Airport IT investment remains strong

Airport Chief Information Officers continue to drive enhancements to core IT infrastructure to improve productivity, respond to changing airline and regulatory requirements, and cope with the inexorable rise in passenger numbers.

This is underpinned by the growth in the common user concept, involving IT integration across the entire airport platform, not just the airport proprietor.

Angela Gittens, Director-General of Airports Council International (ACI), set the scene succinctly in a speech last year where she stated that airport managers looked to information and communications technology to help achieve safety and security, economic vitality, customer service, and environmental responsibility.

The more that innovation or technological change could contribute towards these cornerstones, the greater priority that innovation or technology would become.

Inevitably, the reach of new IT is best showcased in huge undertakings such as Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3 and Heathrow Terminal 5.

But, as explained by Sue Carter, Vice President Commercial Industries with Unisys Asia-Pacific, much of the same cutting-edge technology is readily scaleable to airports down to the size of Canberra’s.

This is particularly relevant given projected growth rates in Australia. According to ACI, Sydney Airport last year processed 30,350,283 passengers, making it the world’s 29th busiest.

However, a January 2010 forecast by Australia’s Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics predicts that by 2025 Sydney’s annual throughput will grow to 63 million – slightly more than the number now handled by Beijing Capital International, currently the world’s third busiest airport.

Similarly, Perth is expected to grow to 18 million passenger movements by 2025-26, Brisbane to 39 million, Adelaide to 11.7 million, and Melbourne to 46 million.

While Australian airports must plan well ahead to handle the projected rates of growth, IT can also be expected to play a role in bringing Australian customer service and passenger facilities up to world’s best practice.

Although airports once traditionally focused on baggage handling, Unisys’ Carter sees a far greater emphasis now on how the travellers themselves are processed.

Airports therefore need to rely on IT systems and infrastructure to deliver an exceptional customer experience complete with real-time information (flight arrivals and departures, baggage and freight tracking); fast and seamless connections for baggage and freight; robust safety and security; and the integration of business processes that enable the free flow of information between airport systems, airlines and airport retailers.

Guangzhou New Baiyun International Airport, for which Unisys was the master integrator, operates on the Unisys Central Integrated Information Management System (CIIMS) and Airport Operations Management Solution, a high-volume database. The database constantly receives flight-related data from airlines, handling agents and air traffic control to provide airport staff, government agencies and the general public with real-time information.

Similarly, middleware systems were also applied to integrate other disparate airport systems such as flight information displays, departure control, baggage handling and building management with the CIIMS.

A key objective, Carter said, was to provide an IT infrastructure with the flexibility to rapidly meet changing demands in logistics, passenger services and other mission-critical applications.

“If you look at some of the newer airports in Asia, when they build those airports they’re actually fitting them up to provide services back to the airlines. Australian airports are all in situ and so the challenges they will face is how to expand and then, as you expand and provide new technologies, how to provide the linkage back to the systems you already have running”, she commented.

“It’s really important to map where you want to be, look at your business processes, and then look at how you need to map your applications and infrastructure to achieve your outcome”.

 

The way ahead

An authoritative prediction of the way ahead is given by the Airport IT Trends Survey 2009, which reflects the views of more than 170 international airports and is generally recognised as the most comprehensive of its type worldwide.

Some 52 per cent of airports included in the survey said electronic documentation for travellers and aircraft would have the greatest impact on infrastructure and systems over the next three years.

All but a small minority will implement check-in kiosks within three years, and more than half are planning to evolve their kiosks to print bag tags and scan passports. Also within three years, just over a third intend to automate security point processing using 2D bar-coded boarding passes, and more than 50 per cent will be offering a plethora of mobile phone services.

These will range from flight status notifications and mobile-optimised websites to movie downloads for passengers to view in-flight.

 

Melbourne eyes the edge

Mark Funston, Information Technology Manager of Melbourne Airport (MA) is overseeing the installation of a fibre optic network relying on multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), a technology normally used by telecommunications companies to ensure consistent quality of service over long distance.backbones.

“Our gigabit Ethernet network had reached its limits; video alone was taking up around 80 per cent of the network’s bandwidth”, he said.

“Now we’re getting all the bandwidth we need, we can provide layers of protection by segregating traffic into various groups, and we can apply encryption to various components as needed.

“We’re always looking for efficiencies but we only use technologies that have been proven; maybe not at an airport, but in industrial or other environments.”

MA’s network runs on VMware ESX Server-based systems with Dell servers. The system still utilises Windows XP which will be upgraded to Windows 7 to tie in with a hardware refresh “at some stage in the future”.

A full Citrix thin-client environment is used to run IT services at Launceston Airport, which is also owned by MA.

Common use passenger systems at Melbourne Airport are provided by the US company ARINC under contract to the Melbourne Common Use Terminal Equipment (CUTE) Club, which consists of all international airlines using the airport.

Unusually, Funston’s 16-strong IT team does not manage the contract, but has considerable indirect influence over the systems through its specification of barcode, wireless reader and other requirements.

Funston suggests biometrics – probably fingerprint scanning – may soon be used to correlate baggage tags, boarding passes and passports.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) to sort and track baggage, as currently utilised at Hong Kong and Las Vegas and soon to be introduced by Qantas in Perth to its Frequent Flyers, will also reduce the amount of misdirected baggage while increasing the capacity of the existing baggage system.

Melbourne’s wireless network already covers the terminal, apron and bays, and

Funston foreshadows the development of a number of new wireless-based applications once the infrastructure expansion programme is completed and legacy systems are integrated onto new platforms.

These applications may include movie downloads, targeted retail promotions, and a flight information subscription service for taxi drivers so they can base their availability on passenger demand.

MA is also responsible for deploying common-use self-service check-in kiosks CUSS) which support multiple airlines. Funston says such kiosks save time and space, but ideally should include a self-managed bag drop facility.

 

BAC’s 10-year horizon

Stephen Goodwin, General Manager of Operations of the Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC), will finish the consolidation in May of seven separate networks into a single 10 gigabit fibre-optic network, with an accompanying reduction in servers.

As of March some 225 applications were hanging off the network, but this number will be nearly halved as part of the consolidation process.

Unlike Melbourne, BAC provides the majority of terminal systems in a common user format via subcontractors and is paid via a per passenger charge to airlines, or under commercial terms to other tenants.

Currently, Qantas and Virgin Blue have their own leases in the domestic terminal running until 2018, and their own systems as a result.

However, both airlines have recognised the benefits downstream of collaboration and are working with BAC to facilitate integration to the common user system, post 2018 when the leases expire.

Goodwin sees IT systems and network planning being conducted no further than 10 years ahead – more generally five – because of rapid changes in technology and ever changing needs of the its users.

“We decided some time ago that basic check-in kiosks would be outdated by online check-ins through the Internet so we’ve invested in the network, making sure it’s capable of accepting and integrating the numerous types of technologies coming along, including Kiosk Mark 2 with luggage check-in capability”, he says.

“Technology is only an enabler; we take a systems approach where we think about strategy and then we think about technology and then we think about the people who have to make it work”.

To save costs, BAC utilises Internet-based drivers for much of its data distribution and uses VOIP for all its internal telephony.

The InterSystems developed airport management system (AIMS) provides retailers with the demographics of incoming international flights so shops can adjust their displays appropriately before the aircraft lands.

Rather than reinventing the wheel in researching or locating technological developments, BAC benefits from a technical services agreement with Schiphol Airport, an 18 per cent shareholder, and uses it to garner information on areas ranging from new types of bag drops to information systems.

Goodwin says BAC is about to begin a trial capturing real time passenger flow data by passively tracking the Bluetooth phones carried by passengers. This will ultimately help eliminate bottlenecks and optimise staffing levels.

“Schiphol and other industry partners, have provided us with the necessary details to assist us in design so we haven’t had to spend unnecessary money in ‘reinventing learning’, we can simply share in the learning already created”, he commented.

Other benefits are expected to flow from BAC’s collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology, where more than 30 industry and Government partners are collaborating in an industry and federally-funded research project appropriately called Airports of the Future.

QUT is now seen as a Centre of Excellence in the aviation arena to the extent that, in a world first, some 30 potential PhD students from Beijing Airport, may complete their studies through QUT.

BAC’s IT interests extend beyond the airport terminals, with 1000 hectares of adjoining airport land being available to developer for aviation-related and commercial activities.

“We’ve also been able to network a number of these tenants and their activities to offer them a choice of packages to enhance their business activities”, said Goodwin.

“The revenue is only small at this stage but it’s set to double in the coming year and as the airport grows. Integrated services can be easily offered to the hundreds of tenants on airport for a simple monthly fee”.

 

Adelaide up with the technology

Philip Dewhurst, IT Manager at Adelaide Airport, acknowledges the potential of mobile services but points out some practical challenges.

“You’ve got a passenger who has barcodes sent direct to a mobile phone; that still has to be read somehow. If the passenger doesn’t have a bag, that’s fine but there still has to be a reader at the departure gate that can read that pass.

“If the passenger has a bag you have to have a device in the check-in area that reads the boarding pass then produces a bag tag. The passenger will then attach their own luggage tag and take it to a bag drop, but you’ve got to know the weight of that bag, is it oversize etc; these are the issues we have to overcome to get true passenger self-service”.

Dewhurst has the benefit of a near-new terminal built around the common use concept and a highly-integrated IT operation, where new equipment and systems are not a priority.

“The building management system is talking to the airport operational database, as is the nose-in guidance system, as are flight departures and arrivals, all those sorts of things,” he said.

“So over the next few years we’ll be just keeping up with technology, along with the changing requirements of our airline tenants – although our service providers will generally have a more intimate knowledge of that”

The Adelaide IT team supports back of house functions such as finance and human resources for the airport company in addition to the airport’s primary fibre-optic network utilising MPLS, but most terminal services are contracted out.

Although Internode provides wireless Internet browsing and net kiosks are available in the terminal, enhancing mobile services is still only in the initial planning stage. However, Dewhurst is clearly aware of the potential for such services, having being quoted in a 2009 SITA paper on mobility as stating that by 2012 “we anticipate widespread usage of tablet PCs or in-the-palm devices across the airport”.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that airport long-term IT master plans and investment programs, unlike airline spending, remain largely untouched by the effects of the global economic crisis.

The SITA IT Trend Survey 2009 has only 14 per cent of respondents forecasting a decrease in IT spend in 2010, with the three Australian airports contacted for this article reporting consistent expenditure, albeit with an expectation of a return on investment.

“We need to ensure that if we’re going to spend money on a pilot process we’ll get some sort of assurance from airlines that in two or three years’ time when things are better, they’re actually going to invest in it and be happy to pay for the outcome”, said BAC’s Stephen Goodwin.

“A lot of them are saying, we’re happy for you to spend some money and show us that it works, but we don’t want to contribute to it.

“We’ve said that’s fine, we just need some sort of guarantee that if it all makes sense and it meets your requirement that you’ll be happy to enter into a commercial agreement”.

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