Everyone's perpetually in a rush; we live in a 24x7 world and being in a hurry comes with the territory. How many times have you rushed to the airport after an extended brainstorming session, only to find a long, serpentine queue at your check-in counter? Hoping against hope and good sense you join the line. Every passing 30 seconds increases your frustration exponentially. Precious minutes tick by. You get the idea, right? You're going to miss your flight. You've been there before.
Chandrashekhar Nene, vice president of IT at Kingfisher Airlines identified frustration stemming from standing in a line as one of the top reasons airlines get a bad rap. It spills, logically or not, into what passengers think about all the other services an airline provides. People hate queues. If you have queues, they hate you. Period.
Airlines know this but there isn't very much they can do: there simply isn't enough space for more check-in counters at the airports. "The government doesn't really plan keeping in mind the number of airline companies that have joined the business. Kingfisher, for example, shares check-in terminals with Indian Airlines particularly at the New Delhi and Mumbai airports. We face a total lack of space for counters at almost all the stations we operate in. And as the number of guests travelling on Kingfisher grew, queues got longer," he says.
So Nene turned to IT to bust the queue problem innovatively. "If we can't get guests to the check-in counter on time, we thought 'let's take the counter to the passengers'," he says.
Mobile takes flight
Research identified that about forty percent of the passengers flying with Kingfisher fall in a class that only carry hand luggage. "These include busy business travellers who want to quickly get in and out of an airport. They don't want to wait at conveyor belts for their baggage," Nene says. Using technology and working with the limited resources given to airliners, he created the 'Roving Agent.'
The Roving Agent is a Kingfisher staffer carrying a handheld that is connected to the main reservation and check-in system wirelessly using Wi-Fi, and a portable thermal printer, attached to the staffer's belt, that links with the PDA using Bluetooth. The project cost Rs 25 lakh (around £32,400).
While checking-in a passenger, a signal from the PDA travels over Wi-Fi to the airport router that is connected to a Reliance datacentre on a leased line (either 512kbit/s or 1Mbit/s). The datacentre is connected to Sabre Holdings' datacentre in Oklahoma, US. The signal is processed and makes the return journey to the PDA. The round trip takes all of three seconds, says Nene, adding that Kingfisher Airlines is the first in Asia to deploy a mobile check-in for its passengers.
Studying the flow of passengers at different airports showed Nene that as passengers move from the entrance of the airport to the check-in counter and then to the security gate they formed an arc of varying degrees. Depending on how far Kingfisher's counter was from the security gate, passengers navigated longer or shorter arcs. Nene wanted to create a short-cut with the Roving Agent.
Guests flying with Kingfisher carrying only hand luggage can be intercepted near the entrance. Using a ticket's PNR number, a Roving Agent can help guests choose a seat on their plane, print a boarding pass from the printer on the Rover's belt and send passengers straight to security check.
"We have figured that on a typical day, at a busy airport like Mumbai or New Delhi, we can help save a passenger seven or eight minutes. It might not sound like much, but for a business traveller pressed for time and catching a flight at the last moment, eight minutes can come very handy," Nene points out.
The Roving Agent, which was deployed a little over a year ago started checking-in about 300 travellers everyday across seven major airports. Today, the solution is used across 15 airports and checks-in about 3,000 passengers a day.
The Roving Agent piggybacks on the Wi-Fi infrastructure available at airports. Access-points have been installed at different locations to Wi-Fi enable typical check-in areas. Staffers carry PDAs (MC-70 from Symbol Technologies) that run a client application connected to the host system. The PDA is also connected to a portable thermal printer (Cameo-3 from Zebra Technologies) via Bluetooth.
"What's critical in all these is the battery life. We don't want our staff to be leaving their post continuously to charge their batteries," says Nene. The thermal printer ensures lower power consumption and plenty of spare batteries were bought so that while one set was in use the other was being charged.
The battery's life was also the driving force behind the choice of connecting the printer to the PDA via Bluetooth and not Wi-fi. "Wi-fi consumes more power to run," says Nene. No one had ever attempted to use Bluetooth-enabled printers for this purpose before, adds Nene.
The PDA approach, however, wasn't the only technology in the running when Kingfisher decided to increase the number of counters - in fact it wasn't even the recommended one.
Sabre Holdings, which provided Kingfisher with the reservation and check-in systems, had also offered a kiosk approach. "Sabre was keen on us taking the kiosk route," says Nene.
Nene zeroed in on the Roving Agent against the advice of Sabre who feared that technology, which required robust communication infrastructure, wouldn't find a home in India, where communication infrastructure, especially at airports, is still an area of concern. Sabre was concerned that fluctuations in Wi-Fi connectivity (which the Rover ran on) would force staffers to restart the process of checking-in a guest.
"I did not agree with them because I felt that Indians are used to being serviced - not self-service. I believed that Roving Agent is going to make the difference, as it is a servicing component," says Nene.
It's a decision he has had to live with. Ensuring a robust Wi-Fi network at various airports was a bumpy ride. Nene surveyed all the airports where Kingfisher operated in, to figure out the best way to ensure good coverage. "None of the airports were built with Wi-Fi in mind," he says. "You'll always find some nook or corner where Wi-Fi doesn't work. At the Goa airport, for example, the access-points were not functioning properly. Either there were obstructions or somebody was accidentally cutting the wires connecting the Wi-Fi access points to the main routers during airport maintenance work," he recalls.
Flight over plight
Realigning and deploying more access-points did a lot to give better coverage. Later, as better co-ordination between airport and telecom authorities took place - ensuring more planned construction activities at airports - Kingfisher was able to build a robust communication network to run the Roving Agent.
But that wasn't the end of Nene's connectivity problems. Thanks to airport regulations, Kingfisher was only allowed to connect to Sabre's WAN using the government PTT operators like MTNL and BSNL.
"This was a major impediment because neither were we provided desired levels of service, nor were we able to take on a secondary line from another service provider," says Nene. Their ISDN backup to the main leased line blacked out several times.
Fortunately, regulations were later relaxed and Nene built bandwidth redundancy by introducing Reliance at major airports like Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore.
Kingfisher's competition has been just as busy, but not as smart. According to Nene, competing airliners have taken the kiosk route. "The competition is literally begging their guests to use the kiosks and using incentives like offering 500 frequent-flier miles per use," he says. "Our decision to choose the Roving Agent is vindicated. We were saving hundreds of man-hours for our guests and significantly improving their impression of our services."
But the competition is catching up, says Nene: they're finally going the rover way. The question is: who's at the head of the queue?