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Combining 29 Networks Into One Lets Airport Give Passengers New Perks

Vancouver passengers can check in from hotels and even cruise ships, and every kiosk works for any airline, thanks to an IP network shared by all airlines.

Several years ago, managers of the Vancouver International Airport Authority saw a looming problem. "The check-in concourse was in complete chaos," says Kevin Molloy, CIO and VP of simplified passenger travel at the airport. "We couldn't check them in fast enough. Our average check-in time was two minutes and 50 seconds. We thought we needed another terminal."

Kevin Molloy, CIO and VP of simplified passenger travel at the Vancouver International Airport Authority

Kevin Molloy, CIO and VP of simplified passenger travel at the Vancouver International Airport Authority
What the authority really needed was a plan to deal with the growing number of passengers using the Canadian airport and to cut the costs associated with check-ins, baggage handling, and other support services it provides to the 22 airlines using the facility. The answer, managers decided, was converging integrated voice, data, and video communications onto a single network. Their bet was that kind of network could improve the passenger experience, while reducing costs and letting the airport and its airlines handle more customers without expanding the terminal. The airport chose to deploy a combined wired and wireless network based on Cisco Systems equipment that was designed and installed by Telus Communications.

The network, the deployment of which was nearly complete this week, has helped to triple the number of passengers the airport can serve thanks to self-service kiosks where passengers can check in to any airline. To ease the crush at the airport, it even put some kiosks at hotels, at car-rental agencies, at convention centers, and on cruise ships. "We are able to handle 20% more travelers with 30% fewer staff," Molloy says. "Our check-in time is now less than a minute. It made the lines disappear in the terminal. Now we have enough capacity for the next five years." The airport expects to handle more than 16 million passengers this year.

Shifting to a single converged network posed problems. Each of the 22 airlines using the airport operated its own communications network, and the airport authority had seven of its own for tasks such as access control and baggage handling. "It was a challenge to convince the airlines to give up control," Molloy says. "But we showed them that we could save around $2.5 million a year by collapsing their networks down into one core network and that we could improve operations by introducing self-service."

Today, the single network supports the communications needs of all of the airlines and also connects 1,100 IP phones, 1,000 closed-circuit cameras, and more than 1,500 TV screens scattered throughout the terminal. It also allowed the airport to deploy the 60 self-service kiosks--which can be used to check in to any airline--in the terminal and off site.

"We get around 1 million cruise-ship passengers a year, typically U.S. citizens who often fly home after their cruises," Molloy says. "The kiosks let them check in for their flight home as the ship sails into port." Self-service kiosks on cruise ships, which are connected to the airport by satellite, is a first for the travel industry, and "the cruise industry has asked us to make that technology available to other ports like Miami and Fort Lauderdale," Molloy says.

The kiosks are based on a common-use platform standard developed with the International Air Transport Association that allows the devices to be used by passengers to check in to any number of airlines, instead of the single-airline kiosks used in most airports. Passengers start off the self-service check-in process by selecting their airline from logos on a touch screen. Using a single kiosk for all airlines has saved substantial amounts of money and improved the customer experience, Molloy says.

"They can be used by any airline and at any check-in counter or boarding gate," he says. "That means we can make better use of our facilities and operate with fewer gates and counters."

The airport has spent around $4 million on the core network and around $10 million total, the cost of which is folded into the overhead that the airport charges each airline to use its facilities. The core network operates at 1 Gbyte per second, with 100 Mbyte-per-second links to each desktop and kiosk. The core network will be upgraded to 10 Gbyte per second when traffic demands require it, probably in around two years, Molloy says.

Molloy expects the IP network to make it easier for the airport to add services and features. Wireless capabilities let passengers waiting in the terminal surf the Internet with their laptop computers, and the airport plans to install 46 public Internet kiosks. The airport also created a program for fliers who frequently cross the border between the United States and Canada. Those enrolled in the program can use a kiosk with a biometric iris scanner, have their eyeballs scanned, and get cleared to cross the boarder without waiting in a long customs line. The airport also uses the wireless capabilities for a baggage-reconciliation system that links passengers with bags. Employees use handhelds to scan, record, and time-stamp bags as they travel from check-in to an airplane's baggage compartment. That information and the bag's location is transferred into a baggage database, which makes it easier to find and remove a bag, as required by international law, if the passenger who checked it in never boards the plane.

Another reason for the network change is that Vancouver will host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which will cause a huge bubble of passenger traffic. Molloy is banking on self-service kiosks in hotels, train stations, and other locations easing the burden of getting departing visitors through the terminal and onto their destinations. Past Olympics have shown that the problem isn't handling people coming to Canada to see the Games. "The problem is they all want to leave at the same time--the morning after the closing ceremonies," Molloy says.

The airport chose Cisco equipment because it was the only vendor that could offer an end-to-end package of the wired and wireless networking gear needed, Molloy says. Plus, he says, Cisco's reputation for high-quality equipment provided credibility to the effort. "It helped to convince the airlines to give up control," he says.

Around 85% of eligible passengers use the self-service kiosks, says Judy May, a specialist in transportation systems at Cisco Systems. The airport ensured that each airline was able to maintain control of its own internal communications and enforce security policies by setting up VPNs for each one. "Vancouver was smart in that they made the airlines partners in this effort," she says.

Now that the full-scale deployment is almost complete, the Vancouver airport will try to resell the know-how behind shared-airline and off-site kiosks to other airports, especially smaller ones in Canada. "It will provide another revenue stream for us," Molloy says. "And many of them are feeder airports to us. By leasing the self-service capabilities to them, we can offer the customer a more consistent experience from beginning to end."

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