Simpler, cheaper and secure

Digital bag tag

The use of digital bag tags and other more advanced technology is driving an ongoing self-service revolution that is changing passenger journeys through airports. But how can this one stop shop approach be developed further? Gary Mason reports.

According to SITA’s latest airport IT trends survey for the first time the majority of airports worldwide are providing self-service check-in for both passengers and baggage.

This is hardly surprising given that self-service is both popular among passengers and an economic “no brainer” for carriers.  For the airlines, such technology has brought about massive cost savings. According to research in the US it previously cost the airline $3.02 per passenger for conventional check-in services. With kiosks, this cost has been reduced to just 14¢.

Self-service check-in first emerged about 20 years ago, but was rudimentary and only used by a few airlines on a few routes. It is now ubiquitous across the airport industry but in the early days there were some security issues.

It is somewhat ironic that the technology really established itself after the civil aviation targeted terrorist attack on the US on 11 September, 2001. New check-in service requirements for security meant that people were moving through the check-in lines much slower. Self-service check-in seemed to be a way to help improve customer service while driving down staff costs.

Security with self-service check-in though, has always been a major concern and a few major technology challenges needed to be fixed. Online check-in services before the 11 September attack had already been shut down internationally as part of a concerted move by the travel industry to address security issues. But as the technology became more sophisticated it was able to identify security threats before a passenger boarded the plane.

Nonetheless, in the early days of self-service check in and bag drop, kiosk systems allowed passengers to use any card with their names on it to search for a reservation, which posed a problem in cases where more than one passenger had the same name. It was feasible that one passenger could gain access to another traveller’s personal information and even their boarding pass.

While modern bag drop and check in systems are far more secure, passengers who have become used to self-service through the whole airport process experience frustration when they are asked to identify themselves at each point in the process, from check in, to self-tagging of baggage and bag drop, to going though security. What type of technologies are being developed to get around this problem?

The use of biometrics, particularly facial recognition and single travel tokens are both areas where a number of projects are underway.

Similarly, the emergence of new passenger tracking technologies, such as iBeacons, and the widespread carrying of smartphones and other mobile devices are helping to spearhead some high tech blue sky thinking.

Helsinki Airport already tracks passengers throughout the airport via their personal devices, and facial recognition technology, iris scanning and fingerprint-based identification still offer great potential. The use of a single passenger token is also gaining ground. This is how it will work.

When a passenger checks-in, their e-passport will be validated and either a photo of their face, an iris scan, or their fingerprints, or a combination of two or more, will be collected. This information will then be used as the identifier at all other checkpoints, ranging from bag drop to boarding. This will mean the passenger will not have to show their boarding pass or passport at multiple stages of the journey.

The widespread rollout of e-passports presents a major opportunity to move this forward because the e-passport can be used as the initial identifier at the point of check-in and then linking an image of the passenger’s face, or a scan of their iris or fingerprints, as a “secondary token” which can be used at all other checkpoints.

A major project using facial recognition technology to enable this to work has undergone a successful pilot at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

A viable and secure system that could smooth out the self-service journey through an airport for the majority of passengers is the logical conclusion of a technological revolution that is already taking place.

Self-service passenger check-in through kiosks has been available at the majority of airports for many years, and today it is almost universally available –  91 per cent of airports offer the service according to the SITA survey. Its equivalent for baggage check-in has been longer coming, but today the majority of airports offer both kiosks for self-printing bag tags and either an assisted or unassisted bag-drop to complete the check-in.

A much more recent development is digital tags to replace the paper-based tags used for most check-in baggage today.

A small number of airports (12%) plan a major deployment of the infrastructure needed to read the tags, up slightly from the 10% reported in the 2015 survey. Currently, 40% of airports have no plans to look at this in the next three years.

For common-use bag-drop, airports overwhelmingly prefer to have agent assisted with 61% of airports deploying this type of process, up from 48% in the 2015 survey. However, unassisted bag-drop is starting to gain ground with a jump to 26% of airports offering this option after being consistently in the mid-teens for the last three surveys.

Self-service at the gate has remained broadly static in the last three surveys with only one in five airports deploying electronic boarding gates today, marginally up on what was reported in the 2014 and 2015 surveys.

According to SITA, trends to watch in the self-service space include kiosks that enable passengers to download digital content, such as the latest films, before they board the flight. The service is very new and today only 4% of airports are offering this, but a further 26% have plans to do so by 2019.

Similarly, using a kiosk to complete a sales transaction is available only at 4% of airports, although 38% are showing interest and expect to have this functionality in place within the next three years.

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