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IFIDs for Less: Web-based Flight Information Display Systems are a cost-effective solution

This March, Lynden Pindling International Airport in the Bahamas completed an expansion of its Flight Information Display System (FIDS): two outdoor monitors for flight and baggage carousel information for baggage handlers and a Baggage Information Display System (BIDS) monitor for each of the four baggage carousels in the international arrivals area.


June 6, 2008
By Carroll McCormick

Topics
ifid
The Lynden Pindling International Airport in the Bahamas has the largest iFIDS system, and is also the farthest from Thunder Bay. (Photo courtesy of NAD)

This March, Lynden Pindling International Airport in the Bahamas completed an expansion of its Flight Information Display System (FIDS): two outdoor monitors for flight and baggage carousel information for baggage handlers and a Baggage Information Display System (BIDS) monitor for each of the four baggage carousels in the international arrivals area.

This equipment, plus the 12 FIDS displays installed in the airport’s three terminals in April 2007, make up what is more accurately called an iFIDS – the “i” stands for Internet – that presents flight information routed over the Internet via servers in Thunder Bay, Ont. IFIDS is a remotely-hosted, Internet browser-based flight scheduling solution provided by a company called iFIDS.com Inc., a subsidiary of the Thunder Bay International Airport Authority (TBIAA).

The company was born of the need to replace the old FIDS after Transport Canada divested itself of the airport. Aviation InterTec Services, which provides browser-based aircraft maintenance software, developed iFIDS for TBIAA and co-owns iFIDS.com.

Scott McFadden, president of iFIDS.com and CEO of Thunder Bay Airport, recalls the search for a suitable FIDS. “We put out a request for proposal with criteria that included not being expensive, requiring little IT [information technology] support, having a degree of automation and a cost structure such that small carriers could be represented on the FIDS. Regular FIDS vendor pricing was unbelievable and labour-intensive to maintain. We decided not to go ahead until we found a better solution.” The airport has been running its IFIDS since 2000.

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The commercial result to date is the iFIDS in Nassau, five iFIDS-equipped airports in Canada – Prince George, Kelowna, Hamilton, London and Thunder Bay – and also the Duluth Airport Authority in Minnesota, which selected iFIDS.com last November.

The Duluth system will have eight displays. Yet, says Duluth Airport Authority executive director Brian Ryks, “The scalability of the solution, which met all our key criteria, means [iFIDS] will grow as our traffic demands. We won’t be paying for unnecessary infrastructure at the front end.”

In fact, notes iFIDS.com technical director Eric Hansen, “One of our clients has just two displays.” Small airports, remote ones especially, avoid the challenges and cost of running traditional dedicated data links to FIDS, and are relieved of any IT or maintenance costs, making modern FIDS capabilities that much more affordable.

“iFIDS provided us with a very cost-effective solution for an airport our size. Before, there was no flight information display at all,” says Lori Chambers, vice-president, operations of the Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD). iFIDS was officially unveiled on April 2, 2007, the same day that NAD, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bahamas government, took over operation of the airport.

Vancouver Airport Services (YVRAS) manages the airport under a 10-year contract and NAD chose iFIDS through its contacts with other airports managed by YVRAS. “A YVRAS-operated airport in Canada uses iFIDS and suggested we look at the product for Nassau,” Chambers notes.

“If I had bought a specialized FIDS software program and proprietary equipment from a vendor, the cost would have increased significantly. They are very expensive. We would have had to install extensive infrastructure and ensure that we had an expanded IT department to handle management of the system,” Chambers explains.

Ryks came to the same conclusion: “Our research didn’t find another vendor that could touch iFIDS.com functionality at a similar price point. It provides our airport with tier-one software at a fraction of the price. Finally, the hosted service removes us from any maintenance obligations. So long as power and Internet connectivity are in place, iFIDS.com remotely manages the rest.”

Such simple technical requirements are ideal for the Bahamas: The country has advanced Internet and cabling capabilities, but there are local challenges getting vendor service. “For airport-specific applications there is not an extensive base of highly-trained IT specialists here. iFIDS is very reliable and requires very limited IT support. IFIDS.com manages any major problems with the servers right at their offices in Thunder Bay. IT requirements are much less than for a conventional system,” Chambers explains.

The only technology an airport requires to support iFIDS, other than the necessary monitors, display driver PCs, CAT 5 and power cabling, is an ordinary computer with an Internet connection. iFIDS.com receives baseline scheduling data from participating carriers and feeds them to its client airports’ iFIDS. Carriers provide “day of” updates when necessary, which iFIDS.com uses to update flight schedules. Carriers can provide these updates from anywhere and staff can log their computers on to the Internet.

The  flexibility iFIDS gives carriers is well appreciated at the Kelowna International Airport, which replaced a FIDS that was at the end of its useful life with iFIDS in May 2005. “Airlines can use their own PCs, meaning there is no more need for [us to provide] a dedicated PC,” says Henry Castorf, Kelowna’s airport duty manager, development.

Kelowna’s iFIDS consists of 14 flat screen monitors and six BIDS – three in the public baggage area and three on the ground handling side. iFIDS also supports the way-finding to and from the gates with eight screens. Eight more screens provide flight information from behind-the-gate counters. The data feed to the iFIDS comes through Shaw Cable into a router, with cabling going to the PCs.

Castorf was happy to see the servers for the old FIDS removed. “Getting the servers out of the airports meant one less thing for us to deal with. The iFIDS server computers are in Thunder Bay. They are responsible for all the maintenance and upgrades. I like that. Any issue we might have, I just make a phone call.”

Castorf also found iFIDS.com to be particularly flexible for the system set-up. “Other vendors told us what our displays would look like. IFIDS.com asked us what we would like our displays to look like. The folk at iFIDS.com were fantastic to deal with from a technical and service point of view.”

Castorf notes that the hosting fees Kelowna pays iFIDS.com are comparable to the monthly maintenance fees vendors would have charged. Too, he says, “iFIDS has lower operating costs, more flexibility for inputting data and from where people can do that.”

The system also drives Aileron, an aviation billing system provided by Aviation InterTec Services. It assigns the landing fees and other charges to the airlines for operating at Kelowna. “Once we have entered aircraft into the iFIDS, this

information automatically goes to Aileron for billing. Otherwise there may have been compatibility or other issues with two different systems communicating,” Castorf explains.

WestJet Airlines started using iFIDS in 2002 as a sole source flight data distribution service provider. iFIDS.com receives WestJet’s scheduling data in bulk and routes them not only to iFIDS-equipped airports served by the airline, but to airports that handle a lot of WestJet flights; at smaller airports WestJet agents enter the flight information manually. In all, the airline uses iFIDS at 20 of the 47 airports with scheduled flight destinations.

“IFIDS improves accuracy and there is less manual work for us at the airport. In the event of a major snowstorm, [iFIDS and] FIDS updates are virtually as quick as the flight dispatch system is updated. It takes some of the pressure off our agents. The customer service boost you get sometimes outweighs the cost. As we grew we found it a better service for our guests and our airport staff. We are happy with the price we are paying,” says Mike Hafichuk, WestJet’s director, guest services, planning.

IFIDS.com is connected to 21 Canadian airports and can distribute any air carrier’s data; for example, it moves data for Northwest and Alaska Airlines for some airports, says Hansen.

On-airport passengers see the usual flight and other information on the monitors. People can also see current flight information on the airports’ websites and even link to the carrier websites. Three airports’ websites also offer flight notification: users can key in the airport, airline, flight number, date and their e-mail address, and iFIDS will automatically e-mail them any flight status changes. Updates can also be text-messaged to cell phones.

The browser-based system gives airports the same flexibility in configuring display form and content (the presentation on the monitors are actual Web pages) that one would have with any Web page. An on-line administration tool lets airports define as many display profiles as they like; e.g., arrivals only, departures only, arrivals and departures, specific airlines/airports or all airlines/airports. The tool is used to create pages, control which displays show what information and when and to upload to the pages any information the airports desire.

Airports can earn advertising revenue with iFIDS just as they would with traditional systems: iFIDS lets them upload and run text, videos and static images at scheduled times and on any display and share page space with any other information they wish. Kelowna has opted not to run ads on its screens, and at Lynden Pindling the FIDS monitors currently carry just flight data. “One of our plans was to walk before we ran. Later, we can add on as we see the need,” Chambers says.

ENTREPRENEURIAL AIRPORT AUTHORITY
The Thunder Bay International Airport Authority (TBIAA) not only co-owns iFIDS.com Inc., it has two other operating subsidiary companies: Sleeping Giant Enterprises Ltd., (SGE) and Thunder Bay Airport Services Inc. (TBAS).

SGE is the Canadian dealer for Boschung maintenance equipment for runways and highways, and technical, parts and training support. Airport equipment includes jet brooms, blowers, spreaders and deicers. SGE recently sold a JetBroom Runway version to Fort McMurray. Other customers include the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and the St. John’s Airport Authority.

“TBAS is primarily our consulting and management company. It operates the Red Lake Airport and we are actively pursuing other small airports that can benefit from our cost effective management methodology. TBAS has also been retained to provide consulting services on such topics as airport and terminal redevelopment, airport economic development and air service development,” explains Scott McFadden, president of iFIDS.com and CEO of  Thunder Bay International Airport.

TBAS provides accounting services to the City of Red Lake for the airport operation, but also offers accounts receivable outsourcing: e.g., it manages the Canadian Coast Guard Western Region billing and receivables.

It also offers fire training in a fossil fuels training area, ranging from simple hot drills to meet the recurrent practical training requirements of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARS 323), to full airport operations specialist (AOS) training;  St. John’s was the first airport to participate in TBAS AOS training.

TBAA also offers an airport billing system called Aileron, which McFadden describes as “the first browser-based aeronautical fees and lease management billing system developed specifically to support the complex and diverse requirements inherent in an airport’s billing process.”


Although iFIDS.com can provide custom solutions, redundant Internet connections, integration with billing functions and other advanced services, a basic package is straightforward, McFadden explains. “The hardware is off-the-shelf. Smaller airports prefer that we purchase the hardware, configure it here and ship it to the airport so it is plug and play.”

This was the case at Kelowna, which will be expanding iFIDS into its new terminal. “Getting the three commercial-grade additional displays was as simple as a single call to iFIDS.com and telling them what we are going to do. They configure the PCs and tell us how to add the monitors. If there are any problems, they handle it,” says Castorf.

Although delivery timetables vary according to a contract’s complexity, a system can be configured and ready to ship in as little as 30 days.

An airport in a hurry to put its new system in operation can operate it over a wireless network and install hard-wiring later, if desired. IFIDS.com provides on-line and phone support. As for local IT requirements, McFadden notes: “If local IT can supply a desktop computer, it can support the iFIDS hardware.”