Common use is common sense

Posted: 10 June 2005 | IATA Corporate Communications, Geneva | No comments yet

The International Air Transport Association continues to spearhead the industry initiative to ‘simplify’ the business.

The International Air Transport Association continues to spearhead the industry initiative to ‘simplify’ the business.

In an era of aviation that has seen the term ‘business as usual’ disappear, airlines around the globe are clamping down on complexity in order to ease travel and slash costs. Simplifying the Business, an aviation initiative being spearheaded by IATA, is geared to do just that … simplify. Launched a year ago, the programme features five key initiatives, namely:

  • 100% electronic ticketing by the end of 2007
  • Common Use Self Service kiosks for check-in
  • Bar coded boarding passes
  • Radio frequency identification (RFID) for baggage handling
  • The elimination of paper from cargo processes by end 2010

“This is the biggest industry initiative IATA has ever been involved with and the targets are aggressive,” says Philippe Bruyere, IATA’s interim Programme Director for Simplifying the Business. “We have mobilised the entire organisation in the 150 countries we cover to engage and support airlines in delivering the goods.”

Of the five, electronic ticketing is the top priority with a target of 40% market penetration set for the end of 2005 and 100% by the end of 2007. At the end of February 26.6% of all tickets issued through IATA’s Billing Settlement Plan were electronic. At stake is greater customer convenience and US$3 billion in annual cost savings for the industry based on an average cost per ticket saving of US$9.

IATA’s project team is in contact with carriers, airline alliances, Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) and technology suppliers to help develop common standards and implement industry solutions.

Based on commitments made during IATA’s 2004 Annual General Meeting, at the end of 2007, IATA will stop producing paper tickets. As of 1 January 2008, carriers without e-ticketing capability will jeopardise interline agreements with e-enabled airlines and will have to produce and distribute paper tickets on their own at a high cost. Passengers will also increasingly move to electronic ticketing.

E-ticketing driving CUSS

As the e-ticketing revolution unfolds, the reliance of passengers and airlines on common use self-service technology will escalate proportionally. That reality, along with the direction of IATA member airline Chief Executives who have tasked IATA with delivering a better customer experience during the check-in process, are driving the CUSS project.

“In terms of benefits to the airlines it will result in cheaper self-service applications, reduced training requirements and broadened customer service opportunities,” says IATA senior vice president, Industry Distribution and Financial Services, Tom Murphy.


Self-service check-in is not a new concept. Its genesis can be traced to the United States as far back as ten years ago when large US carriers pioneered the technology at key airports. Within a very short period of time it became evident self service improved service and financial and operational efficiency.

In 1999 the airline community realised, as the banks recognised ten years earlier with ATM technology, that proliferating airports with thousands of individual kiosks flagging different brands and using myriad user-interfaces was both expensive for airlines and confusing for customers. To address this emerging issue IATA assembled an industry management group, comprised of 60 representatives from airlines, airports and vendors, to develop a common standard for self-service check-in.

“The CUSS Management Group was set up to tackle technical platform issues to ensure that a CUSS-certified airline application could run on any CUSS-compliant platform,” recalls Paul Behan, IATA’s project manager – CUSS. “Version 1 of the CUSS standard was published in May 2003. In the same year Vancouver airport went live with a CUSS installation in their new terminal.”

Las Vegas followed soon after with the world’s first multi-user CUSS implementation with nine airlines sharing kiosks. That total is now 16 airlines which will grow to 20 this summer.

Service and efficiency for value

In the same way that ATM technology is common use, self-service check-in at a busy airport lends itself to the same application and produces similar value. Where an airline invests in dedicated self-service technology, the value is achieved through high productivity, resulting in an efficient product and shorter check-in times. Thus the proliferation of home-carrier kiosks at airline fortress hubs. However, individual deployment at airports with low throughput reduces benefits dramatically. This creates a viable initial niche for common use devices.

“Volume is the key,” explains Behan. “Maintaining and servicing kiosks in a low-usage environment translates to a higher cost per passenger transaction. In these locations a common facility has obvious advantages. Carriers can share a common use device to boost throughput and lower transaction costs.”

Taking that a step further, Behan says if an airline operates a small number of kiosks in a small station the implementation costs are high. Moving to a CUSS environment gives carriers the option to enlist a CUSS provider who manages installation of the hardware and the airline application.

“Speed and lower cost of implementation are proven,” says Behan. “Airlines ship their IATA Certified application to the CUSS provider and provide a link to their host systems. Not only do airlines avoid set up costs, the speed of implementation is much quicker. With a dedicated product, the airline is responsible for the entire implementation…installation, set up, maintenance. And they have to do that at every airport. This way it’s basically plug and play.”

In a shared environment there are also distinct staffing advantages. Typically, in a CUSS environment a single member of staff can provide customer service to passengers using five kiosks versus one to each check-in desk.

The same goes for baggage processing. Current best practice demonstrates that two efficiently managed baggage drop off points can service between four to six kiosks as opposed to one per check in desk.

“It’s a way for airlines and airports to soak up growth and improve service at the same time,” says Behan.

CUSS Challenges

Branding has always been a contentious issue. And differing opinions still exist. Historically, most self-service check-in initiatives originated out of airline marketing departments as a branding opportunity rather than as an airport efficiency effort. With the industry focus turned towards the latter, carriers are more open to forego the former in smaller airports. Behan says the banks learned this lesson as well.

“In the early days of ATMs you had to go to your own bank machine,” he says. “That meant high utilisation and longer queues as banks were putting in one or two machines per location. They quickly saw that sharing ATMs would reduce the load, shorten the queues and it was cheaper to pay someone else on a transactional basis. With CUSS, it’s important to note that while branding is not on the box, it remains in the application.”

Another hurdle involves product complexity, which can lengthen check-in time. Today a typical self-service check-in mirrors the process passengers go through at the counter. Additionally sharing kiosks can be perceived as diluting the customer-airline relationship, a contention that Murphy disputes.

“A passenger’s choice of airlines is based on a variety of factors – schedule, price, service, loyalty programmes and the like,” he says. “By reducing check-in time, regardless of the branding or lack thereof on the actual box, airlines are improving service and by extension their relationships with their customers.”

Finally, the IATA project team must provide a robust business case to overcome any perception that CUSS is more expensive than carrier-own kiosks.

Proven customer value

Customer acceptance of self-service technology is high and growing – not only for frequent flyers. It is fast becoming the preferred method of check in for leisure travellers as well, particularly at busy airports, according to Behan.

“Customers like being able to progress through the check in process in a number of steps rather. They like the movement,” he says.

Statistics collected by IATA reveal that the average check-in time for passengers with baggage, which is 3.5 minutes using the traditional counter process, is reduced to 2.5 minutes with CUSS. Without checked baggage it plummets to as low as 1.5 minutes.

Project well underway

IATA is in discussion with 30 airlines and airports worldwide to implement CUSS, with a goal of having five airports up and running by year-end. Included in that number are 11 major hub airports stretching from the west coast USA to Australia. A decision on the initial selection of ten airports is expected by mid-year.

“There is a lot of competition amongst airports to be involved,” says Murphy. “They see it as an opportunity to handle growth and optimise valuable capacity. Beyond the obvious customer and efficiency benefits, we also see it as a way to reduce airport costs for airlines.”

A major project objective is the development of a common passenger interface standard by the end of 2005 to enable passengers to interact with any device anywhere. The new standard will also cater for passport and biometric reading devices. Passport readers are currently being used in both dedicated and CUSS self-service environments. While application and middleware standards exist for biometric devices, the hardware standard has yet to be defined.

Baggage processing is also covered within the standard although Behan points out that airlines must ensure the self-tagging process is robust and transparent and must be approved by security and transportation authorities.

The future for CUSS extends beyond the airport. Web and off-site check-in will be commonplace in the not-too-distant future predicts Behan.

“In the US, customers are providing the momentum,” he says. “They are only flying with airlines who can provide e-ticketing on line, check in online and kiosk service at the airport.”

Murphy adds the rising number of internet-savvy consumers across the globe has reached a ‘tipping point’ that is also driving self-service.

“Ostensibly the internet is a self-service tool that improves efficiency in our lives,” he summarises. “The combination of that growing demand for efficiency and familiarity with technology will continue to power the popularity of solutions like CUSS.”

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