Case study: Driving technology home

14 Mar 2005

Once considered a gamble, Aircoach is today considered one of the leading private transportation companies in Ireland. In addition to providing a regular service to Dublin Airport from major city hotels it now runs a second airport service from Leopardstown as well as three intercity services to Cork, Portlaoise and Belfast.

While the company has grown, it still remains fairly small employing 150 people including drivers, mechanics, ground staff and back-office staff.

Aircoach has had an internet presence since it began services. Initially, the website was focused on providing static information. For the past nine months, however, customers have been able to use the website to track the position of coaches serving Dublin Airport in real-time and to purchase tickets online.

In co-operation with Textus, the company has introduced an m-ticketing system. Customers can book their ticket over the web. They simply enter their details and their mobile phone number. To prevent fraud the mobile number is sent a text message with a code number that must be entered on the website before the transaction can go ahead.

Customers can also order by phone by talking to a customer service representative, by using an interactive voice-response system or by simply sending a text message. In all cases, the ticket is sent in the form of a picture message of a two-dimensional barcode to the user’s mobile phone. According to Richard Fitzgerald, (pictured) Aircoach’s IT manager, 99pc of mobile phones can receive this message. When they board the coach, passengers place their mobile phone — with the barcode displayed on the screen — on a scanner. The barcode is verified over the GPRS network and, if valid, the ticket is printed out.

According to Fitzgerald, the system is proving very popular especially with overseas clients and travel agents. “There are travel agents in Germany that have bought blocks of m-tickets that they give to their clients to enable them to transfer from the airport to their hotel.”

The other advantages are that it reduces the amount of cash the driver has to carry and it is more efficient, especially for groups. Up to 15 people can be accommodated on a single barcode. “Our aim is to reduce the number of paper tickets by 40pc within a year,” says Fitzgerald. “In some cases it is faster to get on the coach and get seated using this method. It’s the way forward so we are investing a lot of time and effort into it.”

While the global positioning system (GPS) part of the website is useful for those wishing to travel to the airport or who want to meet someone off a coach, the system was originally installed with a view to helping with fleet management.

“When we first started we used radios to determine the position of each coach,” says Fitzgerald. “However, radio was expensive and the coverage around the airport wasn’t great. There were also safety issues. Then as the company expanded from less than 10 vehicles to almost 40 we had an operational need for a new system from the point of view of resource allocation and customer service.”

After investigating the market, the company chose FleetMatics from Commercial Wireless. A GPS receiver tracks the position of each vehicle and this information is relayed back to HQ via a GPRS network. One of the features that make FleetMatics the preferred option was its web interface. Staff can use this to track the position of the fleet in real-time or to generate reports such as where a given coach was at a given time or which route a coach followed and so on. “If customers ring in to complain that they were at the bus stop in Portlaoise at a given time and the bus wasn’t there, we can pull up a record of where the bus was at that time,” says Fitzgerald.

In addition, staff can access the information via a Wap interface on his or her mobile phone to determine the position of each coach. Based on this, decisions about holding buses at the stop or bringing additional buses into service in order to maintain the company’s promise to depart from the airport every 15 minutes can be made.

Customers waiting at a bus stop can call the Aircoach office and receive an update on when the next bus is due. However, the company plans to launch an SMS-based service whereby passengers text the number of their stop to a special number and receive an estimated time for the next bus by return. “We don’t want to deliver anything until it works 100pc,” says Fitzgerald.

The advantages of the system continue when the passenger is on the coach. As the coach approaches a bus stop, a video file is automatically displayed on LCD screens announcing the name of the stop and the hotels it serves. “Passengers love it and the drivers rely on it,” says Fitzgerald.

By David Stewart