The Common Use Continuum

Jan. 4, 2010
SITA's airport IT survey highlights trends associated with passenger processing

Now in its sixth year, the airport IT trends survey is “building momentum and credibility,” says SITA vice president for airport service Catherine Mayer. Representing some 176 airports worldwide, including 56 from the top 100 in terms of revenue and passengers, this year’s survey received a record response rate. Survey results show that passenger processing and services is the highest airport priority investment for the third successive year, and 2008 IT budgets were largely unaffected by the downturn.

“The survey is global, and for the first time we really had a good balance of respondents from all over the world,” relates Mayer.

“In the past most of the response has come predominantly from North America followed by Europe. This year it was very well balanced between Europe, North America, and even the Asia-Pacific region.”

According to Mayer, when the data is put together, it’s significant because in terms of all the airports that responded, they represent more than 69 percent of all the revenue generated by the world’s top 100 airports, and 60 percent of all passenger traffic.

In terms of addressing the size of airports represented, SITA weights the answers, says Mayer. “What we do is take into consideration the revenue, the size of the airport, and the traffic volume, and try to balance that out between all the different airports that respond.”

Serving the passenger
With regard to airports investing in customer service, “This is not the first year we have seen that at the top, it’s actually the second year,” says Mayer. “That is a reconfirmation that airports are very focused on the end-user, and they are no longer playing the traditional landlord or facilities provider role.

“They’re taking an active interest in what happens and how the passengers are traveling through the premises; how the flow of the passenger’s entire journey is going to go.”
The most amazing thing that came out of this survey, remarks Mayer, is the commitment of airports to continue to invest in information technology (IT) as a solution to get them through the global economic downturn.

In the face of carrier capacity cutbacks and a decline in passenger demand, the survey shows that airports are not cutting their IT budgets, but are maintaining and or increasing them for next year.

“We have done a good job as an industry, working in a collaborative manner between Airports Council International (ACI), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the vendors to get passengers used to self-service kiosks for check in,” says Mayer.

“But industry is telling us to take it a step further now … to look at using self-service kiosks for other types of services such as disruption management, transit, baggage — and not just check in. Airports are realizing they can use self-service for boarding, access to lounges, tracking passengers, etc.

“Industry has encouraged passengers to utilize self-service; passengers now accept it and in many cases, as with check-in, they expect it.”

Investing in Infrastructure
The survey also shows that there is still a strong focus by airports to invest in IT infrastructure consolidation, or common-use virtualization, and taking advantage of new technologies that will help drive down costs and offer better services, relates Mayer. “An airport’s IT infrastructure (data and voice communication capabilities) is its lifeline,” she says.
Regarding master airport IT plans, Mayer comments, “We have always asked the question in the survey: Do you have a master IT plan and what is the average time span covered by it?

“The reason we took that question out of the survey is because the majority of respondents were saying, ‘Yes, we do have an IT master plan in place, and it’s usually three to five years.’”

Consultant companies that put together airport master plans will now have a section devoted to IT planning. “The airport IT master plan is now a component of an airport’s capital investment master plan; which wasn’t the case just five years ago,” she says.

The one thing that airports need to be aware of concerning wireless IT networks, remarks Mayer, is which technology do they use when it comes to mobility?

“Do they use 3G, WiMAXX, Wi-Fi, Near Field Communication (NFC), Bluetooth … all are viable,” says Mayer, but they would have interoperability issues across the airport environment.

“Airports need to decide on one technology that’s going to accommodate the majority if not all of their uses,” she says. “Industry indicates it is moving towards WiMAXX because it is the most flexible, but there are some licensing issues and it’s not fully tested yet.

“But, if you look at the process of exchanging data from aircraft at the gate — maintenance data, entertainment system data, duty-free sales … airports need to have the capability to upload and download big bulk loads of data; they’re saying that WiMAXX will be the most efficient.”

Siva Vajjhala, global head of MindTree Ltd.’s travel and transportation industry group, says CUPPS (common use passenger processing systems) is truly next generation technology in terms of saving millions of dollars for the aviation industry and in getting to the next level of user-friendliness.

MindTree is a global IT solutions company which employs some 8,300 people globally and is based in India. The company was recently selected as a CUPPS testing entity by the CUPPS committee, a collaboration of airlines, airports, and vendors. MindTree is charged with helping airlines and airports transition from CUTE IT applications to CUPPS standards.

“The travel and transportation sector is one of our largest markets,” he relates, “and air transport is our biggest focus with regard to transportation. We have customers across the entire sector of the travel industry, including Southwest Airlines and American Airlines; we also work with IATA and SITA, as well as with rental car companies such as Avis and Budget.”

CUTE, or common use terminal equipment, is gradually being replaced by newer, more superior terminal equipment, referred to as CUPPS, relates Vajjhala. According to him, CUPPS technology has many advantages over CUTE, including interoperability.

“CUPPS is a platform that allows for multiple kiosk locations, even outside of the airport, whether that be at a bank ATM, a gas station, or a rental car location,” explains Vajjhala.
“For example, if a business traveler plans to top off his car’s fuel tank before going to the airport, there should be no reason that individual can’t check into a flight from the gas station location.”

CUPPS device support is phenomenal, he adds. CUTE does not support any biometric capabilities, but CUPPS does have that support. “As a company, we see CUPPS as being revolutionary in that sense,” he says.

There are multiple differences between CUTE and CUPPS, says Vajjhala. In terms of providing user interface and device support, CUPPS provides capabilities for reading 2D barcodes for mobile devices, fingerprint recognition, passport scanning, and so on.

Comments SITA’s Mayer, “Although CUTE technology allowed multiple airlines to share the same pieces of hardware, they actually had to have a type of application that could run on the SITA system, or the Arinc system, or the Ultra system, plus their own dedicated application.

“With CUPPS, it’s written in such a way that an airline can now use the same common-use application on any provider’s platform.

“So there is a real return on their investment; it results in cost savings because when carriers make changes to check-in applications, they don’t have to update five different systems, they just update their own dedicated application plus one.”

All the common use functions in today’s environment have to be custom-written and custom-encoded between the airline, the particular device, and the platform, says Vajjhala. “In a CUPPS world, we are going away from that sort of ‘specifity’ to a much broader level which will allow airports, much like you see today at Las Vegas McCarran or Orlando, use this technology to provide common usage across all airline carriers,” he says.

“The advantages are pretty clear; in the case of airlines that really thrive on seasonality, they can’t afford to invest every year in installing a piece of hardware, or installing it once and maintaining it throughout the year.

“A CUPPS platform will allow carriers to have shared access to common resources; and a pay-as-you-go model with the airport, who would essentially be the owners of that equipment.”

In terms of CUPPS certification for use, Vajjhala relates that standards have been published regarding the CUPPS platform, which defines how it should behave in relationship to a carrier’s application, and also how it behaves in relation to the devices that it connects to.

“CUPPS defines the standard for airline operations as well as for peripheral devices (boarding pass printers, readers, etc…),” says Vajjhala. “As a testing entity it is our job to come in and test a provider’s CUPPS platform so that we can make sure it is compliant with the requirements laid out by the CUPPS standard.”

Technology; functionality
“I think CUPPS’ capability to provide new functionality, such as biometrics, will proceed in stages,” says Vajjhala. “I see first the expansion of CUPPS to more and more air carriers. Once you start seeing more common usage at airports, beginning with tier one airports, then to tier two and three — it will percolate down to off-airport locations, beginning with at the very least the rental car locations and maybe nearby gas stations and so on.

“Passport scanning and passport readers will probably come before any extensive biometric capabilities.”

With regard to paperless travel and barcode boarding passes, Mayer says the trend is here to stay.

“We are almost on track to get rid of all magstripe (magnetic stripe) boarding passes by the end of 2010 for IATA members,” says Mayer.

“I think some 60 to 70 percent of those member airports are barcode-boarding pass capable. We are moving forward with this; it drives costs out of the overall process. Barcodes can be used for various functions including access control; there is a multiple-use functionality to barcodes, and it is being embraced by the passengers.”

And it’s cheaper, comments Mayer, because there isn’t that expense for peripheral devices to print magstripe boarding passes. “There has been a very positive response from the industry, both airlines and airports, to quickly adopt it,” she says.

As industry continues to move from magstripe to barcode boarding, the next step will be moving that barcode to mobile devices, remarks Mayer, adding that there are already 12 countries around the world that accept boarding barcodes presented with a mobile device.

“The mobile side of it is the next technological innovation to watch for because it will have a big influence on the industry,” says Mayer.

Moving forward
As CUPPS grows, airports would be the primary procurer of the equipment, says Vajjhala. Airlines then would pay a fee determined by their usage of that equipment.

The biggest challenge is migrating from CUTE technology to CUPPS, says Vajjhala. “The other thing that we need to watch for in the initial stages of that transition is data security and the electronic transfer of passenger lists; does that responsibility remain with the airline, or is it now a function of CUPPS, and thus an airport responsibility?” he asks.

From a long-term standpoint, “You will find newer devices coming into play allowing us to embrace new functionality, and there will be new demands from the passenger,” comments Vajjhala.

“Since CUPPS is going to be basically a society-driven initiative, will it be able to react as quickly to the demands of the traveler and of the airline?” asks Vajjhala. “That will be something to watch for concerning the long-term sustainability of CUPPS.”

The only question that remains, says Vajjhala, is will airlines see CUPPS as something that will take away from a carrier’s potential competitive advantage over another because they are utilizing a common platform with common functionality across the board?

In terms of funding, Mayer comments, “We do know that ACI and AAAE are lobbying on the industry’s behalf to demonstrate that CUPPS is not a way to generate revenue; it is a passenger processing tool. The feeling around the ACI-NA event held in Austin last October was that it will be resolved and that common-use equipment will be AIP (Airport Improvement Program) or PFC (passenger facility charge) funding-eligible.

“What we see is that common-use kiosks are installed for a specific reason and to accommodate a specific need; common use is actually going to help drive more airline entrants to come in, or leave easier, because it’s not locking up a lot of valuable real estate — CUPPS promotes shared use.”

Rather than the airlines bringing into the airport their own network connectivity and hardware, IT actually makes it easier and provides a better service for the carriers, says Mayer.

Self-service peaks at Hartsfield-Jackson

According to SITA, an air transport communication and IT specialist, self-service check in at Atlanta has grown by 215 percent during the last four years with 82 percent of passengers preferring self-service check in options.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport now boasts some 173 common-use equipment positions; 113 at gate areas, 52 at ticket counters, and eight recently installed self-service kiosks at the rental car center.

“There is definitely a demand by the passenger for common-use kiosks,” says Patricia Thomas, airport systems manager for Atlanta’s department of aviation. “Our common use environment has been received very well by the passengers, but it’s transparent to them.”

With regards to new functionality to the latest common-use equipment, Thomas says the airport is looking into implementing common-use gate information displays (GIDS), mobile device barcode readers, and baggage applications.

The biggest advantage to common use capabilities, comments Thomas, is that it allows the airport to facilitate the fast start-up of a carrier that is not capable of making a large capital investment.

“Common use gives the airport the flexibility to accommodate any airline wanting to start-up here,” says Thomas. “The carriers can simply log-in to the system; gate information displays are dynamic and display content can be easily adjusted.”

Atlanta also stands out with regard to mobile device check in, which is now at 4.2 percent of passengers compared to less than 1 percent last year, according to SITA.

Says SITA’s vice president of airport service Catherine Mayer, “Atlanta has been really proactive with regards to common use, and it’s absolutely due to the lead by Delta Airlines.
“Atlanta is a reflection of the overall North American market where passengers are really used to using self-service.”

As of August 2009, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport was the busiest airport in the world in terms of total passenger traffic enplaning and deplaning some 59.56 million travelers, according to Airports Council International.