March 8, 2005



Posted: 01.01.05
Reaching New Heights
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Long lines, lost luggage, delayed flights and bomb scares. Such are the hurdles of the modern airport. Behind the scenes, however, mobile and wireless technology is working to minimize them. Moving cargo and passengers through the airport in a timely and efficient manner while tracking them from arrival through departure is one of the key applications of mobile technology in the airline industry. Few passengers even realize this is happening, but itís precisely what they donít see that benefits them the most.  

By Lee Sherman

Long lines, lost luggage, delayed flights and bomb scares. Such are the hurdles of the modern airport. Behind the scenes, however, mobile and wireless technology is working to minimize them. Moving cargo and passengers through the airport in a timely and efficient manner while tracking them from arrival through departure is one of the key applications of mobile technology in the airline industry. Few passengers even realize this is happening, but it’s precisely what they don’t see that benefits them the most.

“Our mobile technology strategy is based first on our desire to provide a better customer experience and second on making the staff more efficient at what they do,” says Eric Davis, chief technology officer at United Airlines. For example, congestion often occurs in specific places, such as lobby check-in counters; how ever, by allowing activities such as ticketing, luggage check-in and the issuing of boarding passes to take place elsewhere, this congestion is greatly reduced.

Checking In

In 2001, United Airlines launched United Easy Check-In, a kiosk-based application that e-ticket customers could use to check themselves in, print their own boarding passes or e-ticket receipts, change seat assignments, keep Mileage Plus accounts current and check bags. In March 2004, the airline added a number of new features designed to extend the service to customers carrying Web-enabled mobile phones, pagers, PDAs or laptops capable of receiving Microsoft .NET alerts. With EasyAccess, travelers can find flights, book travel view itineraries and check schedule changes from any mobile device with Web access. They can also access their Mileage Plus account to view and manage award travel and upgrades, and flight timetables can be downloaded to a PDA or a laptop. EasyUpdate is a notification system that delivers departure and arrival information, delays or cancellation updates and rebooking and seat upgrade confirmation directly to mobile devices.

At its major hubs, United also deployed Mobile Customer Service Chariots—wireless, mobile check-in units that connect to United’s reservations and check-in network. The mobile check-in units are battery powered and allow customer service agents to perform the same functions they can from any check-in counter.

Curbside check-in procedures are also being wirelessly enabled through Wi-Fi–equipped Tablet PCs and barcode printers that provide customer service personnel with the same capabilities as those inside the terminal. According to Davis, the fact that the Tablet PCs run Windows XP simplified the deployment. “Being able to run the same applications on these easier-to-use, easier-to-deploy devices opens up a whole new world,” he says. “You don’t have to be tied to an existing infrastructure.”

Handling Baggage

A lost bag can cost an airline anywhere from $65 to $2,500. United’s “Bullseye” baggage scanners improve baggage handling and tracking by automatically capturing baggage information from bag tags. The system tracks the bag’s progress from the gate to the plane and back. Currently, it is a manual process that relies on handheld barcode scanners that communicate with a backend database using Wi-Fi technology. However, United is beginning to test the next phase of the system, says Davis, whereby the bags are fitted with RFID tags and automatically scanned as they pass through various checkpoints. “There’s a huge cost associated with scanning, and this cuts down that cost considerably,” explains Davis. “And, of course, not having lost luggage improves the customer experience.”

Wireless technology is also helping to streamline operations and enforce security standards. Rapiscan Security Products, which supplies X-ray baggage screening and explosive detection systems to some of the nation’s largest airports, is using wireless technology from Antenna Software to manage service calls in real time. With Antenna’s A3 Connector
software on the backend and the A3 SmartClient
running on a Samsung Pocket PC smartphone, Rapiscan’s field technicians can receive trouble tickets in the field, look up customer histories and update event status via a wide-area wireless solution over the Verizon CDMA/1xRTT network. Ted Alston, Rapiscan VP of global customer support, says the Antenna solution has replaced antiquated fax and cell phone notifications and resulted in improved response and repair times.


The information network now extends to aircraft as well. The FAA has approved Wi-Fi for in-flight use, where it can be used by passengers who want to surf the Web or get their e-mail while flying, as well as by pilots and crew for internal communications. Lufthansa was an early adopter of this technology, called Airline IP. It has already Wi-Fi–enabled about a dozen planes and is expected to extend it to all 78 of its long-haul aircraft by the summer of 2006.

Other carriers, such as Continental, United and US Airways, offer Verizon’s AirFone and JetConnect. JetConnect was the first service to offer in-flight
messaging, news and entertainment on U.S. flights, and it is currently installed in over 800 planes. Verizon AirFone is in the trial stage for Wi-Fi and expects to have it installed in 100 aircraft by year’s end (pending FAA approvals).

Under the Wing

While improving customer satisfaction is a laudable goal, airlines will see a greater financial gain from increasing operational efficiency. As Kevin Moore, senior business development manager of transportation and logistics at Intermec, puts it: “Above the wing pays the way, below the wing is where they make their money.”

Delivering its cargo to its destination on time is a mission-critical task for America West, the second-largest low-fare airline in the United States. Especially when that cargo is the mail it carries for the United States Postal Service.

In 2002, America West was forced to respond to a mandate from the USPS that dictated that its airline partners track the mail as it traveled through the system. America West handles mail in 50 airport stations, and a single piece of mail can go through five or six transfers before it arrives at its final destination. The airlines were given just four months to solve this complex problem, and they needed to do it without slowing down normal operations. Mail had to be tracked at each hand-off point, and because the USPS and the airlines operate on different schedules, coordination was difficult, plus the USPS mandate dictated a two-hour window for the reporting of the tracking data.

To go from nothing to an efficient electronic mail-tracking system within the allotted time, America West partnered with AT&T Wireless (now Cingular Wireless) and Intermec, a provider of ruggedized portable computers. The solution is built around the Intermec 760 Color mobile computer, a Pocket PC with integrated scanning and wide-area wireless capabilities.

With an operating temperature range from 14 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and with IP64-compliant dust and rain resistance, along with an outdoor readable display, the computer can be used to scan the mail right on the tarmac, instead of having to be brought inside to a mass sorting facility. “The airport tarmac is one of the most rugged environments we’ve ever encountered,” says Moore. “The equipment used there is not built for comfort, it is built for efficiency, and the tool has to be user-friendly.”

When the USPS makes a drop at any of America West’s airport mail stations, a mail handler scans the identification tag on each bin into a custom Java app running on the handheld. From there, it is downloaded and sent in batches over Cingular Wireless’ wide-area GPRS network to the America West data center in Phoenix, where it is compiled and sent directly to the USPS through a T1 line. At each hand-off, the I.D. tag is scanned and its status is updated.

America West considered adopting a local area network based on Wi-Fi technology but wanted to avoid a potential conflict with the airport authority, which regulates Wi-Fi usage at the airport.

With the success of these initiatives, the airlines are looking at other ways in which mobile technology can deliver efficiencies and cut costs. The use of RFID tags, bar codes and systems like those employed by America West allow an airline to gain visibility into and control over complex operational processes that rely extensively on physical manipulation—a problem that doesn’t exist in other industries where most of a business process can be automated by a computer.

“They’ve had luggage tags for some period of time and technology for parts tracking and inventory, but they have started to look at extending those systems to the mobile worker,” says Moore. “They are looking at other areas of the business where they can pull people away from a fixed location and move them to where the work is actually being done.”

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