The widespread prevalence of technology has permeated the airport business, especially when it comes to transaction handling. Everyday transactions have become more efficient thanks to automated technology, increasing customer demand for convenience. The airport industry is a major focal point for improvement and opportunity for investment as international transportation hubs often provide the first impression for visiting international travellers. Identifying and addressing bottlenecks in passenger flow and impression points is crucial for airports to remain competitive and profitable.
The Travel Industry: Today’s Innovation is Tomorrow’s Opportunity
With 3.6 billion airline customers expected to be in the sky annually by 2016, it is no surprise that passengers represent the largest opportunity for brand evangelism across the travel industry. From preferred airlines to choice travel accessories, the air passenger experience extends beyond in-flight time; it is all-encompassing from the moment they leave home to the moment they leave the airport at their final destination. Some may dare to say that the airport experience itself may be equally as important, if not more so, than a passenger’s time on board the aircraft.
With an industry of approximately $675 billion in annual revenue, ticket pricing and in-air experience are key variables in retaining or earning customer loyalty. However, airlines sometimes forget that the passenger interaction on the ground weighs just as heavily as in the air. The number of passenger touch points within an airport is innumerable; curb-side check-in, self-service ticketing, bag-check lines, security checkpoints, customs and passport controls…all before being allowed to even enter or exit the terminal, and each with its own level of social interaction that can make or break a passenger experience. Today’s customer has come not only to expect, but demand a smooth and efficient process throughout the course of their travel.
Therefore, it is no surprise that today’s widespread prevalence of technology has permeated the airport business in an attempt to meet these customer expectations. Shopping, banking, booking travel or dinner reservations and other everyday transactions have become more efficient, thanks to technologies that make it possible to tackle your to-do list anywhere, at any time. Similar self-service applications are now becoming predominant in the airline travel industry, especially when it comes to speeding up the processes that previously relied on manual transactions.
The technology-driven “new world order” produces instantaneous results at the fingertips of the user, at any given time. This is an achievement for today’s time-strapped culture; however, it has also created a global population that has a lower tolerance for waiting. In current society, the notion of patience and waiting longer than you feel necessary for something has taken on negative connotations of implied inefficiency or incompetence.
New technologies have the power to advance and modernize our travel industry. The ability to combine human observations with enhanced data collection and measurement tools, and then analyse this information, has allowed the airline industry to identify new trends in passenger flow, sightlines and movement in real time. With the understanding that one of the biggest challenges faced by the industry is that there will always be elements out of our control that can cause delays (weather, mechanical failure, attempts at security breaches), we must also showcase that we are leveraging innovation and doing everything within our control to expedite and automate the travel process where possible.
International travel: a source of headaches and pain relief
One of the most tedious and time‑consuming processes in travel when flying internationally takes place going through customs and passport control checkpoints. As a recent US Presidential report noted, the time required to securely process arriving international passengers can impact the competitiveness of US airports and airlines in the domestic and international markets. In turn, the ability of an airport to consistently minimise passenger waiting times at primary inspection and customs clearance points can have a positive domino effect: minimising connection times for passengers, helping airlines maximise operational efficiency, and making airports more attractive to airlines and travellers.
Self‑service kiosks present a huge opportunity to resolve issues associated with waiting times at airports – particularly when processing international passengers. In 2009, the team at Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR) studied its biggest areas of inefficiency and congestion, discovering that the border clearance process required a significant amount of time and personnel without maximised efficiency. In an effort to positively change the process, YVR partnered with Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to develop the world’s first non‑registered self‑service kiosk solution: Automated Border Clearance (ABC). Just four years later, the same team partnered with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to develop Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks, known as BorderXpress.
The implementation of both ABC and APC solutions at YVR resulted in meeting the team’s overall goal: expediting processing at the airport’s Canadian and American borders to the benefit of passengers, airlines, and the airport itself. The BorderXpress APC solution allows eligible passengers to clear customs four times faster, while still ensuring the same high standard of safety and security. Instead of filling out a declaration card and proceeding with their travel documents to wait to be processed by a US CBP officer, passengers can proceed directly to a self‑service kiosk in the US CBP facility to answer the required questions. Once complete, the passengers take their receipt and present to CBP official for verification.
Since entering the market in May 2013, BorderXpress has been joined by similar APC solutions, all with the mutual goal of providing a smooth, efficient and welcoming experience for international passengers. Now, YVR’s APC kiosks can be found in 14 airports across North America, with more to join in late 2014 and early 2015. As the solutions become more common across locations, they continue to empower customers and give them more control over their own travel experience.
Internal efficiencies and admitting areas of improvement
Improving border management and the passenger experience comes at a price – it hinges on an airport’s ability to identify and admit to organisational shortcomings. In many international airports, the border clearance process for international travellers requires investing a significant amount of time and personnel resources without producing very good results. According to the US Department of Commerce National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO), the United States will experience a 3.4 to 4.1 percent annual growth rate in international travel visitor volume between 2014 and 2018. By 2018 this growth would produce an additional 83.8 million visitors, a 20 percent increase, and more than 14 million additional visitors compared to 2013.
As international transportation hubs experience a rise in passengers, the importance for cross‑departmental focus on key issues facing international travellers is paramount. This requires departments that may operate independently (sales and marketing communications, customer service, IT services, etc.) to come together in support of improved technology. Technological improvements such as APC kiosks (see figure 1), Global Entry, and beacons are only beneficial if they are part of an overarching strategy that leverages quantitative and qualitative data to modify each solution, as appropriate. Once an organisation commits to using passenger flow data and feedback to improve operations, the results can have a major impact on total airport waiting times, customs processing times and overall customer satisfaction. Since airports have begun installing APC technology, the CBP primary inspection process for eligible users has been reduced up to 89 percent and overall customs waiting times have decreased by up to four times. Though this article focuses heavily on the impact of technology in passenger experience and identification, the importance of the role played by airport personnel should not be downplayed. US CBP officers remain the last line of defence against potentially higher‑risk travellers. Automation technology does not lessen the officers’ ability to verify passenger identities, but rather helps CBP officers pay attention to facial expressions and body language that might indicate suspicious behaviour.
Expanding beyond airports
While APC providers race to update their offerings such as including passengers enrolled in the Visa Waiver Program with ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) and Lawful Permanent Residents, the success of automation combined with biometric identification technology continues to develop in other industries – companies are developing smart cars that identify drivers based on facial recognition while others are bypassing traditional password storing methods with facial or fingerprint identification.
In the travel industry, APC kiosks in airport terminals are only the first step in a series of planned improvements; next steps for this technology include the installation of kiosks as part of the embarkation and disembarkation process at international cruise ports. The cruise industry stands to benefit from automation and passenger identification technology to reduce process times and enhance the collective travel experience.
Meanwhile, developers of APC technology are currently designing and testing a free mobile application that will allow international travellers to complete a customs declaration form while taxiing on the runway, simplifying yet another step in the customs process and addressing how passengers are using evolving technology.
Companies such as Vancouver Airport Authority and others are on the forefront of providing the next generation of automation technology and are in ‘co‑opetition’ with one another to improve the overall passenger experience.
As a result of industry co‑opetition, this technology stands to fundamentally change the way consumers and developers think about international travel – providing a bright light at the end of the tunnel and offering consistency in a tense industry. To accomplish this feat, industry must work together to develop an action plan that addresses the major pain points of their customers. Improving border management infrastructure should be a top priority for industry leaders worldwide – from government agencies to airport authorities, airlines and non‑profit/advocacy groups. The opportunity to redefine border management and passenger processing is at our collective fingertips.
1 Hill, T., 2014. U.S. Commerce Department Forecasts Continued Strong Growth for International Travel to the United States – 2014-2018. NTTO: Forecast for International Travel, pp. 1-2.
2 Hoover Inc. (2014). Airlines Industry Profile. First Research, pp. 10-12.
3 U.S. President, Executive Office of., 2014. Increasing Tourism to Spur Economic Growth: Progress on the President’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy. White House, pp. 2-13.