Magazine Article | April 27, 2012

Mobile Computing Enables Speedy Airport Transportation

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Delta Global Services deploys rugged handhelds to increase the efficiency of airport passenger transportation by up to 20%.

Trying to work your way through a busy airport to meet a connecting flight can be extremely nerve-wracking in even the best of circumstances. For passengers who require wheelchairs or other forms of special assistance, navigating an airport can be even more stressful, as they have to rely on the assistance of airline employees. A delay of a few minutes can result in a missed flight and a disgruntled passenger, so airlines have a keen interest in making sure passengers are transported as efficiently as possible.

Delta Global Services (DGS) is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines that provides disability passenger handling and aviation services — the company helps ferry passengers with special needs to and from their gates and to other locations within the airport. The company recently deployed a mobile computing solution at the Memphis International Airport to help streamline dispatch operations, improve customer service, and provide accurate records about which services were rendered for which passengers.

Two-Way Radio Inefficient
The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that passengers be picked up within minutes of requesting a wheelchair, or the airline faces hefty fines. In 2010, those fines amounted to more than $3 million, according to figures from the DOT. DGS previously relied on two-way radios and paper forms to manage its daily dispatch operations, but increased regulatory pressure led the company to develop an automated solution.

“The industry got hit hard with fines for not handling passengers with special needs properly and in a timely manner,” says Tom Farmakis, VP of marketing and business development at DGS. “We had to be able to accurately document the service transaction, so if there was a problem with a customer we could easily research what happened. Just the logistics of those complaints meant that it could be six months down the road before we even knew a problem had been reported, and that made that type of research even more challenging.”

DGS assists as many as 300 passengers a day in Memphis. The company needed a solution that would allow them to quickly scan the passenger’s bar-coded boarding pass and document the transaction in real time. “We have 70 minutes on average to handle a call,” Farmakis says. “It takes 10 minutes to unload the aircraft and 30 minutes to load, so that eats up 40 minutes. Now you have 25 to 30 minutes to transfer dozens of people who need special assistance.”

Farmakis describes the old way of doing things using radios as “orchestrated chaos,” with dispatchers calling out for agents to report to specific gates. “You wouldn’t know who handled what transaction or what time they got there,” Farmakis says.

DGS developed its own proprietary dispatching and tracking solution called PAXTrack to manage passenger transactions. “It creates a transactional history, so we know what time we greeted the passenger and what time service was delivered, and it time-stamps everything,” Farmakis says.

DGS struggled to find a mobile computer that could provide the type of scanning performance the company needed. “We used optical scanners, so the device had to take a picture of the bar code,” Farmakis says. “Because of that, you had to make sure the scanner was at the right distance away from the boarding pass. You can’t get bogged down for 1 or 2 minutes trying to take a picture of a bar code.” In fact, in some instances the scanners often couldn’t complete a scan at all, which undermined DGS’ goal of maintaining accurate audit trails, while doing nothing to improve the amount of time it took to complete a transaction. The company needed a new scanner.

The company replaced its original units with Intermec Technologies CS40 mobile computers. Farmakis says they chose the Intermec device because the scanner operated reliably, and the device could communicate on the AT&T wireless network. DGS sends data over the AT&T networks instead of an existing wireless LAN in the airport because the bandwidth of the latter networks is often limited. “In the airport, we would have been competing with everyone else using that WLAN,” Farmakis says.

DGS has deployed more than 40 of the Intermec devices in Memphis. Using the PAXTrack solution, agents wirelessly receive passenger pickup assignments throughout their shifts and then scan boarding passes and gate locations when they pick up those passengers. The pickup transaction is time-stamped and reported in real time to the software via the AT&T network. If there are any stops during the transportation process, those stops are noted in the solution and also time-stamped.

Mobile Computing Improves Staffing
According to Farmakis, agents are able to quickly document every transaction in a way that is nearly invisible to the customer. The new mobile computers have helped improve efficiency by 10% to 20% just through improved scanning performance.

Overall, the mobile system has also helped DGS get a better handle on exactly how many staff members are needed at any point during the day. That’s important because the Memphis airport, due to the way aircraft traffic flows, presented some unique challenges for staffing. “It’s different from most airports in that you will have 100 airplanes at the gate for an hour and a half, then it’s a ghost town, and then another 100 airplanes come in,” Farmakis says. “You have a lot of demand compressed into a short period of time, and that is very labor-intensive.” Now, DGS knows how many agents will need to be on hand for each landing cycle and how long it should take them to transport each passenger.

Customer service has improved, and DGS has an accurate record of every customer interaction. And as for that “chaos” that Farmakis previously described, it has been replaced by an organized mobile solution that puts customer service decisions in the hands of the agent. “If an agent drops off a passenger at gate B5 and encounters another passenger waiting there to be picked up, in the past they would have had to tell that passenger to wait for whatever agent had already been dispatched for that assignment,” Farmakis says.

Now agents have an opportunity to make scheduling changes dynamically during their shifts. “Any agent on the floor can provide that service,” Farmakis says. “We can scan that boarding pass, and the system sends an automated alert to the other agent telling them the pickup is canceled.”

DGS has also developed a mobile application for aircraft cabin services that is running in several other airports and has expanded the PAXTrack solution to its Oakland, CA, operations. According to Farmakis, DGS plans to expand the mobile solutions to additional locations as well. “We don’t want guests to wait 1 second longer than they have to because we are confined by the technology,” he says. “This solution gives us the freedom to make on-the-spot decisions and improve our customer service.”