Frontier Airlines knows that its customers are quite enamored with the animals pasted on the tails of its aircraft. With help from Denver International, the carrier now hopes to bring that brand recognition inside the airport.

Coming soon at select gates, Frontier will give curious passengers in the boarding area a preview of the animal on which they'll be riding long before the plane arrives. The tail art and other useful information, like the three-day weather forecast at the destination, will accompany the usual destination and departure time information on airport-provided 40-in. LCD displays mounted on the walls behind the gate podiums. Most of the existing 100 gates at DEN currently are equipped with red LED podium signs that scroll information ticker-tape style.

Customized gate information display systems are one aspect of a broader IT initiative aimed at evolving the airport's flight, gate and baggage information and other information-driven systems. In the process, DEN is merging previously disparate databases into a single new Airport Operational Database and rolling out high-tech dynamic displays and other dissemination technologies.

By having access to a wide range of information, the airport is predicting that the resulting system not only will give airlines more creative ways to make the boarding area memorable from a brand standpoint but will allow passengers and businesses to use all aspects of the airport more efficiently, even if they're not physically there.

Denver's newfound focus on the customer is being driven by several factors, including the growing popularity of brand-free electronic boarding passes, travelers' expectations of a ubiquitous information environment and the inevitable lapses in customer service created by increasingly lean airline staffing. "Some of the things the airlines used to do, the airport is having to pick up," says Jim Miller, IT supervisor at DEN. "We feel the need to beef up the information we present with dynamic signage on the concourses." While the airport is not yet certain what ultimate form and function its enhanced IT infrastructure will take, it knows that certain sectors are ripe for an information boost.

On the concourses, additional information coming soon will include local ski area conditions and information on where and when to catch a shuttle bus to resorts. A portable monitor recently was installed to display schedules for Colorado Mountain Express, a ground transportation company, on a trial basis. The shuttles are big business in the mile-high city: Miller says about 400,000 people per year use the services from the airport to the ski resorts and back. Another useful service, he says, might be a display that gives passengers a preferred time to navigate through security during a slump rather than a peak.

Airlines are interested in enhanced visual displays at the gate in part because the boarding area is their last chance to imprint a brand image, particularly for passengers who have printed their own boarding passes, Miller says. Programmable displays also will be a more cost-efficient tool for common-use airline gates for obvious reasons.

In the baggage claim area, which he says has become the de facto meet-and-greet area in the post-9/11 era, travelers are asking for additional information as well. For passengers picking up bags, enhanced displays might include details of local transportation services. For greeters, a useful upgrade would be enhanced flight information display system monitors that show all of the flights that have arrived in the past 30 min. He says the airport already has FIDS in the baggage area but greeters continue to ask details about arriving flights.

Equally important are business needs. Miller says rental car companies have been asking how they might get access to FIDS for their customers at off-airport locations, helping renters assess how quickly they need to get back to the airport. Other nearby businesses have expressed an interest in having the airport install common-use FIDS kiosks in their facilities so travelers can plan their schedules better, possibly spending more time shopping or eating. Miller notes that the kiosks could be a potential revenue generator for the airport from as far away as the mountains: Ski resorts are interested in the idea as a way for their patrons to monitor flight status and complete remote check-in. At this point it's not clear whether DEN ultimately would charge for the services, and if so how much, he adds.

It's not just in Denver where information-rich kiosks are a hot item. Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in January signed a contract with Impart Media Group to install the company's interactive information terminals airportwide. Impart earlier signed a contract with the Port of Seattle to install the devices at Sea-Tac. Impart's 42-in. touchscreen kiosks will display three content areas: Ticker-tape-style messages across the top showing airport-created text messages, time and weather information; an area in the middle for programmed digital shows or advertising graphics tailored to the particular audience, and a touchscreen information section at the bottom used for self-serve access to directories, maps to restaurants and stores in the airport and city-based information, including special offers. The kiosks will be connected to other airports and the company's private network.

At Denver, where the airport has decided to keep ownership of the IT infrastructure, Miller says local businesses are very interested in advertising on the new displays but approvals could be sticky because Clear Channel Communications has the rights to advertising on walls and displays throughout the facility, while AT&T Cingular owns the wireless rights within the airport.

Key to ushering in the new technologies at DEN will be the AODB. Previously, much of the airport's information has been divided into "silos," a nonoptimal situation, explains Les Berry, senior IT systems analyst. As an example, he says airlines currently have to deliver their flight information to the FIDS department and also to the gate control group. The new system will be set up as a hub-and-spoke with the AODB as the hub, he explains. Information entered at any point on the "wheel" will be accessible anywhere. "It's a distributed system, so everyone gets the information they need when they need it." Miller says the first iteration of the AODB will be completed this quarter, forging connections among the FIDS, GIDS and other databases.

Denver's IT group comprises 30 employees, two data centers and more than 100 servers. Within the group, the passenger information service group includes nine employees working both FIDS and security.

At the moment the airport has 10 new-generation GIDS LCD displays at various Frontier and United Express gates. Early in the design, Miller talked to both airlines about the types of display systems they were dreaming up for airports and used those ideas to build the DEN system. He explains that airlines typically pay for their own displays in the boarding area. Currently, the new GIDS shows within 4 hr. of a flight the airline's logo or other graphics, a gate designator and in some cases standby and other information that the airline makes available. Outside the 4-hr. window the monitors display a default image.

Above all, Miller says DEN is striving to design and build a technology infrastructure capable of delivering the wide variety of information that passengers, airlines and businesses will come to expect. "For us, it's not just about the airport anymore," he comments, adding that 2-3 years from now that could mean delivering FIDS information to a cafe just at the edge of the airport property so that passengers there can know whether they have time for one more cup of coffee. "The idea is to get the information to the customers in ways that work for them," he concludes.