Airports look to cut costs with IT

IT budgets are on the rise in the aviation industry, But why, at a time when almost every other industry is still looking to surpress IT costs, are airports investing so heavily in their information technology infrastructure?

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Airports look to cut costs with IT
By  Ben Furfie Published  December 26, 2010

IT budgets are on the rise in the aviation industry, But why, at a time when almost every other industry is still looking to surpress IT costs, are airports investing so heavily in their information technology infrastructure?

Declining passenger numbers have done little to dampen investment in IT infrastructure by airport operators, the latest survey by aviation technology specialists SITA has found. According to the survey, many have invested on the expected return of passenger numbers in 2011.

Much of the investment has been focused on improving and increasing the number of electronic self service technologies, such as eTicketing and eCheck-in. According to the results of SITA’s annual IT in Airports survey, 60% of the 128 operators – who control 220 airports across the world between them – have implemented kiosks for self check-in, while 55% of those airport operators already have plans in place to increase those numbers further. In addition, a further 26% – mainly smaller operators – are planning to introducing it by 2013.

However, it isn’t just check-in that operators want to extend the technology to. Many of those questioned are actively seeking technologies that will enable them to automate boarding with eGates at both boarding and security checkpoints.

Much of the focus behind this drive to implement new self-service technologies is to significantly reduce operational costs. This is reflected in the other areas that the operators are looking to expand the kiosks’ use into. Bag-tag printing, flight transfers and scanning of passports are all expected to be automated in a number of airports by the end of 2011. If successful, the reduction in costs could be significant, while the benefits for passengers will also be noticeable.

However, there will be inevitable security concerns raised by this move to automate certain functions like bag-check in and the scanning of passports. Regardless of whether technology is better at spotting potential risks, passengers will always feel more comfortable with the idea that there is a person behind the screen, acting as a failsafe. That poses a couple of problems for the airport operators. As with most industries, personnel are the largest cost for any business. However, where people’s safety is concerned, the real question is how far will passengers allow the operators to go in automating systems.

The problem is that with conflicting interests, it isn’t really clear which side will ‘win’. The results of the survey show that 52% of airport operators consider investment in IT as their highest priority. The second priority when investing in IT is improving customer service, which 48% of CIOs rate as a key driver of the change.

“The survey shows that investing in IT infrastructure remains a high priority for airports, as they recognise that it delivers cost savings, greater efficiencies for airports and a smoother travel experience for passengers,” says Ilya Gutlin, vice president, airport solution line at SITA.

“With self service for passengers, such as kiosks for check-in, becoming the norm, the survey confirms that airports are now looking to invest in new areas such as eGates for boarding and providing information and services via passengers.” However the fact remains, security concerns will be the biggest hurdle for any further IT rollouts.

Despite the strong focus on reducing operational costs through the automation of many tasks currently handled by groundside staff, airport CIOs are also looking at ways of reducing expenditure in other areas.

One of these areas of focus is the command centre for airport operations. Currently, the various companies that make up the operations of an airport often have separate command centres. However, one of the areas identified as delivering both cost savings, as well as benefits to customer service, is the merging of these separate command centres into one. The results of the survey show that there is a strong level of interest in the idea, with 32% already in the process of merging them, and a further 22% currently in the planning stages.

These ‘shared airport operations centres’ are being designed to allow all stakeholders in the airport’s operations to operate from one location, enable easier communications between partners and simplify data access about the running of the facilities. In particular, those airports that have already implemented the new operations structure have found that it is also having a positive impact on the management of other areas like passenger and aircraft flows.

According to SITA, the data that is being handled by these new control centres has helped to reduce passenger waiting times, both at check-in and security, as well as enabling better planning and use of airport resources. They have also enabled more efficient use of mobile data devices, which is being used by a number of workers, from apron staff, through to baggage handlers in order to increase efficiency and reduce delays. In addition, around 50% of airports questioned have already brought in mobile data access, or are in the process of planning or implementing it.

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