get airport check-in on the same page

A version of this story appeared in the November 2012 edition of Airport Terminal World magazine.

The world’s airports are getting larger and the number of carriers they host is growing year by year.

To deal with this proliferation in airlines and passenger numbers, a long-term goal of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been to see a single passenger processing system put in place that can be used at all airport check-ins and boarding gates around the world. This industry-wide system has become known as “common use”.


Nearly a decade in its development the Common User Passenger Processing System, or CUPPS, was meant to answer the IATA’s goals when it was unveiled in 2008.

Four years on, enthusiasm for CUPPS is still muted.

Las Vegas’ McCarran was the first major hub to switch to CUPPS, meanwhile South Korea’s Incheon Airport has invested 2.5 million GBP in a CUPPS conversion for its Korean Air and Asiana Airlines terminal and Berlin’s recently-opened Brandenburg airport has been completely fitted out with the system.

Elsewhere however there has been a lukewarm reaction to the new system. According to the IATA, about 350 of an estimated over 2,000 medium- to large-sized airports around the world have a common use system in place. But most of them operate using CUPPS predecessor, CUTE.

In spite of a relatively low take-up the IATA remain confident that CUPPS is on track to become the industry standard. Paul Behan, the IATA’s Head of Passenger Experience, said that he expected the figures for common use airports to rise to 400 in the next 12 months with most of these new conversions likely to upgrade to CUPPS. Although only a small proportion of airports have fully adopted the new system Behan said there were over a hundred airports that were “CUPPS ready.” In other words they can support airlines with a small number of CUPPS applications.

The change to CUPPS will not happen overnight,” said Behan. “Most airports are locked-in to business cycles that committ them to their current passenger systems. These cycles typically last five to seven-year but we predict that when these cycles come to an end a lot of them will be switching to CUPPS.”

CUPPS, like its predecessor CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment), is a set of technical standards that allows airports and airlines to develop passenger services that are compatible with one another. In practice this means that a CUPPS-compliant airline can use the check-in and boarding systems of any CUPPS airport around the world. The same is true in reverse. In other words, a CUPPS airport can host any number of CUPPS carriers.

The concept of common use goes back to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. At that time the city’s main airport, LAX was only set up to host a small number of carriers and found itself overwhelmed by the sudden influx of international airlines resulting from the Games. These carriers had their own check-in systems that were incompatible with the systems in place at LAX.

At this time the airline industry began to moot the idea of a standardized system which could be used interchangeably by different airlines operating at different times from the same check-in desks. As a result of these discussions CUTE was created.

Although CUTE has performed a valuable service in bringing common use to the industry, Behan said there are certain systemic problems. One is that much of the hardware associated with CUTE is specialized for the airline industry and therefore expensive.

Another issue is a cumbersome certification process. Although CUTE is meant to provide a common standard in reality there is still a lot of variation. Since none of the platforms developed by software companies to host the various airlines are compatible with one another, this means airlines have to create multiple versions of their own applications that will work with the different platforms. It is rather like recording a song on to an MP3 and then having to convert it CD, vinyl and tape cassette.

This situation was complicated further by the fact that the CUTE system mandated airlines to re-certify on every platform each time an application was changed.

As a result of these shortcomings discussions about a possible follow-up to CUTE first took place at an airline industry summit in Seattle in 2000. Discussion and development went on several years and resulted in the first pilot program for CUPPS at Orlando airport in 2009 run by air transport communications firm SITA.

Behan said the new system had a number of important advantages over CUTE.

One of the main improvements is that CUPPS has been designed to work with off-the-shelf products,” said Behan. “This means that instead of using a printer costing several thousand pounds to print boarding passes you can use a big brand printer that costs less than a tenth of that. So that while it’s true that a conversion to common use requires a significant investment for airlines and carriers, with the new CUPPS standard the price has come down dramatically.”

In addition to this CUPPS mandates software providers to create platforms for airports that conform to a common interface. This means airlines only need develop a single version of their own application which will be certified once and will work at all the airports where CUPPS has been deployed. CUPPS platforms are also designed to work with airlines still operating on the earlier CUTE applications.

Both the CUPPS platforms and applications undergo testing and certification by external approved bodies. To achieve full certification after the testing process is done, the CUPPS compliant platform must then be put into service with two separate CUPPS-certified applications.

It’s a more rigorous certification process but it gets rid of all the red tape associated with re-certification and means, in the end, CUPPS is much simpler to maintain than its predecessor,” Behan said.

The CUPPS technical standard does not only relate to boarding and check-in. Via its Aviation Information Data Exchange (AIDX) there has also been an attempt to standardize flight information displays. The AIDX, which allows for the simple, direct communication of flight information to the displays by air carriers, is already up and running at several airports, including Denver and Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport.

McCarran’s CUPPS platform was installed by Maryland-based systems engineering specialist ARINC.

So far ARINC has installed, or is in the process of installing, its new vMUSE CUPPS platform at seven other airports in the Europe, Africa and Middle East business region, including Manchester Airport, Berlin Brandenburg, Brussels, Nairobi and Dubai.

Tony Chapman, ARINC senior director, Integrated Travel Solutions, said their software can be customized to suit a particular airport’s needs.

For example, ARINC recently signed a multimillion dollar contract with Ras Al Khaimah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates to supply a version of its vMUSE CUPPS platform that has been customized to allow for innovations like off-site hotel check-in and bag drop.

CUPPS is essentially a platform that allows the airlines to run and support a range of peripheral devices that are required at an airport,” said Chapman. “It can be deployed in multiple ways – from local servers, to cloud-based in the case of ARINC – to suit the size and operational requirements of the airport. The selection of peripheral devices is made by the airport customer and is a requirement of the specific needs.”

According to Chapman many of the peripheral devices, including printers, scanners and boarding gate readers, remain unchanged under the CUPPS conversion since “it mandates minimum workstation specification in terms of CPU processing power, hard disk space and internal memory”.

ARINC’s roll out of vMUSE at Berlin Brandenburg was incorporated across 153 workstations for check-in and back office desks and 188 boarding gate workstations for use by 31 airlines and handling agents.

South Korea’s Incheon Airport has invested in its own CUPPS compliant system developed to work alongside the airport’s existing internal check-in system.

The CUPPS conversion, which the airport has branded AirCUS, was funded 50/50 by Incheon and the South Korean government. Although a total of 68 carriers operate out of the airport, AirCUS is only operational in the boarding and check-in systems of Korean Air and Asiana Airlines. The technology developed for AirCUS has been designed to read boarding passes and machine-readable passports.

According to Mi-Kyoung Sun, who oversaw the AirCUS installation at Incheon, the deployment has led to a reduction in check-in times of 22 percent and has cut boarding times in half.

The conversion also made it possible to adopt lower cost peripherals since we collaborated with local manufacturers to make cheaper devices,” said Mi-Kyoung Sun. “It is a faster system. It can offer prompt reaction and system troubleshooting support is made easier since many of the devices were locally developed. It also gives airlines increased work efficiency with optimized customer-oriented functions. Using CUPPS, Incheon can maximize the overall airport process.”

Much of the recent take-up for CUPPs has been in the U.S. and Asia.

Behan said that in the U.S. this can be explained in part by a change in the outlook of many state-run regional airports which, in an effort to attract more business, have switched over from single carrier terminals to terminals hosting a number of international airlines.

In the context of their previous business models common use didn’t make sense, but it does now,” Behan said. “The reality is that more and more airlines are spreading to more destinations around the world. In this context everyone in the industry has a vested interest in creating a standard system that can work across the board. That’s why we believe CUPPS has a key role to play in the future of air travel.”


About flowbert

Journalist investigating extreme experiences of solitude. View all posts by flowbert

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