The Benefits of Integration

March 4, 2009
Strong IT infrastructure enhances services, reduces costs at RDU’s new terminal

The opening of Terminal 2 last fall at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) points to a growing trend in airport operational management. RDU’s Mark Posner says that by connecting infrastructure linking airlines, third-party service providers, and airport service facilities under a common IT system, airports can realize improved communications and operational efficiency.

Posner emphasizes how technology is going to drive the way airports do business by implementing the strategic use of network infrastructure and digital display equipment.

Posner, deputy director of information services at RDU, has worked with both airline and airport technology. His experience has led him to the forefront of IT at airports, and the increasing role it plays in operational efficiency.

Posner relates that airports have made a significant and conscious decision to move from the “landlord” methodology to becoming a provider of services. RDU did this by implementing a campus-wide infrastructure development plan, and integrating that into the design of its new terminal.

The airport began working on an IT infrastructure plan in 2004. Posner joined the airport authority in 2007 and phase 1 of the new Terminal 2 was completed last October. The terminal utilizes one IT infrastructure which links all airline and tenant data and voice communication. Posner describes the airport’s IT infrastructure as the backbone of the building.

“What we have set out to do is put in an infrastructure that the authority can leverage as we grow,” says Posner. “We made it so that we could easily manage it, drive down costs, and make it available to other entities.”

Elements of the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Patrol, retail shops, and the airlines utilize RDU’s IT network. “Every airline is using our infrastructure in one way, shape, or form,” says Posner. “Some airlines use RDU’s entire infrastructure system, and we support them for that.”

The IT infrastructure laid the groundwork for the system development of the new terminal, relates Posner. All of the phones are fully integrated with the airlines via a full Cisco infrastructure.

Five airlines serve 19 gates in Terminal 2, all of which use the services of the airport at a fraction of the cost it would be for the airlines to supply themselves, according to Posner. He says the biggest challenge to implementing the “one network, one system” technology infrastructure was in getting the airlines on board.

“The challenge was showing the airlines that our capabilities where robust, tolerant, and redundant enough to handle everything,” says Posner. “We had to prove to the airlines that utilizing our services lowers cost.”

RDU engaged the airlines early in the design phase of the terminal, and Posner relates that they were willing to hear the airport out. The authority presented it as a service to the airlines; a system that would add ease and flexibility to their operations.

“The airlines were willing to go along with us because they felt like they were a part of the process,” says Posner.

“At an airport the size of RDU, it doesn’t pay for airlines to have an IT staff here; it makes sense for them to utilize our system.

“Our staff is here 24/7 to manage the system and it reduces costs for the airlines. They don’t have to invest in technology; it becomes an operating expense at that point.”

Posner says the airport charges airlines at a rate of less than 50 percent of what an AT&T or TimeWarner Telecom would charge them, all for simple phone and DSL lines. Sharing this cost with airlines, government entities, and concessions drives down operational costs to the airport as well, relates Posner.

Airports of the past utilized a mix of digital and static signage to direct passengers and display information, explains Posner. “We really wanted to drive out static signs that grow stale quickly, are harder to manage, and require structural manipulation. We wanted signage that is strategically located and could display any type of content,” he says.

Posner refers to the airport’s digital signage campaign as a content management system. The system of display monitors can run video, animation, graphic art, and any type of text. An important aspect when considering its display system, RDU looked to standardize both hardware and software in an effort to more easily manage the content.

NEC Display was chosen to supply all monitors for the new terminal, and to act as consultant in choosing the display equipment technology. NEC’s Mike Zmuda says a deciding point for the airport was the look and quality of the monitors. “NEC monitors are really designed for digital applications such as the flight information display system (FIDS),” he says.

The monitors can be mounted in portrait or landscape mode and have a long list of control features which can be managed remotely. A variety of screen sizes, from 32-inch to 65-inch, have been installed throughout the terminal, and are mostly used to display flight information content, although ads run on screens which display gate and baggage information.

Posner relates that MUFIDS, multiple-user flight information display systems, are offered as a service for the airlines. MUFIDS can display any information an airline would like to communicate to its passengers, such as destination weather, baggage claim content, and ticket information. “What we have here is truly a content management system; if it can be put into a digital format; we can display it,” explains Posner.

While traditional FIDS technology and other content was managed separately, says Posner, “We are now capable of centrally managing content; the processing of all the screens from a single location.”

NEC’s monitors have the capability of giving full diagnostic information remotely; and a software package was provided at no cost to support that administrative function, says Zmuda.

“Screen hardware is also operated from a single console,” says Posner. “We can monitor 136 elements of each screen at anytime.”

The more efficient management capabilities of the display system has also allowed RDU to reduce its workforce in that area.

Three airline operations at RDU are supported through common-use technologies that the airport supplies. Common-use is utilized for all of the airline gate functions, ticketing and check-in kiosks, and curbside functions. The airport owns and operates the common-use kiosks, and airlines supply the software for the units, explains Posner.

The new terminal also features an in-line baggage system which interfaces with airline host systems and exchanges baggage information with the airport. “Basically, entire airline operational systems, especially customer facing, are supported by the airport,” says Posner.

Except for a small percentage of the retail shops, most concessionaires utilize the airport communication network, which includes phone and wireless Internet communications. “It wasn’t too difficult selling our services to most tenants, because of the cost value,” says Posner. “We can leverage what we have, and are far cheaper than the alternative.”

Posner’s team also made sure the airport had ties to various emerging technologies that were not implemented specifically. The common-use equipment is mobile device check-in ready, and the systems are capable of storing and tracking radio frequency identification (RFID) baggage tag technology.

“We have focused on combining state-of-the-art technologies in different ways in order to optimize our operational efficiency,” says Posner.

“We are out there on the leading edge of airports in terms of a fully integrated IT system.”