Tech Bytes

It would be daunting to discuss every technology advance the airport arena has seen in the last 20 years. Airports and tenant businesses don’t manage or operate any facet — from fueling to landing fees, communications to asset management — exactly the same as they did 20 years ago. Yet, it’s clear that this is just the beginning when it comes to technology. Here, an airport and an FBO discuss the trends.

Ginna Reyes, general manager of Western Flight, Inc., a fixed base operation at McClellan-Palomar (CA) Airport, says one of the primary technological advances her operation has benefitted from is flight tracking. Having flight tracking technology allows FBOs to be prepared for the arriving flights and, says Reyes, offer better service. “We have the cars ready, we know when the quick turn is happening, and we can more effectively plan our ramp space for safety and efficiency. That’s a huge difference.”

More efficient and FBO-specific software has also changed the way Western Flight operates. Suppliers like Horizon Business Concepts, PRG Aviation, and Corridor are continually upgrading and revising their business management software solutions to meet the changing needs of their clients.

Advances in communications equipment have made ramp operations more effective and efficient, says Reyes. Line personnel are able to communicate faster with people in the front office to speed up the billing process — a major benefit to clients, she says.

Technology changes have not only proved beneficial to the FBO in terms of safety and efficiency, but to customer satisfaction as well. The availability of Internet connections, including wireless, make it much easier for business travelers or pilots to keep in contact with their office or conduct business from anywhere in the FBO.

The Internet has influenced the way Western Flight carries out its business as well as the way in which it promotes its services, says Reyes.

“It may seem minor, but it was a big thing for us when we had the ability to start running our credit cards through the software that was on the computer because of the Internet. It streamlined our entire operation; we’re more efficient and it’s a direct result of the Internet and the development of aviation business management software.”

Marketing the FBO is now also done through a website (www.westernflight.com), says Reyes. And the advent of electronic mail makes it possible to share information and confirm details more effectively. “Even though we still make calls and have the personal contact with our customers, we’re seeing more of [our customers] go to the email and the internet to set up their business; and even fuel pricing is moving toward that direction,” says Reyes.

YVR Airport Advances

When chief information officer Kevin Molloy joined the Vancouver International Airport in 1995, “there was literally zero automation at the airport; the only system I inherited was a finance system,” says Molloy. Today, YVR is one of the most innovative and technologically advanced airports in the world. While technology has changed and developed over the years, he says that it’s the nature of the business of operating an airport that has changed, requiring new and better technology.

The adoption of common use technology is one of the primary changes airports have made in recent years, and has been especially critical to operations at YVR, says Molloy. When Vancouver made the decision to construct a new terminal building, the decision was also made to be the operator of all systems within the building, including closed circuit television (CCTV), baggage handling, and scheduling gates.

“Our terminal building is about 35-40 percent smaller from a square footage standpoint than it would have been had we not adopted common use. It saves us tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Most recently YVR, along with other airports, has moved beyond common use technology to common use self-service technology, which Molloy says is “viewed as a real business change agent. This time three years ago, our airport at peak times was in complete chaos. You would see lineups of passengers in the check-in, parking facilities, and running past the retail outlets.”

According to Molloy, Air Canada, one of the main tenants, has reduced its check-in staff and, at the same time, grown its passenger numbers by 20 percent without seeing terminal congestion. “The self-service has doubled the capacity of our terminal building.”

Benefits of I.T. Outsourcing

In recent months, Vancouver began outsourcing its information technology (IT) support. Molloy says he views himself and his department as thinking, not doing. “We are more than willing to outsource the doing,” he explains. Of Molloy’s 30 staff members, about ten are business analysts who are not “IT people.” Typically, he says, the individuals are hired from other divisions within the airport who have served as liaisons between the business end users and the technical solutions. “I want them to understand and talk the lingo of their customers. They have accountancy degrees, general literature degrees. Their job is to liase with the business community on how to adopt systems to the airport environment.” Molloy says these business analysts are also “marketplace watchers” who attend conferences to visit with vendors and learn about new products.

The IT department staff also includes those Molloy calls architects, “very serious technical people” who set the standards and policies for the architecture of the system and the technical people who implement new systems.

ARINC supplies the support of all existing systems, according to Molloy. “If a system has a failure, crashes, or a bag tag printer jams, it’s ARINC’s staff that are dispatched. They are at the help desk and respond to all primary calls.”

Molloy says one of the benefits was that his own staff is unionized and was not interested in working 24/7. Additionally, as more systems at the airport are implemented that are more critical to the business of operating an airport, the necessity of having continual support and available staff has become more apparent.

RFID, Cell Phones, and More

As Molloy looks ahead at Vancouver and the industry as a whole, he says radio frequency identification for baggage tracking is on the very near horizon. “We’ve been hearing about them for about ten years and we’ve seen a lot of trials.” Molloy expects the influence of the retail sector purchasing RFID tags will push the cost down to a more reasonable level, but adds that it won’t be the price point alone that makes RFID an attractive option for airports. “It’s more about that RF tracking allows you to do things you can’t do with barcodes,” he says. Tracking the bags throughout the check-in process, with the possibility of removing a check-in agent altogether is just one of the benefits Molloy sees.

More and more airports will continue to outfit their terminals with wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) services — whether as a free or a pay-for-use service — and as that evolves, Molloy says other technologies will become available. Cell phones could soon assist in wayfinding, he says, with the idea of the cell phone being the speaker for a “talking sign.” For example, if a non-English speaking passenger wants to know what a particular airport sign says, they would dial the number on the sign into their phone and the text would be read to them in their language.

Beyond the terminal, Vancouver International is testing a radar technology that has been used in military applications for years. The radar will scan the runway 24 hours a day and is able to locate something as small as the tip of a pen on the runway or taxiway. “Today we do that manually with sweeps of the runway, essentially every hour,” says Molloy. “But radar is constant; we can have a constant scan of the runway and our airside safety team can be paged to be alerted exactly where the FOD (foreign object debris) is located.” Airfield security is another possible application for this technology that Vancouver is researching.

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