Self-service is now commonplace at airports – especially at check-in – and by all indications the rate of adoption is growing fast, as Alan Dron finds.

    Air passengers travelling through a growing number of airports globally will notice that life in the terminal is becoming increasingly self-service. These facilities span from check-in to bag drop, border control, and even gate access on some domestic flights.

    Self-service check-in has been around for a while now. Aviation IT specialists SITA were one of the first on the scene. Its first kiosks were introduced as a trial in 1997 by Air Alaska, designed not only to improve the check-in process for passengers by reducing queuing but also to test the appetite for self-service.

    Given the volume of travellers, even a small reduction in the amount of time taken to process each passenger can add up to significantly improved throughput figures, not to mention a better passenger experience.

    Baggage: Self-service check in at airports
    Simplicity and functionality are key issues for Kiosks

    Several providers have populated this new marketplace, offering solutions designed to hasten the check-in and baggage deposit processes.

    Germany-based Materna IPS provides the common platform operating system for self-service kiosks on which individual airlines can write their own app.

    Ironically, says Declan Austin, Materna’s Solutions manager for Europe and North America, LCCs like easyJet have been so successful in persuading people to check in online that they have created another problem for themselves at the departure airport.

    Approximately 90 per cent of easyJet’s passengers now check in online. Until recently, however, that meant that when they turned up at the airport, they found themselves queuing for the ‘conventional’ bag drop longer than those people who continued to check in at the airport.

    This means not only were they not being ‘rewarded’ for checking in early, they were effectively being penalised.

    Check in Baggage: Self-service check in at airports
    Smart bag drop technology has become more widespread

    However, Austin affirms that today: “If you fly out of Gatwick, there are 100 per cent self-service bag drops. The driving force for easyJet at Gatwick was that it had to be a quick solution so that passengers shouldn’t have to wait more than a couple of minutes.”

    There is an ongoing drive by airlines and kiosk providers to make the bag-drop process as simple as possible. That has meant disposing of the traditional baggage tags where agents peel off part of the tag to stick it to another.

    “One of the big sea-changes has been the arrival of ‘linerless’ bag tags with clever glue that only sticks to itself,” notes Austin. Some airlines even provide a receipt for luggage by sending an SMS to the passenger’s phone.

    He believes LCCs will be the airlines to gain the greatest benefit from automated check-in and bag drop. Even if an LCC is just saving a few pounds per flight, multiply that by the thousands of flights they operate in a week and it adds up to millions of pounds over the course of a year.

    Check in Baggage: Self-service check in at airports
    The traditional check-in counter will still be around for some time

    “Anything that makes the process more efficient is helpful. You want your passengers to self-serve for as much of the process as possible.”

    Despite some people still preferring contact, Austin believes that most passengers regard self-service as empowering and see it as a positive.

    Self-service bag-drop technology is clearly the ‘newest kid on the block’ when it comes to check-in management. There have been significant improvements in bag management as airlines have taken advantage of new technology.

    In order to provide its customers with convenient self-service, Gatwick Airport commissioned the supplier Materna IPS to develop individual self-bag-drop kiosks and install 10 units in collaboration with participating airlines including airline group TUI.

    The TUI project was delivered as part of the expansion of the Airport Zone B/C by Gatwick Airport together with Materna IPS. The Materna kiosk solution installed for TUI offers a complete self-service bag drop.

    Check in Baggage: Self-service check in at airports
    Gatwick has the world’s largest self service bag drop

    Another well-known name in the automated check-in and bag-drop process is Rockwell Collins, whose director, marketing strategy and product management, Tony Chapman, is in no doubt of the equipment’s efficiency.

    “Check-in is very much faster. Dubai International Airport has said that not only did it improve passenger throughput, it did so to such an extent that it saved them from having to expand the terminal.

    “We’ve got the whole bag-drop process down. The time for that has now been reduced to about 45 seconds.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rockwell Collins’ bag-drop solutions were first taken up by LCCs, which saw the value in them, given their high passenger volumes.

    SITA, which supports around 250 airports worldwide, plus a significant number of the world’s major airlines, provides a range of kiosk check-in and bag-drop products.

    From a bag-drop point of view you need to have several solutions, says David Kershaw, the portfolio director for Passenger Processing.

    One of the most successful is relatively simple in its functionality. It allows passengers to generate a bag tag, but Kershaw believes: “We would prefer it to be tagged away from the bag drop-off point, because it’s a classic pinch-point. Going forward, you can locate kiosks wherever you want around the terminal.”

    The bag-drop unit weighs the luggage, checks that it complies with size and shape limits for the sorting system and has the capability to flag outsize items.

    Perhaps the next step in this process, however, is to move check-in out of the airport altogether, thus further easing congestion at the airport. One company, Navitaire, believes the industry is moving in this direction.

    Anita Elste, airports product manager at Navitaire, a company that provides software for airport self-service kiosks, gives one example: “Vueling have an auto check-in: the minute you make a booking, it generates the check-in documents at that time. A boarding pass can be home-printed.

    easyJet airportr
    Home bag-drop services are growing

    “Where the industry is going, from my perspective, is complete off-airport check-in, with bags picked up from your home, hotel or cruise ship.”

    This is in fact already a reality. Home bag-drop service provider AirPortr recently partnered with easyJet, giving passengers travelling from London Gatwick the option to check their luggage in online and then have it collected from their doorstep by drivers and taken directly to the airport.

    According to easyJet, research shows that over three quarters of travellers would prefer to be luggage free for the day of their flight, which is why the airline and AirPortr have partnered to provide the service, allowing travellers to start their trips at home.

    It works by having one of AirPortr’s drivers pick up the luggage from the passenger’s doorstep and deliver it to easyJet’s bag drop before it is flown to one of the airline’s destinations from Gatwick. Passengers can then collect their baggage at their destination’s baggage reclaim.

    Since 2016, AirPortr claims to have collected over 69,000 bags, skis and bikes, which have been checked-in and delivered to more than 320 destination airport baggage reclaims around the world. easyJet said it is confident this new service will help make travelling even easier for its passengers.

    Obviously, this service comes at a fee. In July when the service was launched, easyJet stated that the service allows passengers to check in a piece of luggage and choose a one-hour pick-up time slot for as little as £30. Alternatively, for a £40 fee, this includes the collection of up to four pieces of luggage within a three-hour window.

    Randel Darby, CEO of AirPortr, commented: “Particularly when flying short haul with hold luggage, a disproportionate amount of journey time can be spent on the ground getting to and through the airport. We’re delighted to work with easyJet to overcome this, starting their passengers’ journey at home, saving valuable time and providing hassle free travel, all at an affordable price.”

    There have been suggestions, however, that less tech-savvy travellers, particularly the elderly, may struggle with some of these new check-in technologies.

    Self-service at airports
    Passengers can attach their own bag tags

    “There are very few people who are totally incapable of using kiosks at all,” says Materna’s Austin. “Generally, elderly travellers tend to arrive in plenty of time, and generally, with some guidance, they will use it – and then proudly hold up the bag-tag when they succeed.”

    Even with the growing number of self-service systems out there, for the foreseeable future there will still be a requirement for a certain number of staff to monitor the kiosks and step in when passengers face problems.

    The next big thing seems to be biometrics at check-in. “The biggest thing coming down the track is implementation of this biometric layer,” says IATA’s Kershaw. “Today, you have people having to look at and validate the person’s ID against the passport before they can accept a bag or go to security. What I can see very soon is integration of biometric capability.”

    He notes, for example, Apple which has facial recognition built into its latest smartphones. “That would allow full end-to-end self-service. A passenger would go to a check-in or bag-drop kiosk and the combination of their ID with a biometric scan would give them a ‘single token.’ An [electronic] tag would go into your pocket or phone and you would go through the rest of the process.”

    Chapman from Rockwell Collins’ predicts passengers will start to see biometrics in the next 12 months or so. “We’re just about to release a new biometric platform, in fact.”

    Clearly biometrics is the future. Not only will it eliminate the manual check at bag drop, it will also eliminate the check at the gate – although there will always be the exception that some things will still have to be manually checked as a security precaution.

    Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in October 2018.

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