Productivity flying high on Vancouver

The Vancouver International Airport Authority is counting on a single high-speed network and a recently completed voice over IP (VoIP) rollout to keep its communications grounded despite soaring passenger traffic.

The airport trotted out its network implementation as part of Cisco Systems’ annual Partner Summit in Vancouver this week. Cisco provided the equipment for the airport’s new network, while Cisco partner Telus helped with the implementation.

Vancouver International’s plans to move to a unified Cisco network began in 2001, but shifting of the airport’s voice traffic to the new network was not completed until last month, says Kevin Molloy, chief information officer and vice-president of Simplified Passenger Travel at the Airport Authority. “We took a cautious approach,” Molloy says.

While the data portion of the network was up and running by early 2003, Molloy didn’t want to take any chances with the voice traffic. The airport tested the voice system internally in the IT department to kick the tires, before merging its existing voice network with Cisco’s data network.

There were no major technical hurdles in the voice implementation, Molloy says, adding that the biggest challenge was for the airport to stop thinking of its new IP phones as dumb handsets to view them as integrated devices.

For example, Molloy says, currently when an airline employee processes the last person for a particular flight, the employee must check the airport directory for the flight departure gate and the phone number there, to let airline employees at the gate know check-in is complete. In future, he said, the airport plans to tie its flight databases into its directory system so check-in personnel can just type in a four-digit flight number to contact the gate.

In addition to supporting Vancouver Airport’s 1,100 IP phones, the network connects 1,000 closed circuit cameras, more than 1,500 television screens, self-service check-in kiosks and wireless Internet access for travelers. The network also runs a wireless baggage remediation system airlines use to scan and track luggage, as well as biometric iris recognition technology that lets pre-approved travelers bypass border lineups.

The airport has extended its check-in service to local hotels. Through a check-in kiosk at the hotel – connected to the airport network through a high-speed Internet connection and a VPN-enabled Cisco switch – hotel guests can check-in for their flights before leaving for the airport.

The airport’s network wasn’t always so powerful. In 2000, the airport ran seven discrete networks for processes including baggage handling and flight displays. In addition, each of the 22 airlines operating at the airport ran their own network.

The airport realized that to handle its growing passenger burden, expected to be over 16 million passengers in 2005, it had to simplify its network. So in 2001, the Airport Authority came up with a strategy to collapse all 29 networks into one. The airport issued a request for proposals in late 2001, with Cisco and Telus emerging as the winners.

“The thing that attracted us most [about their proposal] was the ability to do complete end-to-end with one company’s equipment,” Molloy says. Other proposals included edge switches from one company and core switches from another, he said. “We wanted to go with one shop. We had to have something stable to convince 22 airlines to give up their networks for ours.”

The airport and its partners began building the network in mid-2002 and finished the data portion by early 2003. The biggest hurdle, said Molloy, was the fact that the airport is “a near 24×7 environment.” There was only a two-hour window each day, between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. when the airport wasn’t operating and that’s when all changes had to take place. With over 5,000 IP devices, including doors, in the airport, the shift took time.

According to Molloy, the core network cost just over $2 million to build, not including the applications running on top. The return on investment is difficult to pin down, he says, though the airport was able to reduce the number of check-in counters from 48 to 24 once the self-service kiosks were installed.

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