL, see TechBytes}

Recently, the airport added Chinese (besides French and English) to its primary wayfinding signage and installed LCD panels that offer directions in different languages depending on which flights are operating. At midday, the signs offer directions in Japanese, Korean, and other Asian languages; at 6 p.m., they switch to German, Spanish, and Italian.

A history of efficiency
Vancouver International, like airports in Brussels and Amsterdam, recognized early on that new technologies coming out in the 1990s could have a significant impact on airline and airport operations, and cost. As officials here embarked on a path toward making their facility attractive to new carriers and their passengers, they looked to technology for solutions.

Comments Berg, “We have for some time now been performing services that traditionally airports have had done by the airlines. I go back to the whole common use technology, gates and counters, and the computer infrastructure behind it. We manage all of that and sell it to the carriers on a common use basis. That applies to gates; it applies to the check-in counters.

“Those sorts of things have certainly reduced airline costs substantially at Vancouver. It provides infrastructure and also better customer service and flexibility in the infrastructure, that can be applied to any given airline at any given time.

“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.”

The 2010 Winter games
Much of that focus on technology and processing has put Vancouver International in a unique position for handling the upcoming Winter Olympics, say officials.

“We are well into the planning and preparation stage for 2010 right now,” explains Berg. “I have assigned a vice president of Olympic planning, Paul Levy. He’s put together a core team and we’re in full planning mode, both for activities that will occur on the island and those that will occur off it. Involved in all that is the need to coordinate with multiple agencies. That, and we’re the first airport ever to be an official Olympic supplier. The airport gets to use the rings. So we have a commercial and financial relationship.”

Berg says the airport recently opened the first of six Olympics retail stores in the terminal complex, with strong initial sales.

He relates that YVR officials have toured other airports that have been involved in the Olympics –—Turin; Salt Lake City; Athens. A common lesson learned is that the big challenge for airports is managing passengers on departure. “That’s the key thing,” says Berg. “Olympic participants will arrive over a period of a couple of weeks. They’re all going to want to leave the day after. You have to handle that with a level of customer service that leaves a good experience for everybody. So, we’re looking at innovative approaches to that; we’ll be doing an awful lot of off-airport check-in. There will be a couple dozen venues off the airport where we’ll be checking in people and bags, to take the congestion off the airport itself.”

Molloy says that, just as it has with the U.S. Direct trusted traveler program and with the cruise lines, the airport will try to pre-clear as many passengers as possible prior to their entry into Canada.

“The majority of the people who are Olympic family members, VIPs, athletes — we will know about those people in advance,” he explains. “Just like with the cruise ships, we will send them a special information package. When they come off their plane we will hold up a special card for Olympic family members and bring them in bond to their Olympic village, where their bags will be.

“We’re also doing the same on the way out. We have started to push out our pre-check-in to events. In January, 2006, Vancouver hosted the World Junior Hockey Championships. We had the Russian team; the Sweden team; the Czech Republic team; and others. We checked in all the European teams and took their bags and equipment at GM Place, the hockey stadium, the day after the tournament. So instead of coming out to the airport with bags of clothes and hockey gear, we took them at the stadium.”

Regarding what Vancouver International has to learn from previous airports and their handling of the Olympics, Molloy says YVR is more fully vested and integrated into the Games.

“There’s no one who we can say that we want to replicate what they did,” he says. “I’m sure all these airports put lots of energy into it, but I think they had a smaller view of what their role was in the Olympics. Some airports, I would suggest, viewed it as simply being a transit point, not part of the Olympics.

“Our experience in talking with Turin was like that. They said they’d have less passengers than normal because the ski traffic would not be coming because of the Olympics.

“We’re the first airport to be an official Olympic sponsor; the first to be an actual Olympic venue. And I believe we will be the first airport that handles the vast majority of Olympic travel in an ultimate way. We did meet with Beijing and tried to give them some advice; but they were just too far behind the curve. They didn’t understand their own business well enough; they didn’t have the relationships with the airlines.”
YVR is an accreditation facility for Olympic family members, who will be able to get their security passes to Olympic venues when they arrive at the airport. And, Molloy’s team is currently exploring ways to facilitate passenger processing after the Games, to the point of remote check-in immediately following the closing ceremonies.