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Emirates and Gulf Air are both deploying self-service check-in kiosks to cut costs and to speed up passenger processing. They will allow the airline to check-in more passengers without installing large and expensive check-in desks.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  July 2, 2003

I|~||~||~|Airports in the Middle East are having to check in more passengers than ever before. Build more check in-desks is the easy and obvious answer, but that is not always possible. Space in an airport is always limited, and it may not be possible to wait for the shiny new terminal promised in 2006. Airlines are also keen to avoid the cost of employing extra check-in staff and want a quicker and cheaper way to get their passengers through the airport. Self-service kiosks answer both these problems as they allow passengers to quickly check in without the need to visit a large and expensive check-in desk.

On 1st July, Gulf Air became the first airline in the region to launch self-service kiosks, when it unveiled IBM kiosks at Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Bahrain International airports. The airline intends to deploy a number of kiosks at each of these locations, and at other airports, but for now there is only one in each location. “It’s a pilot so we want to see what is the acceptance rate,” says Tariq Sultan, assistant vice president of information technology, Gulf Air.

Emirates is also set to implement kiosks soon to tackle the growing number of passengers passing through Dubai International. “With 23% growth [per annum], we have to bring in something to expedite check-in and move the passengers from the terminal to the concourse as quickly as possible,” explains Ahmed Hashim Khoory, senior general manager, airport services, Emirates Airline.

Emirates will deploy two Hoft & Wessel kiosk in its Business and First class check-in lounge and one in economy sometime over the summer. To begin with Emirates, like Gulf Air, will just be offering check-in for passengers with hand luggage, however, both are planning to quickly add luggage check-in. This was one of the reasons why Emirates opted for Hoft & Wessel.

“They offered us kiosks that had a lot of space inside them, so that if we wanted to future-proof them we could do that,” says Vikki Bright, business analyst for the Emirates Group’s IT arm, Mercator.

“We know there are a lot of things coming in the future that we need to prepare for, but … we can’t afford to take the kiosks away [to add new functions]. We need to just be in there, changing the cabinets around within 15 minutes, so we are not disrupting passenger flow and there are no ‘out of order’ signs,” she adds.

Kiosks are primarily targeted at frequent business travellers, as these passengers are unlikely to have large amounts of luggage for the hold. Furthermore, frequent use of kiosks is key for ensuring that customers are quickly and comfortably able to use them. “You wouldn’t use check-in kiosks for leisure travellers who just travel three times a year, because for them it would be too cumbersome to navigate,” says Stephen Poser, sales manager of the Lufthansa/Siemens joint venture, Synavion.

“No matter how user-friendly we make kiosks for people who do not use them frequently, it would still take some time to orientate them… People who are not frequent flyers are [therefore] better served at a manned counter where somebody asks them the appropriate questions,” he adds.

Business travellers making short trips are also unlikely to need to have visas processed at the airport. This is an important consideration, and something that has delayed the introduction of kiosks in the region. In North America, and to a lesser extent Europe, the large internal travel market has greatly boosted the adoption of kiosks, as there is no need to check passports. In the Middle East, however, most passenger journeys involve international travel, which negates some of the benefits of kiosks.

“If you have international travel it does increase the need for the passenger to have some contact with someone at some point, just for verification of travel documents,” admits Mark Canton, product manager, airport products, Sabre Airline Solutions.

However, kiosks are still useful options in the Middle East, even if there is a need for security checks, as they will cut down the queues as the check-in desks. Furthermore, the fact that most business travelers are likely to be GCC, EU or North American passport holders limits the problems caused by visas. “There is also quite a bit of internal travel within the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] that doesn’t require passports or visas,” adds Eyad Shihabi, vice president of airport & desktop services for Middle East & Africa, SITA.

To ensure that passengers on international flights are informed of the need for a valid passport and visa before they reach the gate, Gulf Air’s kiosks flash up messages to users telling them this. Passengers are also given this information on a printed sheet, which also contains details like the gate number. “Passengers get their boarding pass and an information sheet, which will gives them some more guidelines,” explains Sultan.

Emirates will also make sure that passengers who use the kiosks receive extra attention at the gate, by issuing boarding passes that are a different colour to the ones given out by check-in staff. “Staff at the gate will know that the passengers have checked in at the kiosks, as we will make it very easy to differentiate them,” says Jennifer Munro, airport services, product development manager, Emirates Airline.

To encourage regular business travellers to use its kiosks, Emirates will make them particularly straightforward for members of its frequent flyer club, Skywards. While non-members will need to feed a ticket into the machine, Skywards members, as well as members of the frequent flyer clubs of Emirates’ partners will just be able to access the check-in system by swiping their card. “The system is very much focused on the frequent flyer cardholders,” says Munro.

“That’s the entrance to the system if you have a frequent flyer card from Emirates or one its partner airlines. The check-in process will then be very direct, and we will be using this as an extra incentive for people to join Skywards,” she adds.

Gulf Air’s kiosks also allow passengers to check in with just a frequent flyer card or credit card, which is clearly more convenient for the passenger as there is no longer any need to worry about tickets or even ticker numbers. Instead, when passengers swipe their card in the machine, the kiosk system is able to locate the ticket number and flight details from the back-end database. The system can then also automatically assign a seat based on customer preference as well. “You could go all the way to special promotions for passengers,” adds Posser. “However, you need to identify the passenger for that purpose, and that’s usually done with the frequent flyer card.”

||**||II|~||~||~|Despite the advantages offered by self-service kiosks, passengers may still be reluctant to use them instead of the familiar check-in desk. Airlines therefore need to attract users through advertising or promotions, such as bonus frequent flyer points. Staff will also need to be on hand during the first few months to help passengers who have problems and to invite people standing in check-in queues to use a kiosk instead.

“Location is really important,” adds Peter Smallridge, international sales manager, airlines, Almex Information Systems, Hoeft & Wessel. “People need to be able to see the machines [from the check-in queue] and see they are free in order for them to leave their place.”

This is the strategy that Gulf Air has followed. “The kiosks are in the line of sight [of passengers] and near where the business travellers will be heading,” says Sultan.

Offering user interfaces in multiple languages also encourages the use of kiosks, as this extends the range of people able to use them. Gulf Air and Emirates are both starting with two languages, English and Arabic. Bright believes that the bilingual approach will be sufficient to begin with, as too many language options would slow down the system and confuse users. “You have to weigh up the complication of actually using the kiosks versus the benefit of adding additional languages,” she notes.

However, Smallridge believes that a wider range of languages makes kiosks more successful, as customers are then more confident about using them. “Some airlines start with two languages, but I wouldn’t,” he says.

“Our experience is that if people are disappointed the first time they use the machine... they’re reluctant to use it a second time… [More languages] just increases the scope of the people who can use it,” he adds.

Adding extra functionality, such as baggage check-in, can also increase the number people using the kiosks. In such a case, the machine issues not just a boarding pass, but also bag tags. The passenger can then attach the tags and put the suitcase on a convey belt, which will take it away for screening and loading. However, to ensure that the tags are properly attached, it is preferably to have staff assisting. “The airline should have one or two agents manning a bank of kiosks, then when a passenger checks in and has bag tags issued, these agents can go over and take the bag tags and put them on the bags,” says Canton.

||**||III|~||~||~|The possibilities offered by kiosks become even greater if they are used in conjunction with a wireless network, as this means that they can be deployed anywhere in the airport. “Rather than having to hardwire something into a particular location, if you can just deploy the kiosk in any particular position, which may be remote, then obviously there is more potential,” notes Chris Coggrave, EMEA practice principal, mobility & wireless, HP Consulting & Integration.

Installing a wireless network clearly requires more upfront investment than adding a kiosk to an airport’s existing Internet Protocol (IP) network, but the airport is likely to see a return on its investment through the variety of uses now being made of wireless technology. “The good thing about wireless is that it is inexpensive as a technology,” adds Tim Scott, business development manager, Cisco Systems.

In America, one of the most popular places for deploying wireless kiosks is outside the airport in the car park. This allows the airline to greatly boost its customer service, as passengers can save time by checking in before they park their car. Then they can completely avoid the check-in terminal and proceed straight from the car park to the gate. “[The airline] can also take control of the bags… so that the passenger doesn’t have to lug baggage through the airport. It’s a real convenience for the passenger,” says Canton.

A further advance on this is to arm agents with handheld devices that can print out boarding passes and bag tags. These roving agents are then able to walk round the terminal and check in passengers without using a check-in desk, which has clear cost implications. “When you have a wireless infrastructure and a roving agent… you end up saving US $50 000 on the check-in counter alone,” says Shihab.

These roving agents therefore offer similar cost savings to kiosks, but with the advantage of human interaction, which can have a great impact on customer service. “One of the things that roving agents do is give you the ability to get customers for life,” says Kamal Qatato, director, airport products, Sabre Airline Solutions.

A mother traveling with children and a large amount of luggage provides an obvious example of the benefits offered by roving agents. “Instead of [the mother] having to get up, manage the kids and the bags, and stand in line to get checked in, the roving agent can walk up to her and check her and her family in while she sits [in the terminal,]” says Qatato.

For customers who are more confident about checking in, the process can be made even more user-friendly by deploying kiosks outside of the airport. Placing them in airport hotels and train stations, for instance, allows passengers to check in before traveling to the airport, which means that they don’t need to waste time waiting in the terminal. “If you have locations that are in the vicinity of the airport and are accessible by public transport — that is essential — then it is very popular to place check-in kiosks [there],” says Posser.

“The essence of this is that an airline does not let go of its customer when he leaves the airport and it does not just start taking care of him when he arrives at the airport. It starts much earlier than that and it continues much further beyond the airport,” adds Mohammed el Shanti, business development manager, Middle East, aviation industry, HP Services.

The airline can even begin to take care of its passengers before they leave the office through the implementation of internet check-in. This allows the passenger to check in online, and print out a boarding pass on their own printer, hours before they travel to the airport. US Airways, for instance, processes 1500 passengers a day this way. “Internet check-in is a very popular tool,” says Canton.

Given the cost advantages of these various check-in options, and the growing pressure on airports to check in more passengers in the same amount of space, it is clear that the future of traditional check-in desks is in doubt. “That is what is being talked about in Europe, and a few airlines are saying that they want to eradicate the process,” says Smallridge.

“Probably there will always have to be one desk to deal with queries, but I think it is possible that we might soon see 80% self-service,” he predicts.||**||

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