Vancouver deploys first common-use kiosk for check-in

In what is being called an industry first, Vancouver International Airport this week deployed 80 new “common use” kiosks that will eventually support all airline customer check-in requirements, enhance passenger processing and save airlines money, industry officials said.

The new system, developed by IBM Corp. and Arinc Inc., an Annapolis, Md.-based communications and engineering firm, is based on a new industry software standard called “CUSS,” or common-use self-service. Passengers can access many different airlines’ self-service check-in applications from a single kiosk. Air Canada is the first airline to use the kiosks for its Express Check-in. However, the Vancouver International Airport Authority expects several other airlines to add their check-in systems to the kiosks during the next few years.

Kevin Molloy, vice-president of IT for the airport authority, said the cost savings are “massive.” For example, a study conducted by his office in 2000 revealed that to continue supporting the airport’s projected passenger load would require an additional 145 check-in counters at a cost of US$1 million each. That cost would eventually be recouped from the airlines, he said.

Vancouver International is the second-largest international passenger gateway on the West Coast and Canada’s second-busiest airport, with more than 15 million passengers and 274,400 takeoffs and landings last year.

But there’s also a more practical nature to using the common access kiosk to support Vancouver’s 22 airlines, said Molloy. “If each airline were to bring in their own kiosk, they may actually turn into obstacles to processing passengers,” he said.

By the end of the year, the airport authority also plans to install some of the new kiosks in its parking areas and at curbside valet parking locations, allowing passengers to check in before entering the airport’s terminals. In addition, the Vancouver Airport’s kiosks may also be installed in locations such as hotel lobbies and cruise ship terminals.

The economic benefits of the common-access kiosks makes that level of deployment possible, said Molloy. “There’s no way to place 22 kiosks in a hotel lobby,” he said.

Rob Ranieri, e-Access Practice Lead for IBM Self-Service Group, said it would be difficult to provide a common cost figure for a kiosk, because they’re built to custom specifications. However, he did say that the shared costs spread across multiple airlines now makes remote check-in services accessible to smaller airlines that couldn’t justify the upfront hardware costs and maintenance costs of doing it on their own. The switch for Air Canada was relatively easy because the airline had already offered its own self-service kiosk, he said.

But for airlines that don’t offer self-service kiosks, the shift can be time-consuming and expensive, he said. “It’s a significant development effort,” said Ranieri. “It’s going to take some effort to write a new application. But it’s worth the investment because they can deploy applications and share the costs of hardware and maintenance, including paper replenishment and monitoring of hardware performance.”

While the airport authority is making the initial investment in the kiosks, it expects to recoup that investment from the airlines.

Bob Goodwin, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said the idea of a common-access kiosk has been brewing throughout the travel industry for years but never caught on. He said IBM, Arinc, Air Canada and Airports Council International (ACI) have participated in CUSS technical development activities for the IATA since 1998.

“They key here is that multiple airlines can use it, and that reduces the costs to the airport and the airlines by getting by with fewer kiosks,” said Goodwin. “This is probably an important thing to be doing in these tough economic times.”

The new kiosks also hold the potential for dramatic improvements in customer experience, particularly for frequent fliers, said Goodwin. Frequent fliers can now bypass some of the long lines at counters, which in turn would drive out labour costs from behind the counter, he said.

However, the number of other airlines that take immediate steps to take advantage of the new technology is unclear. The economic downturn in the airline industry, spurred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has forced some airlines to put on hold the software integration work needed to make their corporate systems compliant with the new CUSS standard, said Molloy. Compliance isn’t a technical challenge, he said, but strictly a financial one. “Airline systems are big monolithic chunks of software, and to make changes to them is not cheap,” he said.

The possibilities for both improved flying experience and cost reductions for airlines are now endless, particularly with Vancouver’s plan to deploy the kiosks outside of the airport, said Goodwin. “You can have the whole area around the airport saturated with these terminals,” he said. That would tremendously reduce the bottlenecks.”