Category Archives: technology

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”.

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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.”


a scanner darkly

A version of this story was published in October 2012 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine. 

There’s no doubt about it. Look around the world these days and you see biometrics everywhere: iris scanners used to keep tabs on prisoners on probation in the US; fingerprint verification in laptops and cash machines as far afield as Vietnam and South Africa. Even the world’s top athletes had to submit to face and fingerprint scans in order to take part in this year’s London Olympic Games.

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But nowhere is the use of biometrics more prevalent, and more contentious, than in border control.

A decade ago biometrics at airports barely existed. Now the issuing of e-passports – travel documents containing a degree of biometric data (usually a photograph containing biometric markers and, in the case of the EU, fingerprints too) — is the default in most countries around the world.

Many major airports boast e-gates (or SmartGates as they are known in Australia and New Zealand) that use facial recognition to speed travelers through the security process. Facial recognition compares the digital photo stored on the e-passport with images taken by cameras at the gate, noting discrepancies in such things as bone structure, nose length, and the distance between your eyes. E-gates at Manchester and London Stansted already accommodate the latest generation of passports and plans are underway to install them at all five Heathrow terminals.

On top of this there are myriad trials going on testing out new, and sometimes frankly bizarre-sounding, methods of biometric technology that include avatars that monitor speech patterns to detect lying, a device that recognizes a person from the way he walks and brain scanning equipment.

Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking the biometric future is a fait accompli but as any traveler knows, aside from e-passports and a smattering of e-gates, security in most terminals around the world looks relatively unchanged from a decade ago and is still presided over by humans, not machines.

Jean Salomon, who runs JSalomon Consulting, his own border control security consultancy, has been in the business for 20 years. He said that there was a “quantum leap” forward in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which helped usher in e-passport, mainly as a result of the intense lobbying of the International Civil Aviation Organization. But the momentum gained after the terrorist attacks has not sustained, he said.

“These days most of the booming and money-making biometrics business activity is centered on criminal data bases,” Salomon said. “The focus has been on developing biometrics for security reasons only, with no real intent to develop its associated seamlessness counterpart in airport facilitation.”

As a result he said a number of small and medium-sized biometric start-ups have folded in recent years and the production of the hardware used in biometric systems at border controls worldwide has concentrated in the hands of just three companies. These are the French firm Morpho, the U.S-based 3M Cogent and the global electronics giant NEC. All these companies have a stake in e-passport programs, in national biometric ID’s and in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the technology used in biometric fingerprint scanners.

A number of other businesses exist to help integrate these technologies for specific airport’s needs. They include Liverpool-based Human Recognition Systems (HRS).

Jim Slevin, Business Unit Manager at HRS, is keenly aware that the biometrics market remains a relatively small part of airport security. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change any time soon, he said.

“A fully automated border solution may not be accommodated in mine or the reader’s lifetime,” Slevin said. “This is because the level of deployable artificial intelligence is not yet ready to deal with the complexity of situations that we, as humans, can create or deal with.”

Slevin said the take up of biometrics was also hindered by those in control of borders who were neither “technology centric, or indeed technology comfortable.”

He said the adoption of a fully automated system was dependent on completely rethinking the processes by which airports monitor the movement of passengers.

With this in mind HRS trialled a technology at Manchester Airport in 2010 capable of recognising passengers’ irises as they walked around the terminal, thanks to a remote camera set up in a security area. The camera took a photograph at a distance eliminating the need for the individual to stop and stare into the recognition camera.

The technology, called Biometrics In Motion, raises the possibility of airport security checks of the future taking place as the passenger moves around the terminal via the use of remote cameras, thus obviating the need for security gates and making for a much more fluid movement of travelers.

Aware that some travelers are put off by the idea of staring into cameras or pressing their palms onto fingerprint scanners, the security industry wants to find a fast and non-invasive biometric technology that will go over well with the public.

There have been a number of trials both in Europe and America of devices using gait recognition, a system which takes account of the unique way people walk and which, it is hoped – like Biometrics in Motion – can eliminate bottlenecks by reducing queuing times. Although most acknowledge the technology is not a significant enough marker on its own, gait recognition could be used in collaboration with other biometrics.

EU researchers in Greece, under the auspices of the Humabio (Human Monitoring and Authentication using Biodynamic Indicators and Behaviourial Analysis) project, conducted pilots using gait recognition as well as a number of other nascent technologies.

Security experts are moving increasingly towards developing systems that use a variety of physiological characteristics to identify people, largely because this lessens the chance of mistaken identity. The Humabio pilots included devices that distinguished individuals by brain patterns and heart rhythms.

The risk of relying too much on one physiological marker was brought home in Manchester in February last year when a couple managed to pass through facial recognition scanners using each other’s passports. The incident, which led to the scanner’s being temporarily withdrawn from service, was as noteworthy for the stir it caused in the press as anything else.

The reaction is symptomatic of just how divisive the use of biometrics in border control remains.

To their supporters, biometrics signal a brave new world of sleek efficiency and an important line of defence in the ongoing war against global terrorism. To their detractors they are further evidence of the Orwellian tendencies of modern states to increase surveillance of their citizens as well as leaving large swathes of the population at risk from identity theft.

Media debates about the ethics of biometrics can often drown out more prescient questions about whether the technology is actually effective in making airport travel quicker, safer and more convenient.

Facial recognition, for example, is not considered to be a very robust technology by many security experts, who say its continued application is down to the fact that the widespread availability of passport photos means it’s easy to get hold of the raw data.

As Jim Slevin points out, in the popular media biometrics are frequently compared with their predecessor, which in most cases means humans, and found wanting. In these comparisons humans are often considered to be 100 percent accurate and any error on the part of the biometric replacement shows it not matching up to its human counterpart.

Yet this suggests humans are infallible, and there have been more than enough security breaches down the years for us to know different.

Slevin calls this tendency, “the ex-partner in the marriage” syndrome.

“Through thorough mathematical and empirical data collection we have a very exact understanding of how well biometric systems perform in terms of false positive matching,” said Slevin. “In almost all circumstances the same transparency in the relationship between aviation and human operators is not available.

“The general publics’ perception of biometrics in airports will usually be through popular media; and rarely does one expect a story with a strapline of ‘Biometric System Implemented At XYZ Airport Without Issues And Performing In Line With Expectations’ to make headline news.”

As for another issue about biometrics commonly raised in the media, that they increase the risk of ID fraud by placing more of our sensitive personal details on databases that could potentially be hacked in to, Jean Salomon believes this concern is somewhat over egged. Salomon said that in reality there was greater risk of ID fraud from paper documents, such as birth certificates.

He said that details kept on databases associated with e-passports had much more rigorous security — they were systematically stored and electronically encrypted – whereas in most countries no such electronic backup existed for birth certificates, making them much easier to forge.

Even so, Salomon said inevitable mistakes would ensure that “civil liberties organizations will grow more white hair; simply because of nature’s inherent fondness for entropy.”

In the meantime, love it or hate it, biometric technology continues to advance and while the fully automated airport may be a long way further off than many advocates had first predicted, there’s little doubt that it’s coming, and that the sci-fi fantasies of the past will become the reality of the air travel experience of the future.


biometrics and civil liberties

(LONDON, England) From the fingerprints and digital imaging stored on e-passports, to iris scanners set up at airport immigration, biometrics are a growing part of the traveller experience.

Though some of the technology might seem like the stuff of science fiction fantasy (or nightmare, if you take the view of many civil liberty campaigners), the economics are very real.

According to a recent study by market research firm ABI, investment in biometrics will drive global spending in the field to $7.3 billion by 2013, up from around $3 billion this year.

The use of biometrics (broadly defined as technologies that identify people via physiological characteristics) has expanded rapidly in recent years. Almost every major hub airport has either begun using the technology, is trialling it or else has plans to do so.

Biometric passports are fast becoming the norm with some countries like Germany storing fingerprint scans in chips on all new ones issued. In Britain, iris scanners have been introduced at a number of airports, including all five Heathrow Terminals to allow travellers to bypass normal border controls.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to extend a program to fingerprint all foreign nationals entering the country. They are trialling it at Washington’s Dulles airport and plan to roll it out to all international hubs by the end of the year.

The concept of biometrics has existed for some time – the first commercial application of a fingerprint reader dates back to 1984. So why the sudden interest?

It has been due in part to security concerns prompted by terrorist atrocities like the September 11 attacks in New York, and in part because of major advances in technology.

“In the last couple of years the technology has leapt forward in terms of its reliability, its accuracy and its robustness,” says Nick Morse, from UK Biometrics, a supplier of biometrics technology to the British market.

Certainly there is a dizzying amount of new technology being developed for the market.

Iris-recognition scanners may eventually be superseded by retina scanners, which experts say provide a more accurate measure of identity.

Meanwhile, fingerprinting scanners, which critics have blamed for inaccuracies, are being refined to scan below the skin, meaning that anyone wearing fake latex fingerprints would be detected.

Other emerging technologies are palm and finger vein readers. Already in use in the banking sector in Japan, these scanners are thought to be more accurate than fingerprinting since a person’s fingerprint alters in childhood whilst palm and finger vein patterns remain unchanged from the womb.

The idea of having your identity tagged from birth brings many of us out in a cold sweat, and is the reason large swathes of the public remain vehemently opposed to the concept of biometrics.

John Verdi, from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties NGO based in Washington, says one of the biggest concerns about biometrics is the risk of identity theft.

“The difference with biometrics and the reason it presents a substantial threat is that if your passport is stolen, the government can reissue you a new passport number and you can move on with your life,” he tells CNN. “If your biometrics are stolen, short of hacking off your finger there’s no way for consumers or travellers to reacquire their identity.”

Morse, from UK Biometrics, on the other hand, insists that much of the fear is borne out of a misunderstanding of the technology. Fingerprint scanners, for example, which his firm specializes in do not store fingerprints on a central database where they could be snooped on by governments and other agencies.

The fingerprints are stored in a cryptic format on a standard PC, which he insists could not be reconstituted to create the actual print. Fears of Big Brother aside, the use of biometrics in air travel faces other more pressing logistical problems.

Creating a harmonized system that speeds up rather than impedes the immigration process remains the biggest challenge. There have already been major teething troubles.

According to the UK Border Agency, the new iris-recognition scanners installed at UK airports should get you through immigration in around 20 seconds.

However, problems with their introduction, not least many more fliers than expected registering, have meant queues for the so-called “fast-track” scanners have often exceeded normal immigration.

With so many different technologies being used to varying degrees by airport authorities around the world, getting everyone to adhere to a single global standard is another major obstacle.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the U.N. body that oversees air travel recognizes facial recognition as its primary biometric standard, with iris and fingerprints accepted as the two optional identifiers.

Tony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) admits that implementing this global standard will not be easy. “What we need to do is try and get these elements talking to each other, and also to start thinking of it as a complete process,” he says.

Morse believes this is easily achievable in the next few years and then, like it or loathe it, he says the age of biometrics will truly be upon us.

“I think the day of the almost totally biometric airport is very nearly with us.”

This article was first published on CNN.com on 11 August, 2008