Austin-Bergstrom’s High Tech Move To Optimize Operations
As passenger growth and airline services continues to increase, new IT solutions have helped optimize capacity and enhance efficiency.
February/March, 2015, Airport Business Magazine; Click here for original article webpage
Everything is bigger and still getting bigger in Texas, especially in the City of Austin, which Forbes reports is currently No. 2 in the United States for job growth. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport sees evidence of this growth firsthand every single day. In 2014, this airport, situated in a city known as the Live Music Capital of the World, set its fourth straight yearly traffic record, with 10.7 million passengers traveling through the airport, reflecting a 7 percent increase over 2013’s total.
Consistent traveler increase in recent years triggered a 70,000-square feet, seven-gate expansion, planned for completion in 2018, which will increase terminal capacity from 11 million passengers currently to 15 million.
But physical facilities are not the only ones impacted by increased traffic. Continued passenger growth at this Texas airport has challenged airport technology officials with expanding IT infrastructure to accommodate the growing needs of both passengers and airline partners alike.
“What makes the city vibrant in many ways is the University of Texas; for some time now there has been a strong surge of young professionals making Austin their home,´ says City of Austin Systems Support Network Supervisor Ruben Reyes. “That combined with a number of large businesses located here and continuing to move into the area [Dell; Samsung; IBM; AT&T; Whole Foods; etc.] … that’s amplifying a population growth that we experience directly here at the airport, certainly from an operational standpoint.”
Michelle Moheet, Austin-Bergstrom’s information system and business enterprise manager, adds the community’s professional growth brings new customers to the airport with very high technological expectations. “We serve two flavors of traveling passengers: the leisure traveler and the business or executive traveler. There is an expectation to have technological travel amenities and conveniences available, such as reliable WiFi connectivity and dynamic digital signage.”
“We want to create an environment where we can expedite the travel experience for passengers throughout the terminal, and get them off to their destinations with as little inconvenience as possible,” relates Reyes. “We also want to adopt technology solutions that allow us to optimize the use of our existing facility and resources while offering the opportunity to improve operational efficiency and increase revenue.
He continues, “What we are doing from a technology standpoint parallels the perception of the City of Austin as a high-tech hub for business professionals … and we want to deliver those services that our customers are requesting, and are going to be requesting. If we can get ahead of that a little, that’s a big win with regard to cultivating consumer loyalty.”
A Shared Tenant Mentality
The IT master plans, a five-year roadmap, was initiated by the airport in 2013 to bridge existing gaps and assess current and future technology needs. A team of consultants worked with the airport’s respective business units to gather business processes and technology requirements. At the conclusion of this process, the consulting team delivered recommendations for IT projects that would assist in improving various business processes; recommendations included terminal and airfield operations in addition to back office business applications.
Recommended deliverables which have been implemented and are currently managed to support the master plan include:
- Implementation of a Shared Use Passenger Processing System (SUPPS) and Common Use Self Service (CUSS) kiosks
- Expansion and upgrade of wireless network services
- Security checkpoint and passenger queue management
- Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks for international processing
- New facilities for international arrivals (Customs facility), consolidated rental car garage, terminal gate expansion, and retail center.
“When the airport first opened in the late ’90s, one of the things that we started doing at the time was laying the foundation for a ‘shared tenant services’ program,” explains Moheet. “The basis of that is the airport owns and manages the technology infrastructure … whereas traditionally, airlines and other airport stakeholders would manage those services. Prior to the shared services program, all passenger processing capabilities were airline-owned, operated, and maintained.”
Adds Reyes, “So the decision was made to incorporate the shared tenant environment and deliver telephony services to any airport tenant campus-wide. Over time, that dynamic has evolved, and the shared services environment has advanced and expanded from simple telephony services to a number of shared resources. With that, the airport now has a more proactive role in managing those resources in order to maximize overall operational efficiency.”
According to AirIT Director of Product and Delivery Quality Carmen Nash, “The airport came to us a couple years ago because in a very short period of time, the airport needed to accommodate new once-daily service from British Airways to London.” British Airways introduced the first regular transatlantic nonstop service from Austin back in March of last year; the airline operates a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the route.
Austin-Bergstrom started a project with AirIT to introduce shared use passenger processing technology in order to accommodate a number of airlines, particularly the new service from British Airways, explains Nash. “The way British Airways operates, they require a lot of counters … the airport wanted to be able to repurpose the ticket counters and allow them to be used by other carriers when British Airways wasn’t using them.”
“Shared use really gives us and the carriers the flexibility to deliver the services the traveling public is looking for … it may be seamless to the passenger, but the operational flexibility provided by the virtualized infrastructure and the sharing of gate and ticket counter resources is critical to the consistent and efficient operability of airline business processes here,” says Reyes. “The technology offers the carriers the flexibility to move and operate throughout terminal, and it gives us the opportunity to optimize revenue opportunities as well as meet the needs of our airline partners.”
“At the same time, we needed to develop a solution so the airport did not need to hire additional personnel; we analyzed the pros and cons and developed a sort of ‘hybrid’ solution. We began by moving a small number of airlines to shared use to get the process started; then we transitioned the major carriers over to shared use one airline at a time … we were able to do that without making any further configuration changes within the system.”
The airport began by managing four shared-use terminal gates, but has since doubled that number on the west side of the facility. Moving forward, the airport intends to be entirely shared use as it transitions from the preferential to shared use environment.
In addition to shared use passenger processing, the airport also manages the entire remote apron area of the airfield with shared use technology. Due to the high number of airline aircraft that park overnight, the airport integrated shared use technology with its RMS and AODB solutions so it could track and manage remote apron parking; the airport can now determine what a particular carrier should be charged based on its usage of those airport resources. The same goes for shared use gate and ticket counter resources.
“We were challenged with managing the capacity of our ramp and apron resources as well as capturing revenue from the carriers for utilizing those resources,” says Reyes. “So that’s another one of the areas we are focusing on … we saw an opportunity to improve operational efficiency and increase revenue based on the usage of certain resources.”
“In many ways, the airport had to adjust the way it manages certain types of operations, and really be proactive as opposed to reactive to particular operational situations; we had several months of workshops to instill the mentality in the organization for the shared use process,” adds Nash.
Prior to the shared use program, the airport was assigning resources using Excel spreadsheets. Efficiency has been greatly improved, says Nash. “The airport can add additional resources and can move additional airlines from preferential/exclusive use to shared use at their own discretion; we do not need to conduct any software modifications or changes.”
Maintain Service Quality
The transition from traditional landlord to service provider continues to be a learning experience and a work-in-progress.
“The traditional way of conducting IT business was to focus on supporting the City of Austin’s Aviation Department’s team members, tenants, and airlines with their technology needs. With the adoption of the Share Use Passenger Processing System (SUPPS) program, the scope of responsibilities changed for our team (IT),” according to Reyes. “The addition of new hardware and services introduced a new level of responsibilities and opportunities. To date, our team (IT) is evolving to support the changing business needs by adjusting our (IT) business processes during the delivery of these new technologies. We are championing several programs internally to build on the foundation of this new operational model; I think it’s a great opportunity for our Airport and customer’s success.”
Moheet adds, “Austin has always had a good reputation in that the team will deliver and the quality of service will continue … that was a concern for the carriers with regard to the airport having more control over the resources due to shared use technology. Airlines were concerned about the impact to their businesses.
“Operationally, we had to address who would be on site to support any potential situations that would cause issues for a tenant,” Moheet continues. “My team works very closely with all air service teams that operate here, from both the business side where contracts are developed, to the technical side regarding voice and data technology requirements.
“We have great relationships with our airline station managers; our executive team makes a concerted effort to maintain a positive and mutually beneficial business partnership,” she says. “The key is in always striving to enhance that service relationship with the stakeholders and to make doing business with the airport as smooth and successful an experience as possible.”
Brad McAllister is the director of marketing for Florida-based aviation IT solutions firm, AirIT. McAllister joined AirIT in February 2013 after five years as a key part of the editorial production of Cygnus Business Media’s Airport Business magazine. McAllister developed and managed the social media efforts for several aviation-related media properties during his time with Cygnus, and was instrumental in spearheading the launch of the AviationPros.com Web portal and the ongoing content management and delivery of multiple daily aviation e-newsletters. McAllister has been a speaker at airport industry events on topics including trends in airport terminal design and facility development; airport digital communications and marketing strategy; dynamic display solutions in the airport setting; and airport non-aeronautical revenue enhancement.