SITA

Robotic check-in kiosks & other new tech for airports

My May “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY is all about some of the cool new technology – and creative uses of emerging technologies – that may soon make your trip through the airport less painful and, possibly, more rewarding.

The ideas were featured at the Air Transport IT Summit I attended in Brussels recently, which was convened by SITA, a global air transport IT provider owned by airlines and other air transport companies.

Here are some of the ideas that caught my eye:

No more check-in lines? KATE may help

Last year, SITA Lab, SITA’s technology research arm, introduced a self-propelling baggage robot, named Leo, who may someday greet you at the airport curb, check you in for your flight, issue your bag tags and then take your bags away for processing.

This year, SITA Lab unveiled Leo’s cousin KATE, an intelligent check-in kiosk that can move autonomously, and in teams to busy or congested areas in airports.

KATE the kiosk can monitor a variety of data sources, including flight and passenger flow information, sense where and where additional check-in kiosks are needed and, using geo-location and obstacle avoidance technology, move through the airport without bumping into things or people.

The robotic kiosks are also designed to automatically return to their docking stations when they are low on power or if they need to be a fresh supply of boarding passes or bag tags.

Kate is cute (although she did run over my toes) and these roving kiosks could not only help airports and airlines better serve passengers when rebooking is necessary due to flight cancellations or weather delays, but they might also be useful on duty in offsite locations, such as train stations and convention halls and, possibly, cruise ports.

New ways to pay airlines – and get paid by airlines          

Airlines that use the common-use SITA check-in kiosks and bag-drop stations now standard at many airports currently don’t currently have a secure way to accept passenger payments at those terminals for extras such as baggage fees upgrades and other ancillary items.

At the Air Transport IT Summit, SITA announced that is has solved the ‘multi-merchant’ problem with a new payment system that uses point-to-point encryption (P2PE) technology that can accept various forms of payment, including MasterCard, Visa and Payment Card Industry (PCI)-compliant chip cards.

Look for a roll-out of this in SITA’s common-use kiosks and bag drops stations at airports in the next few months.

On the flipside, for those occasions when airlines must (or want to) compensate passengers for flight delays, cancellation or overbookings, a company called TravaCoin has partnered with SITA to test a voucher system that airlines can use to quickly issue credit to passengers that can (or can only) be spent on new flights, upgrades, hotel stays, services inside the airport or perhaps donated to local charities and non-profits.

TravaCoin CEO and founder, Brian Whelan told USA TODAY he envisions the digital currency being of special interest to airlines based in or flying through European Union countries that are currently required by EU Regulation 261 to pay passengers up to 600 euros (currently about $668) per inconvenience.

“At the moment airlines are holding out and making it awkward,” said Whelan. “They’re losing the money eventually, but also losing customer loyalty. This is a way for airlines, even airlines not covered by the regulations, to be proactive by issuing currency that can be spent in the TravaCoin community. The goodwill and the money go hand in hand.”

So do the benefits that airlines, especially, might gain from adopting TravaCoin currency for compensating passengers.

“There is a ‘breakages’ notion,” said Whelan, “If you give people vouchers, one way the merchant benefits is if the customer never spends the voucher.”

TravaCoin’s surveys have found that while many passengers who say they’d accept the vouchers would ‘top up’ and spend some of their own cash on top of the voucher value, about 20 percent would likely not spend their vouchers at all.

The goodwill aspect of TravaCoin appeals to Brian Cobb, vice-president, Customer Experience at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which has successfully used new technology to improve customer service with reduced checkpoint wait times and cleaner restrooms in public areas of the airport.

“Love the idea. Especially with the consumer choice in how to spend, including donating back to the community,” said Cobb. “While it is likely sometime in coming, airports may need to leverage customer service recovery tools much in the way airlines do today. It’s a solid method to support recovering the brand perception and exceeding customer expectations.”

 

Robots invade John Wayne Airport

 

A collection of more than 100 toy robots – many with their original boxes – and robot-related catalogs belonging to an Orange County, CA resident are on display at John Wayne Airport (SNA) in the Vi Smith Concourse Gallery, on the upper level across from Gate 18 through 21 in Terminal C.

 

Robots of a different kind – on display this week at the the SITA IT Summit in Brussels – may soon help ease long check-in lines at your airport.

 

 

SITA Lab has created KATE, a smart check-in kiosk that knows when it may be needed and can move on its own to congested areas in airports.

The robotic kiosk uses geo-location technology to find its way through the airport and will use Wi-Fi to connect to  airline and airport systems, says SITA Lab, so ‘Kate’ can move freely through the airport terminal using obstacle avoidance technology to avoid bumping into people or things.

The robotic kiosks are designed to give airports and airlines an added tool for managing peaks in passenger flow caused by delays, scheduling peaks or other situations and, while brand new, will soon be tested in airports.

Improving the odds of having your baggage arrive when you do.

My Well Mannered Traveler column – Mishandled baggage: Mission Accomplished? – on MSNBC.com this week is all about the odds of having your checked baggage arrive at your destination airport when you do – and the airlines’ efforts to improve those odds.

The good news is that those odds have been improving.  According to statistics released recently by the Department of Transportation (DOT), in 2009 the major U.S. carriers reduced the rate of mishandled, mangled and lost bags to the lowest level recorded since 2004.

Hooray, right? Well, just maybe.  In 2009 major airlines mishandled “just” 3.91 bags per 1,000 passengers.  That’s an improvement over 2008’s rate of 5.26 but, still, more than 2.19 million pieces of luggage went astray in 2009.

What’s behind the numbers?

The numbers are better, so we might conclude that airlines aren’t just pocketing our checked bags fees but using that money to improve  baggage handling systems.

Some actually did. But last year’s improved statistics have more to do with depressed travel patterns than with airline attentiveness.  In 2009, there were fewer passengers, fewer flights and, therefore, fewer checked bags to be mishandled.

Will it last?

The improved baggage handling numbers will only last, says Catherine Mayer, a vice President at SITA, a company specializing in information technology (IT) for the air transport industry, if airports, airlines, and ground handlers “use this slow travel period to invest in fixing the baggage management system.”

One tool being used by airlines, airports and ground handlers is the baggage improvement program, or BIP. Created by IATA, the International Air Transport Association, the program’s goal is to halve the global rate of baggage mishandling by 2012.  Not just to make passengers happy, say IATA spokesman Steve Lott, but to help airlines fix their bottom lines: “Globally, mishandled baggage cost airlines $3.3 billion in 2008. So the airline industry has a financial incentive to make sure they close the gap.”

The fixes include some costly, sophisticated technology but also some cheap common sense ones, such as painting spacing lines on the belt behind the check-in counter so bags don’t begin their journey all bunched up.

There are also some things you can do to help increase the odds of your bags arriving safely. In addition to putting your contact information and travel itinerary inside your baggage, inspect the outside of your bags before each trip. If there are old tag stubs and bar code labels stuck on your luggage from a previous journey, remove them.  That way you won’t run the risk of confusing the automatic barcode readers in the baggage handling system and having your bags end up in a city you visited back  1999.