Skyxe Saskatoon Expands Use of Common-Use Systems

Skyxe Saskatoon Expands Use of Common-Use Systems
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 

Stephen Maybury, president and chief executive officer of Skyxe Saskatoon Airport (YXE), aptly proclaimed 2020 a year of “resilience and fortitude.” At the low point in April, passenger volume at YXE was off fully 98%, and it remained down 69% through year-end.

However, as the entire industry reeled from the hit delivered by COVID-19, the Saskatchewan-based airport readied itself for travel to resume by finishing a $21 million project to integrate a comprehensive common-use platform. In addition to optimizing the check-in process for passengers, the project also eliminated the need to physically expand the check-in hall.

Previously, some airlines servicing YXE had manual check-in operations while others were automated. Now, all of them (Air Canada, WestJet and multiple charter carriers) use shared equipment, including counters, check-in terminals/kiosks and bag drops.


Project: Departures Hall Renovation/Common-Use Systems

Location: Skyxe Saskatoon Airport, Saskatchewan

Scope: 50 common-use terminal equipment workstations; 36 common-use self-service kiosks; 4 self-service bag drop systems; associated facility renovations

Cost: $21 million

Funding: Saskatoon Airport Authority

Architect: IBI Group

Planning: Airbiz

Construction: PCL

Common-Use Consultant: Aerodata IT

Kiosks & Self-Service Bag Drops: 

Common-Use Terminal Equipment & Passenger Processing: Materna IPS

Virtual Reality Presentation: 
Kindrachuk Agrey Architecture

Baggage Handling Technology: Glidepath

Timeline: Preliminary planning started in fall 2017; construction began in 2018; common-use terminal equipment & passenger processing equipment was operational in 2019; self-serve bag drops installed at end of 2020

It was a big change to transition all facets of the check-in process to common use—especially since most of the project occurred while the airport remained fully operational, at pre-pandemic traffic levels of about 1.5 million passengers per year.

Kicking It Off

The project began in 2016, when a new master plan with an outlook to 2040 revealed that YXE needed to fortify its check-in area. Shaun Grinde, manager of Airport Development for XYE, explains that the airport was out of room in the terminal, and building out into the apron space would have been costly. Instead, the project team focused on technology-based solutions: common-use self-service check-in kiosks and bag drops.

Andrew Leeming, vice president of operational excellence for the Saskatoon Airport Authority, notes that it was an opportune time to make the change, especially for baggage handling.

“Our existing baggage system was 10 years old, and we had outgrown it,” says Leeming. “CATSA [Canadian Air Transport Security Authority] had a three-level bag drop requirement, and we were one of the last to implement it. We had the benefit of learning a lot of lessons from what had been done before us.”

The first order of business was to create a common-use road map. Airbiz, the consulting firm leading YXE’s master planning, agreed that leveraging technology was the best way to free up valuable real estate and facilitate better workflows.

“The Saskatoon airport had a small space to work with, and they were looking for efficiencies,” says Kerr Lammie, an Airbiz director. “At that stage, they had a common-use platform isolated to certain areas, including the boarding system and baggage handling. They wanted to realize the benefits of common use across the platform.”

Airbiz and Aerodata IT worked with airport management to establish a clear vision, set business objectives, roll out tasks, provide technical support requirements and write specifications for a new common-use system.

“We started looking at ideas and benchmarked different types of check-in products,” says Karl McGrath, a senior manager with Airbiz. “Then, we presented ideas on the types of equipment they’d need, setting the goalposts.”

From there, the team developed a 12-month design arc. Airbiz provided an overview of how two-step check-in systems work around the world and counseled airport officials to set parameters for traffic of more than 1 million passengers, which was typical at YXE before the pandemic hit. To improve traffic flow and make the departures hall feel more open, the airport relocated 22 airline offices to a previously undeveloped area on the main floor. 

Piecing It All Together

Leeming recruited Aerodata IT, an airport information technology consulting company from Vancouver, for the project after seeing a 2018 white paper about common use written by Sam Ong, the firm’s principal. 

“Our team flew out there to interview stakeholders in order to understand their existing challenges, culminating in the creation of the detailed RFP requirements,” Ong says. “Several vendors responded, and we were able to summarize [the airport’s options] by price point, ability to meet goals and so on. It was a very tight schedule and we wanted to be sure that the client and vendor continued to have a solid relationship for the life of the contract.”

The airport chose Embross to provide 36 self-service kiosks and two to four self-service bag drop stations. Leeming and his team felt the Toronto-based company had a cost-effective solution, and heard positive feedback about the equipment from neighboring airports in Ottawa and Calgary. Materna IPS was selected to install 50 common-use terminal equipment stations to support the airlines’ needs throughout the terminal.

Together, the team developed a comprehensive plan that detailed how the system would be implemented. Establishing a timeline for the rollout required careful examination of airline schedules—locally and at headquarters—to determine when and how to perform testing and training. Convincing the airlines to give up their own kiosks for common-use self-service kiosks was another key factor. The plan also reviewed passenger flow to determine the best locations for self-service bag drops. 

“The airport authority had a solid vision from the get-go as to what they wanted to achieve,” says Ong. “That focus helped us greatly to precisely craft a detailed RFP for all common-use systems and their support requirements, and that was a big chunk we got out of the way. Sometimes clients are unsure of what they’re trying to achieve, and that creates a larger challenge.”

Soliciting Support

At first, not all of the airlines were on board with the proposed changes. Common sticking points included giving up counter space and taking on operational challenges. Leeming notes that one of the main carriers at the airport initially opted out of the self-serve bag drop stations because it didn’t feel the time and cost it would require made sense at an airport the size of YXE. But the pandemic, and the project team’s collaborative approach, eventually brought it and other reluctant carriers around.

“You have to do your homework to demonstrate you’re doing the heavy lifting and give the airlines an opportunity for buy-in,” says Leeming. “It takes a fair amount of time going back and forth.”

Part of the back and forth was a simulation exercise to show how the proposed system would improve business operations. The team also informed airlines that they would be able to use YXE and its support team as an in-house information technology provider/troubleshooter, thus saving them time, money and stress.

“When we positioned the utilization of the space and shared the simulation data with the airlines, we were able to demonstrate that we could save a lot of money by avoiding construction on the apron,” says Leeming. “Also, at an airport our size, it’s difficult for airlines to respond to IT problems; they would have to fly people in to address them. With this system, we proposed relief to that burden with local staff.”

At that time, none of the airlines had tech staff on site. So when kiosks broke down, a carrier might have to wait hours or days for someone to fix it. The airport authority implementing a service-level agreement with the airlines and each system provider supports quality for everyone, notes Ong. 

Engineering Success

IBI Group, architect of record for the project, was responsible for overseeing the construction side, and Aerodata IT worked directly with the airport on the common-use IT systems and the design of a new common-use network infrastructure. The airport authority continued to be the main facilitator and informed vendors when to prepare for installation. In the background, IBI Group conducted studies about capacity, passenger flow, bags movement rates, etc. and created a preliminary concept and construction rollout plan.

“We began discussions about a year before a shovel hit the ground,” Leeming advises. “It had to be well phased to minimize the impact to operations.”

To facilitate coordination, the airport led monthly operations meetings, held bi-weekly construction meetings and initiated separate consultations with the safety committee and airlines to cover issues such as flight planning and passenger processing. McGrath notes that it’s crucial to make sure you’re “knitting all the pieces together” when making major changes like this.

The project was phased with construction in three areas: the baggage room, departure hall and airline offices wing. New offices for airline operations were constructed in an unused terminal area, which enabled the departure hall to be enlarged.

During construction, daily baggage screening was temporarily relocated to enable the old conveyor system to be demolished in the baggage room and the new CATSA Level 3 screening equipment to be installed. This included new conveyors to the check-in desks. Finally, the departure hall area was renovated in three phases, allowing check-in operations to continue throughout construction.

The age of the existing facilities and the fact that the departure hall occupied areas of three building expansions created challenges for the project team.

“It was a bit of a shoehorning exercise,” remarks IBI Group Project Manager Ken Pugsley. “Any time you renovate an older building, you have to bring it up to code, including architectural function, mechanical and electrical systems. We’ve all seen home improvement shows when they open up something old—you never know what you’ll find.”

Speaking from YXE’s perspective, Grinde notes that the terminal building envelope was established for the three construction projects, and the architects and engineers got creative and designed renovations that were constructible and allowed airport operations to continue. The general contractor provided expertise in working with existing buildings and found solutions to many of the obstacles, he adds.

Virtual Reality

During the concept planning process and design phases, Airbiz created simulation models to help airport officials visualize the best way to incorporate common-use elements into the terminal. Highlighting points of congestion and areas of concern helped all parties understand the value and visualize the potential results, explains Lammie. The goal was to shore up the IT strategy for the check-in hall and determine where carriers would operate. The team studied entry points at the curb, sightlines to the check-in area, passenger flow inside the terminal, locations of specific carrier operations and more.

“Kindrachuk Agrey Architecture provided a virtual reality program equipped with VR glasses to allow people to see first-hand what the space would look like, and Airbiz provided the passenger traffic simulations,” explains Grinde. “This was useful to allow our partners to walk through the space before it was built.”

Lammie notes that terminal simulations are effective ways to provide airport management with proof of concept and dynamically test passenger flow. “In the simulation, we diagram where the points are that people stop and orient themselves,” he explains. “We simulate a peak hour demand using data from the airport or other sources.”

IBI Group and Aerodata worked closely with Airbiz to complete the simulation. For instance, Pugsley used the passenger simulation to determine the volumes, timing and waves for baggage processing.

“There were originally 10 auto bag drops, and we got that down to four. We also determined how to divide the desks, remote terminals and more,” he explains, noting that the iterative approach required architectural and IT personnel to work together.

What’s in a Name?

Saskatoon Airport Authority recently adopted a new name for its facility by adding Skyxe (pronounced “sky ex ee”) before Saskatoon Airport.

SK is the postal abbreviation for Saskatchewan, the province where the airport is located;

SKY is a reference to the area’s clean air and clear views of the Northern Lights; and

XYE is the airport’s same three-letter identifier, which passengers, pilots and airlines were already accustomed to.

The airport’s new logo features an ascending stroke connecting two dots. The stroke symbolizes the uplifting experience YXE works to offer passengers, and the dots represent departure and arrival points. The green and blue color scheme denotes Saskatchewan’s natural resources and environmental conscience.

Lammie notes that in the U.S., carriers often want to use their own equipment and branding, but Canadian and European airports have an airport-centric approach when considering common use as a solution. That said, the strategy is increasingly gaining wider acceptance at U.S. airports, he adds. Common-use systems empower airports to coordinate the use of counters at different times of day for different airlines and also require smaller areas for check-in, which dovetails with the trend of more passengers using smartphones to check in.

“Fewer people need to interface with the check-in counter because they are checking in using their devices,” Lammie says. “It serves passengers, the airlines and the airport to allow for a more flexible approach to check-in. Putting in more check-in counters with a bigger footprint would not have been the most efficient way to move forward.”

Great Time to Go Touchless

The new kiosks at YXE allow passengers to check in by scanning boarding passes stored on their own cellphones and other devices.

“The pandemic has caused technology to move toward the touchless trend,” Lammie observes. “In the past, we presented these ideas to airports in the name of efficiency and flexibility and additional capacity. Now, health and security with biometrics are finding their way into the conversation.”

Ong adds that restructuring check-in has optimized the airport’s footprint. “YXE now has the flexibility to allocate airlines throughout the check-in hall to ensure each has the necessary space to operate with social distancing measures, additional to being able to accommodate more airlines within the same footprint, ” he says. “Furthermore, the airport’s vision of having self-service bag drop units was so timely, especially with today’s restrictions and the move to go touchless. A passenger can walk up to a unit, scan their phone without touching anything, check in and drop their bags with minimal contact.”

McGrath sees this as a model that similar size airports may want to emulate. With common-use systems such as YXE’s, airports that are cash-strapped or space-constrained can get more out of their facilities without having to build, he explains. 

“Passengers very much like the changes. And with self-service bag drop, they are able to use a touchless system, which is good for the airlines,” Pugsley adds. “By employing common use, the airport has the ability to reallocate counter space.”

That’s a big factor for YXE. “We increased our circulation space by 40%, and we got it done in the same footprint we already had,” Leeming summarizes. “We think the results came out really well. That extra space has been invaluable.”

Moreover, he expects the benefits to last. “I think we saved ourselves 10 years because we won’t have to touch this area again anytime soon. It moved our horizon and had trickle-down effects we’re still realizing,” he reflects.

Today, passengers can see at a glance which check-in stations and kiosks are available, and the streamlined ticketing desks in the bright-white hall are soothingly uniform. As traffic returns to normal, YXE will be ready.


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