The twin pressures of increasing passenger numbers and reducing costs is leading the aviation industry towards technological solutions. It is a trend that ground handlers cannot ignore.
At the forefront of this high-tech movement is the IATA Simplifying the Business (StB) campaign. The program, with its stated and time-defined goals of e-ticketing (ET), Common-Use Self-Service (CUSS), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and bar-coded boarding passes (BCBP), urges participation from all industry partners.
One company heeding the call is Swissport - the global ground handler owned by Spanish infrastructure concern, Ferrovial. It has embarked on a number of developments that will not only facilitate passenger travel but also bring much-needed operational efficiency to airlines and airports alike. One of its key projects is the roll-out of CUSS kiosks at major Swissport operations throughout the world. CUSS brings a multitude of benefits for all parties. For the consumer it means faster check-in, remote check-in possibilities (for example, a hotel or train station) and a common experience-the machines will have similar functionality worldwide.
For the airlines, there are obvious cost savings through shared use terminals and a reduction in airport desk requirements. Airports don't miss out either. CUSS improves capacity utilization and again, there is the potential to remove unwanted congestion by allowing check-in at remote locations. CUSS is estimated to save an average of $2.50 per check-in and just 40 percent penetration of the kiosks will translate into savings of $1 billion per year. Figures such as this are understandably attracting the attention of all relevant parties.
Swissport has agreements in place to help with its deployment of CUSS, most notably with aviation IT specialist, SITA and industry association, IATA. Already the company has implemented its CUSS solution at Basel in Switzerland and New York JFK's Terminal 4. It further reports that it is in the process of evaluating other stations.
"The U.S. is a market where kiosk check-in is already very common," says Michael Kilchherr, vice president product development, e-services at Swissport, "and we do have the critical mass at JFK to use CUSS kiosks efficiently."
There are some issues to resolve - at JFK, for example, passengers cannot ‘self-tag' their baggage due to TSA restrictions-but the feedback so far has been positive. Machines have excellent functionality including the possibility of future technology such as 2D bar codes and biometrics and can serve up to 60 airlines. Notes Janice Holden, vice president of marketing and business development for Terminal 4 operator, JFK IAT, LLC: "Given the capacity challenges for future traffic growth, the CUSS machines provide an opportunity to improve our check-in capacity in a uniform and organized manner." Importantly, CUSS is not just about hub airports, as the kiosk implementation at Basel indicates. "You need critical mass but each case is different and should be judged on its own merits," believes Kilchherr. "CUSS isn't only suitable for hubs. It could be used where several alliance partners are in close proximity in a terminal or it could even be used for a single airline if it frees up valuable space by allowing check-in desks to be taken away."
CUSS is also complementary to other emerging technologies such as web check-in. Swissport is involved here too. Although web check-in is not new, the involvement of a global ground handler brings the technology into the mainstream and makes it available to smaller airlines and airports.
Swissport is offering a web check-in service developed in conjunction with SITA and being launched by Switzerland's main airline, SWISS. Passengers can go online 24 hours prior to their flight to check-in, choose their seats and print their boarding passes. They then go direct to a drop-off point at the airport. Swissport personnel merely have to print the baggage tag and take the luggage. Web check-in is presently available at 16 destinations including Amsterdam, Dubai, Geneva, Montreal and Palma de Mallorca.
"Swissport International has the strategy to look at all e-services products and web check-in is complementary to CUSS and will allow us to be even more efficient in the future," confirms Kilchherr. Such advances take the co-operation of all stakeholders-airlines, airports, system providers and the relevant authorities. Reaching the common denominator has not been easy but according to Stephan Ellenberger, GM Ground Services Switzerland for SWISS, well worthwhile.
"We're delighted to offer this excellent service," he reveals. "Web check-in allows our customers to choose their seat and print out their boarding card from their home PC, saving them a sizeable amount of time when they get to the airport. So it's another big step in our efforts towards simplified passenger travel-an area where we're constantly seeking further and better solutions from our customers' perspective."
Trials have already taken place using 7,000 SWISS travellers and results have been good. In fact, Swissport's involvement in serving passengers via the Internet has led a host of carriers to express interest. A case in point is Air Malta-which recently agreed a comprehensive five-year ground support contract with Swissport.
The carrier cited the ground handler's innovation as an important element in the relationship. "We are gaining an innovative industry partner who, we are confident, will provide us with swifter access to further developments in the field such as web check-in and other new facilities," emphasises Joe Cappello, CEO at Air Malta.
CUSS and web check-in are just the start of Swissport's foray into the future of passenger handling. Possible projects include mobile phone check-in. "With our strategic partner SITA, we are currently evaluating where to trial this new technology and some airlines have already shown interest," says Kilchherr. "We expect the trials to start in the coming months."
The company is also collaborating with sister organisation, Checkport, to develop new ways to combine passenger handling and security. In addition, through its involvement in the Simplifying Passenger Travel (SPT) Working Group, Swissport is discussing the regulatory issues that will facilitate these and other technical improvements.
"In the mid-term future, including the new technologies in the passenger handling process will be crucial in order to be competitive and to survive," reports Kilchherr. "Swissport is always trying to be the first mover with new developments in order to keep this competitive advantage.
"More and more airlines are starting to make e-services a priority as this is one of the only ways to reduce costs and still to be able to offer their customers a quality product," he concludes. "And, with the ever increasing demands by authorities, it is crucial to use new technologies."