Arrivals, Departures and Everything in Between: GOAA Soars With Speech

We have been designing machines to put humans in flight since Leonardo da Vinci's idea of an ornithopter in 1485.  Like many technologies, flying machines have advanced greatly since then and continue to progress with the passing of each day.  The Orlando International Airport is no exception. Situated on just over 13,000 acres of land, the airport is the third largest in landmass in the U.S.  It has an average of 93,700 passengers traveling on 960 flights per day. Those flights utilize four runways that support as many as three simultaneous takeoffs and landings. The Orlando International Airport is managed and governed by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA), which has a staff of over 600 full time employees.

Orlando International has been named "Airport with Best Customer Service Airport-wide" by Airport Revenue Magazine for the past three years.  According to J.D. Power and Associates, it was also ranked number one in the nation and number two in the world in passenger satisfaction for 2004. As testament to these efforts, Orlando International has the nation's first and only Registered Traveler program (CLEAR) that enables travelers to be pre-screened and approved using biometrics to expedite the standard security screens.  Its latest customer-service improvement is the implementation of a voice-activated 511 travel-information system. 

America's travel information telephone number is 511. It will replace and consolidate an estimated 300 travel information telephone numbers across the country[1].  The 511 system collects real-time information from Intelligent Transportation Systems and delivers it to travelers and commuters.  The Federal Communications Commission assigned "511" to the transportation community on July 21, 20001.  The statewide 511 system in Florida is voice-activated and understands North American English in most common accents. It intercepts about 3,500 calls per day which the system then transfers and/or assists callers to get the information that they are seeking.  Since speech technology is the preferred method of access for 511, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority determined that the best way to transition to and share information with the statewide system would be through the implementation of speech.

You Test and Then You Tune

Aside from the necessity to function smoothly with the 511 system, the Authority's main goal for implementing the speech application was to continue to improve and expand its customer services.  Before going live with speech, the Authority internally tested the system by having its executives call into the application and go through each service that was going to be provided. One of the first comments that they received concerned the perceived "awkwardness" of the system's pronunciation of digit sequences. Two IT staff members (both male) from the Authority recorded their own voices for the system, so when they received suggestions to make the numbers sound more steady and monotone - the voice talent was readily available to re-record the numbers. Once the cadence for the tone and delivery of the numbers was smoothed out, the Authority went an extra step and recorded dollars and cents which are currently not used in the system, but will be available in the future should that change. The system also had difficulty recognizing different dialects, thick accents and broken English. Using this information, the Authority tweaked the system to expand the grammar recognition rates.  The system was set up to recognize English and Spanish, so the tuning had to be applied to both languages. With these changes in place, they resumed the internal testing and received positive feedback from the Authority's executives. The Authority proceeded with the implementation and was able to stay on schedule for deployment. The Authority is continuing to monitor and tweak the recognition capabilities of the system to enlarge its acceptance for vocal responses. 

As with many technologies, there were challenges during implementation. The biggest challenge for the Authority was making sure the system was flexible enough to handle the constantly changing traffic reports and flight updates.  To solve this issue, the Authority designed the application to interface directly with the airlines databases so that as each airline updated the flight information, it automatically updated the Authority's 511 application. The system will soon be undergoing a transition as the Orlando International Airport is planning to re-do its flight information system transferring/replacing some of it terminal monitors and systems.  The Authority plans to monitor the system during this time to ensure consistent data and customer service.

How Speech Works for the GOAA

In the Authority's system, callers dial 511 and listen to prompts. These prompts lead callers to various areas of interest, in this case, the Orlando International Airport.  As one option in the main 511 system, the Orlando International Airport offer callers information concerning flight arrivals/departures, parking, emergency messages, directions to the airport, and public safety/convenience.  The information is dynamically pulled from the Orlando International's Web site and relayed to the 511 system by leveraging the airport's existing HTML demons, Web interfaces and XML in conjunction with Nortel's Media Processing Server 500.  The flight arrivals/departures are updated simultaneously with the Web site so that all information is consistently distributed to customers.  Callers can call in and request parking availability, instructions and handicap availability using their own voice. 

A caller can also get directions to the airport from just about any place in Florida by speaking the general direction of his/her point of origin into the system, which then uses pre-recorded directions to respond to the requested point of origin and to give verbal instructions to the caller. If the caller is to the "North," the system pulls information related to that area to direct callers to the airport. It works on a polar basis (i.e. - North, South, East, or West) instead of using precise addresses so that the system remains fairly accurate no matter where you are. In the event of an emergency, recording capabilities are available to authorized personnel.  Travelers can get instant updates about accidents on airport property as well as emergency procedures using the speech recognition system. 

The system does not offer callers the option to zero-out as it is designed to be purely informational and travel agents are available at the airport to assist in the purchase/discount/refund of airline tickets and membership miles. However, callers can back out of the system to the main 511 application to access other features such as traffic updates on roadways and expressways in Central Florida. While planning his/her route, the caller can get updates on traffic conditions to determine an alternate course or to allow for more time. This system is overseen by the Department of Transportation and the Expressway Authority.

The Authority's system has met its initial goal by simply extending the offering from the Web to the phone giving travelers to Orlando International Airport the ability to check on the status of flights before arrival and providing them with the latest information on traffic conditions leading to and from the airport.


The main 511 system for Central Florida receives an average of 100,000+ calls per month with an average of 3,300 to 3,600 calls requesting transfer each month.  Of these transfer requests, approximately 10 percent are requests for transfer to Orlando International's system.  In February, the 511 system transferred approximately 335 calls of 3,308 total transfers to Orlando International. The number of transfers to Orlando International held steady for March at 334 calls of a total 5,563 transfers.  April's numbers as of mid-month show an increase with 226 calls of a total of 3,020 transfers with another half month to go. 

In terms of customer acceptance for the programs and satisfaction with services, the Authority uses information pulled from the Internet to gauge how their customers feel about Orlando International and the emphasis placed on customer service. This information is provided by LogicTree who monitors incoming calls to the main 511 system as well as the Authority's branch off the system. The Authority also gets feedback for all forms of customer service on its Web site via feedback forms, comment cards, email and various other available forms.  The system is still too new to gain specific customer acceptance numbers and percentages, so most of the impressions are gathered from the increasing call volumes and low drop rates.

Looking Ahead

The Authority is continuing to monitor the system for any tuning requirements, such as the dialect/accent recognition capabilities, as well as the number of incoming calls to Orlando International's section of 511. The quantity of incoming calls requesting transfer to the system are monitored and provided by Global 5 Communications on a regular basis.  The Authority is also looking for new ways to use speech to enhance customer service and efficiency at the airport. Perhaps, they will find a use for the dollars and cents after all.

Stay tuned: Speech Technology Magazine will have another story in the July/August edition regarding the use of speech in an airport setting as it reports on Continental Airline's deployment which automated some its informational calls previously handled by live agents.

Stephanie Owens is the associate editor for Speech Technology Magazine. She can be reached at stephanie@amcommpublications.com.


[1] Online Serial. Florida 511 Travel Information. Retrieved March 27, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.fl511.com/infopages.asp?infotype=about

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