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Orlando's automated borders

"We care and we're willing to invest"

We discussed the introduction of ground-breaking Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority’s John Newsome, Director of Information Technology (CIO, pictured left) and John Vinelli, Manager of IT Projects.

Q: What was the border control infrastructure before the introduction of APC kiosks?

JN: It featured the same CBP (Customs and Border Protection) configuration that can be found at airports throughout the US. Arriving passengers queued up to be directed to the next available CBP officer, who checked the visitor’s ID, fingerprints and photo – or who fingerprinted and photographed them if it was their first entry into the country. It could take 3-4 minutes to process each passenger.

US passengers are split off from other arriving visitors. They could be processed faster because CBP did not collect pictures nor fingerprint them. We had a couple of Global Entry kiosks used by returning US citizens but nothing else.

What drove the need for improvement was the fact that we can have a high volume of very large aircraft from Europe arriving during the afternoon and early evening. This overwhelmed the ability of CBP officers to the point that, although they were moving as fast as they could, lines were backing up because another flight would arrive before they’d finished processing the one before.

Not surprisingly, we ended up with a lot of negative comments from arriving passengers and some airlines.

Add to that the further delays we see in the summer because of the vacation schedules for children and families.


Q. How did you go about persuading CBP and then choosing SITA?

JV: We needed to go to APC Phase 3 as fast as possible and not go to the intermediate step of Phase 2 (US and Canadian citizens only). This would involve some major process changes for CBP, including high level approval to change processes and the code in their systems.

An additional challenge for them was that the databases they were interfacing with were not all theirs. Some belonged to other agencies of the federal government.

The development of the document describing the schema was released last September. SITA was the only company with an oven-ready scheme available – but equally important we had worked with them as the first CUPPS development site, so we knew what they could achieve. We started formal testing on 21 January and ended on 29 January and went operational a couple of days later. That was it. It was astonishingly quick and effective.


Q: It’s still too early for specific numbers, but can you provide any anecdotal success since implementation of Phase 3?

JV: Part of the eligibility requirement is that passengers must have been here once before, so that the CBP has fingerprints to compare with. About 25% of passengers are currently eligible to use the kiosk, although we plan to also include the processing of green cards as well as families with children. That will take us to 30-35%.

Instead of 3-4 minutes under the old system, the average time to use the kiosk is 90 seconds. The information is sent to Washington, through multiple databases the CBP has to check, and back to us. A full 747 with 420 passengers is getting through the process in plus or minus 30 minutes, at least about half of what it used to be.

JN: Acceptance of the kiosks by passengers has been outstanding – lots of smiles. The passengers actually feel engaged in moving themselves. They are doing something instead of standing in line and complaining about standing in line. So they feel in control to a greater extent. Our CBP officers have been saying: “Wow these people are smiling!”


Q: How important is the change in the passenger experience for the Orlando region?

JN: This could be a passenger’s first encounter not only with Orlando, but also with the US, so it’s very important that they have a positive experience. Orlando has three key economic drivers. Of course, tourism is huge. Technology is also very strong and growing – including flight simulation and animation connected to the theme parks. The emerging medical research and health services industry is significant,   also including the training of 20,000 doctors a year to use the da Vinci minimally invasive robotic surgery process.  

The community is founded on making people happy, comfortable and safe. That starts at the airport. And it ends at the airport. Making people happy or exceeding the expectations of the traveling public is one of our four primary strategic objectives.  We want to make our airport experience the finest in the world. There is an enormous emphasis placed on the fact that our passengers are our guests and our livelihood.

From a platform of using innovative technology to improve the traveler experience, we’re doing a number of other projects.  We’re developing what we think will be a world class mobile app with indoor navigation and new monitors that provide guidance and one-on-one interaction with guests.

We’re redesigning the entire check-in process. We’re working hard at it and our Board and staff are making the financial investment that supports the success of the projects that provide the ease and convenience that our passengers expect.


Q: Is it in your nature as an airport authority to innovate?

JN: Yes. We’re OK about being on the edge. We’re not taking reckless risks but we are willing to be innovative, where many airports are not. It’s in our nature to want to be first and best. We have tens of millions of dollars we’re spending to completely revamp the check-in area.

We’ve done a lot with baggage handling. We’ve got pilots underway for self-bag tagging. Another first was remote bag check-in so that guests at Walt Disney World and some convention hotels can divest themselves of bags when they check out of the hotel in the morning and they don’t see their bags again until they get home. We were the first to implement that in the US.


Q: And how about your ongoing relationship with CBP?

JN: We’ve always had a good relationship with CBP. If we hadn’t, we would not have been able to go through this experience. They’re delighted because it solved a real problem for them. Critically, they have evidence that we care and we’re willing to invest airport money to make things better.

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