Four years ago, Auckland Airport realised a big problem was building in its international check-in areas.
Near double-digit growth in passenger numbers was taking off, the arrival of eight new airlines in a short period and a sharp expansion in the number of routes meant international check-in wasn't the experience travellers wanted. And check-in came after what was often a tough trip to the airport on increasingly congested roads.
By 2017, with the "golden age of travel'' well under way and the airport years away from making a call on expanding its terminal, it had limited options. It had to make the best of the space it had.
Auckland Airport started looking for a technology and hardware solution that would increase passenger check-in speed and improve the passenger experience, without requiring capital works to increase terminal capacity.
The solution needed to allow for common use of check-in facilities to maximise the existing floor space and not leave check-in desks and kiosks sitting idle.
Air New Zealand had pioneered check-in kiosks throughout its international and domestic operation but other airlines were not so quick in adopting the technology. The Kiwi airline now has 48 of the machines at Auckland.
The airport company chose to work with Elenium Automation, a Melbourne-based provider of automation software and hardware for the aviation industry, to help ease congestion.
The airport started deploying common-use kiosks in 2015 and now has 120 of the machines. They are battery powered, so they are portable. And according to Elenium, they're rugby tackle-proof.
General manager operations at the airport, Anna Cassels-Brown, says her company and airlines love them.
''We know that customers always value control over their journey,'' she says.
She worries that too often passengers are being carried along on a process over which they have little control. Kiosks are also in other New Zealand airports and have been adopted around the world, though they don't completely replace check-in staff, especially for passengers with higher needs.
''We're never not going to have human beings assisting with that journey but there are so many upsides,'' says Cassels-Brown.
During this last summer peak, the average recorded check-in and bag drop time dropped from 20 minutes to 8.5 minutes.
The common-use kiosks — where a variety of airline logos are displayed on-screen — mean that Auckland Airport can move the kiosks to whatever airline is departing at a particular time, meaning more check-in points for every flight.
This means each passenger gets more time to shop and eat and get through processing with more time to spend airside before boarding their flight.
That ''dwell time'' is crucial for the airport, whose retail income far outstrips what it makes from landing charges.
Cassels-Brown says 73 per cent of passengers used kiosks during the summer peak and customers were clearly preferring them.
The airport has a target of 90 per cent of passengers using them by 2022. ''We are closing in on that, particularly as we encourage new airlines to get into the kiosk programme,'' she says.
While the rate of passenger growth during the last full year has dropped to 4.7 per cent, there were still 10.2 million international travellers during the year to June 30.
The airport wants to expand its kiosk rollout to the domestic terminal and is investigating automated bag drops at the international terminal for other airlines besides Air New Zealand, which began deploying them in 2005.
At present, passengers on other airlines using a kiosk must take their bags up to the counter.
''It's a little bit challenging because of the different ground handlers - everybody in the airport system wants this, and to be able to scale it up as well,'' says Cassels-Brown.
While the airport wants to make it easier for passengers to get to the shops, the kiosk maker wants to make it easier for them to spend when they get there.
Aaron Hornlimann, chief executive and co-founder of Elenium, says the company is working on technology that would allow passengers to have a ''conversation'' with a duty-free virtual wall, which would recognise them, and have their purchases automatically delivered to their room in their next destination, via a local supplier.
This would save weight on planes.
The company is also working on artificial intelligence, which allows passengers to check in at home, take a picture for their biometric signature and when they get to the airport, drop their bag rather than going to a kiosk and printing off a bag tag. Bags will have a unique ''fingerprint''.
Hornlimann says Auckland is a springboard for its rollout of kiosks around the world. By the end of the year it would have about 1000 globally.
He says they have to be built tough. ''If a kiosk ever got rugby tackled, it switches itself off - those are the issues we've had to work on.''
His company competes against other, bigger global firms including Bolloré, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Rockwell Collins and SITA, which has 10,000 kiosks around the world.
In September, Queenstown Airport will install three common-use self-service check-in pods with 15 Elenium kiosks for travellers on Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia.
It will be Elenium's first customer globally to implement its ''end to end'' solution, enabling it to cut passenger congestion by up to 60 per cent.
Auckland Airport has a 24.9 per cent stake in Queenstown Airport.
Wellington Airport has 12 check-in kiosks from IER and has another six ready to bring into service. These kiosks have effectively increased the check-in throughput capacity for Singapore Airlines and Qantas passengers by about 50 per cent. The airport has seven automated bag drops which it says have ''significantly enhanced'' the passenger experience.
What passengers want
A global survey by aviation consultants OAG found that for nearly every part of an air traveller's journey, respondents express a preference for human customer service to technology automation. That includes baggage (54 per cent human vs 46 per cent automation), security (55 per cent to 45 per cent), boarding (64 per cent to 36 cent), and in-flight services (80 per cent to 20 per cent).
Check-in kiosks were the big exception in the survey of 2000 people. A significant majority of travellers said they preferred automation when it comes to ticketing (66 per cent automation to 34 per cent human) and check-in (68 per cent automation to 32 per cent human).