The system, developed by IBM and Arinc, a communications and engineering firm, is based on a new industry software standard called "CUSS", or common-use self-service.
Passengers will be able to access many different airlines' self-service check-in applications from a single kiosk. Air Canada is the first airline to use the kiosks for its Express Check-in. However, the Vancouver International Airport Authority expects several other airlines to add their check-in systems to the kiosks during the next few years.
Kevin Molloy, vice-president of IT for the airport authority, said the cost savings are massive. Findings from a study conducted by his office in 2000 revealed that to continue supporting the airport's projected passenger load would require an additional 145 check-in counters at a cost of $1m (£640,000) each. That cost would, eventually, be recouped from the airlines, he added.
Vancouver International is the second-largest international passenger gateway on the West Coast and Canada's second-busiest airport, with more than 15 million passengers and 274,400 takeoffs and landings last year.
"If each airline were to bring in their own kiosk, they may actually turn into obstacles to processing passengers," Molloy said.
By the end of the year, the airport authority also plans to install some of the new kiosks in its parking areas and at kerbside valet parking locations, allowing passengers to check in before entering the airport's terminals. The Vancouver Airport's kiosks may also be installed in locations such as hotel lobbies and cruise ship terminals.
Rob Ranieri, e-access practice lead for IBM Self-Service Group, said it would be difficult to provide a common cost figure for a kiosk because they are custom built.
However, he said that the shared costs spread across multiple airlines now makes remote check-in services accessible to smaller airlines that could not justify the upfront hardware costs and maintenance costs of doing it on their own. The switch for Air Canada was relatively easy because the airline had already offered its own self-service kiosk.
But for airlines that do not offer self-service kiosks, the shift can be time-consuming and expensive, he said. "It's a significant development effort," said Ranieri. "It's going to take some effort to write a new application. But it's worth the investment because they can deploy applications and share the costs of hardware and maintenance, including paper replenishment and monitoring of hardware performance."
Gartner analyst Bob Goodwin said the idea of a common-access kiosk has been around for years but never caught on. He said IBM, Arinc, Air Canada and Airports Council International (ACI) have participated in CUSS technical development activities for the IATA since 1998.
"They key here is that multiple airlines can use it, and that reduces the costs to the airport and the airlines by getting by with fewer kiosks," said Goodwin. "This is probably an important thing to be doing in these tough economic times."
The new kiosks also hold the potential for dramatic improvements in customer experience, particularly for frequent fliers, said Goodwin. Frequent fliers can now bypass some of the long lines at counters, which in turn would drive out labour costs from behind the counter, he said.
However, the number of other airlines that will advantage of the new technology is unclear. The economic downturn in the airline industry, spurred by 11 September, has forced some airlines to put on hold the software integration work needed to make their corporate systems compliant with the new CUSS standard, said Molloy.
Compliance is not a technical challenge, he said, but strictly a financial one. "Airline systems are big monolithic chunks of software, and to make changes to them is not cheap," he added.
The possibilities for both improved flying experience and cost reductions for airlines are now endless, particularly with Vancouver's plan to deploy the kiosks outside of the airport, said Goodwin.