Wireless Airports

Wireless networks in airports offer many advantages to both passengers and operations staff. However, few airports in the region have fully embraced the technology.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  August 4, 2004

|~|gflounge_m.jpg|~|Gulf Air's departure lounge in Bahrain offers wireless internet access|~|Wireless technology can offer a host of advantages within an airport, to both operations staff and to passengers passing through the terminal. Airports around the world are now rapidly adopting the technology, but Middle East airports are often unwilling to do so because of inter-departmental politics or unjustified security fears. However, if the region’s airports — especially those that aspire to become global hubs — don’t take action soon, then they risk being left behind by their competitors. There is clearly a growing momentum behind the deployment of wireless local area networks (WLANs) in airports around the world. Analyst house, IDC, for instance, reports that the number of US airports with public WLAN hotspots will more than double this year from 178 to 379. By 2008, it expects the number to top 1000. Similarly, a recent survey of airports predominately in Europe, North America and Asia by Airline Business, SITA and Airports Council International, found that 98% aimed to have wireless access in terminals within the next two years; 44% had already achieved this. “This is the year that it is becoming standard,” comments Graham Lake, vice president & managing director, EMEA, Arinc. “Prior to 2004, it was at some of the more advanced airports, but now it is very much the norm. Any airport that considers itself to be a business airport is wireless enabled,” he adds. Within the region, however, few airports have implemented wireless technologies, and even less are using it for both operational and passenger functions. “Generally speaking, in the Middle East, although some airports have WLANs, the uptake of wireless technology is not too good,” says Toni Prince, Intel’s business development manager, telecommunications & ISPs, Middle East & Africa. “They [Middle East airports] are still beginners,” agrees Mohammed el Shanti, business development manager, aviation industry, Middle East, HP Services. “What is currently happening is that they are only using wireless networks to hotspot some of the lounges and that is a very primitive use of the capabilities.” Wireless technology can be used in an airport for both operational and passenger services. At present, Dubai is leading the way in the region in terms of using a WLAN for operations staff, but its system is closed off to the public. Instead, individual airlines have undertaken specific projects in their own lounges to enable waiting passengers to surf the internet. By contrast, Kuwait Airport Mall, Beirut International and Bahrain, all have terminal-wide internet access for passengers, but these systems are not yet widely used by operations staff. Other airports, such as in Egypt and Damman, have implemented limited WLANs to support a specific application. “Airports [in the region] are being reactive to their customers’ needs,” says Eyad Shihabi, vice president, airport & desktop services, Middle East & Africa, SITA INC. “If an airline wants to implement baggage reconciliation or some sort of ramp application, you will see the airport running towards implementing a wireless network for that particular application... Instead, I would think ahead and implement a secure infrastructure, wired and wireless [across the entire airport]... that can provide a value add to all tenants, whether it is the airlines, other operators or passengers,” he explains. An airport-wide WLAN implementation can provide a huge variety of benefits to all users of the terminal. All manner of staff, from the airport, airlines, groundhandling agents and other airport tenants, can use the system to speed up passenger processing, make the airport more secure and to cut costs. As such, airports can quickly generate a return on their investment in a wireless implementation. “These technologies can save a huge amount of time and enhance an airport’s ability to compete with other airports in the region by offering a quicker turnaround,” notes el-Shanti.||**|||~||~||~|Among the numerous uses of wireless technology is the fact that it enables ramp workers to quickly access or input data into back office systems, without needing to leave the aircraft side. Baggage handlers, for instance, can wirelessly scan bags and containers when loading the aircraft, which then makes it much quicker to find luggage in the event of a no-show. “If a passenger doesn’t board the plane, they know within five minutes which container the bag has been passed in and in which order,” says Shihabi. Wireless handhelds are especially appropriate in this environment, as they greatly reduce the amount of clutter around the ramp area. “When you think about all of the infrastructure round there and how demanding it is psychically — there is a lot of equipment, trucks and trailers — cables and power outlets can easily get broken,” notes Lake. “Instead, you can have a discretely and safely placed wireless antenna up out of the way, which can give you all of the coverage you need.” Inside the terminal, a WLAN can also be used to more flexibly process passengers checking in for flights. This could be by arming ‘roving agents’ with handhelds who can then check in passengers anywhere in the airport, or by making it more straightforward to move desks or gates as there is no need to install new cabling. “When you talk about introducing new aircraft, things like this are a better solution than having to reconfigure the airport,” notes el Shanti. Pilots can also benefit from WLANs as they are able to download their flight plans to a laptop from anywhere in the airport, which is much quicker for them. There can also be numerous safety and security advantages, as data, such a suspect’s photograph or footage of an incident, can be quickly sent to the appropriate people anywhere in the airport. “The big disadvantage with the old system was that only the guy in the control room could see the video, but now we can send the video to anybody who needs it [using wireless devices],” comments Kieran Daly, air & rail transportation business development manager, EMEA, Cisco Systems. “They can also quietly send out pictures to PDAs and IP [internet protocol] telephones rather than making PA announcements… which is very good for not causing potential passenger panic,” he adds. Alongside these operational advantages, the airport’s WLAN can also be a revenue generator. The main source of revenue for the airport would be charging its tenants for using the wireless service, which would still work out cheaper for them than alternatives, such as mobile phones calls or installing their own system. However, the WLAN can also be opened up in a secure manner to allow passengers to use it for internet access as well. Users can then be charged for using the service either by credit card, prepaid access cards or through their mobile phone bills. This may not necessarily generate a significant sum for the airport directly, but business travellers in particular now regularly travel with their laptops — the vast majority of which are now wireless-enabled using technology such as Intel’s Centrino — and these passengers expect to be able to access their e-mail and the internet while in the airport. As such, if they are unable to do so, then they may chose to travel via another hub on their next trip. “If you are transiting through an airport and you know that you can spend the three or four hours you need to spend there in a productive way, that’s definitely a plus — especially for business passengers, who provide most of the profitability for the airlines,” comments Bashar Kilani, manager of software group, Middle East, IBM.||**|||~||~||~|The same WLAN infrastructure can securely support both public and operational traffic; however, at present few airports in the region are taking this unified approach and instead different tenants are implementing separate systems. Dubai, for instance, has had an airport-wide WLAN for a couple of years, but because it is not open to the public, tenants have had to install their own systems to allow passengers to access the internet. Emirates Airline, for instance, has put wireless access points and the necessary infrastructure into its business lounges, while some F&B outlets, such as Costa Coffee and Starbucks, are also looking at installing access points for their patrons. Implementing separate systems in this way may be seen as being more secure than having public and operational traffic running over the same network, but it is an expensive option that actually results in a lower quality of service for all users, as the different systems interfere with each other. “What I find frustrating is the attitude of ‘everybody do your own thing,’ as it’s not going to be very helpful to them in the future,” comments Ivan Kraemer, sales & marketing director, Procurve networking business, HP. “If the BA lounge, the Emirates lounges and the rest go for their own wireless access points… [then] every time you go to the airport and fly a different airline you will have to log in differently. Also, with all the lounges next to each other, they will be interfering with each other [and the airport’s own WLAN],” he explains. Instead of replicating WLAN infrastructure in different parts of the airport, one single unified network can be implemented across the entire site. This can then be securely partitioned into seperate virtual local area networks (vLANs), which is both cheaper and more easily managed than lots of different networks. “This is a key element in planning a wireless installation at an airport. You have to look at your user groups and then virtually partition according to that,” explains el Shanti. Once the user base is identified, then different vLANs can be assigned to different groups of users, such as passengers, baggage handling staff, airlines and other tenants. These groups can then be further categorised in terms of importance and given the bandwidth and priority that they need on the network. “A lot of people, because their networks have not been built as an integrated whole, cannot give that end-to-end quality of service for the [business critical] applications. The bag reconciliation guy, for instance, is clicking on his handheld and nothing is happening or it is happening very slowly,” notes Daly. “With a unified network, we can prioritise between different users if necessary,” he notes. “Even if you have a lot of people using the same application, but some are more important than others, they can be given priority. Also, you can change the priority of an application at different times of the day,” he adds. However, implementing a unified network requires a determined focus from the airport management, which is often lacking. Few airports in the region have a single department in charge of IT, telecommunications and networking, and as such when vendors approach them with the idea of implementing a unified network, these different departments end up pulling in different directions. “The big reason they don’t want to [install a unified network] is inter-departmental politics and the security between inter-department politics,” says Kraemer. “The guy that is running the network, which also has access to booking systems and things like that, doesn’t want anybody to come near his system with a wireless application,” he adds. Such attitudes though, threaten to hold back the growth of wireless in airports and the advantages it can bring. Instead, separate tenants will respond to their own and/or their passengers’ needs, and press ahead with their own separate implementations. However, over the long term this will be significantly more expensive than deploying one system, and create many more security and quality of service issues. “It is much better for Dubai, for instance, to end up with 20 access points covering the whole airport, rather than having 100 access points because everybody is running their own network,” concludes Kraemer.||**||

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