Airports are doing their best to improve the departure and arrival experience, as we all know.
In fact, some airports are falling over themselves to let the industry and passengers know how amazingly connected and tech-savvy they are now – it is, most of these airport execs will argue, an element in the decision-making process of those choosing where to fly from.
That may be the case in cities or regions with multiple airports serving similar destinations, such as London, where there are essentially five airports flying to destinations around Europe (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City).
Ditto the wider New York City area, Paris, Milan, Rome and countless others who fly short or medium haul, often to the same places.
The argument goes that if the airlines are trying to differentiate on price, then the airports should have a go and differentiating on the experience.
London City Airport, as mentioned above, has plenty of competition but is uniquely positioned as being the closest to the financial centre of the UK capital, so targets corporate travellers (63% of total passengers).
What did this actually mean?
In short: security lines would be able to communicate with each other, and then ping travelers’ devices with waiting times. Drivers would know the moment their customers are making the way through the terminal. Food and beverage outlets could offer pre-orders for customers, and automatically begin preparing food as the customer clears security. Auto-rebookings could be enabled for travelers unable to make flights, as determined through their GPS-enabled device.
A year and a half on, LCY says the hi-tech project is starting to have tangible benefits on how passengers move around the terminal and other areas, their ability to interact with the airport and communicate with the outside world.
Speaking at the World Lowcost Airlines Conference in London in September, CEO Declan Collier says the technology, at a basic level via the airport app, is ensuring customers are notified of accurate arrival and departure times, but for example the added extra is that it calculates how long a passenger can stay in their office if there is a delay.
It also “geo-locates” the position of the passenger for services around the airport, such as the ability to order and receive a delivery of retail (such as food) items when they arrive.
Perhaps where the technology really comes into its own is in the “throughput management” of the facility.
Cameras (literally everywhere!) continually count the number of people moving in any given area and open and shut the airport’s passport desks depending on the expected density.
Given the heavy financial services demographic of the customer base, Collier says the airport decided to partner with Bloomberg to create what he claims is the world’s longest “media wall”, essentially ticker-style stream of city updates of stocks and news which flows around the departure area.
Commercially, it has to work, Collier says. Tied in with the app is the ability for services in the airport to target customers based on existing preferences, so relevant promotions are shared with a passenger as they move around the airport or wait in a lounge.
Inevitably, such a service, at scale, needs a lot of collaboration in order for it to work.
Collier says the system required a lot of “trust to get the operability between systems to work” – in other words, technology providers have to work together otherwise it becomes too complicated for the host and not coordinated for the passenger.
Asked if the relatively small size of LCY (70,000 flights and 3.4 million PAX in 2013) is what has allowed such an Internet of Things-type service to be introduced, Collier concedes that “small is good initially”, but airports the size of Dallas-Fort Worth in the US are now considering similar systems.
The technology to do it, not least the multiple cameras required to track passengers, “are actually quite cheap”, he argues.
German giant Frankfurt, which has plenty of long haul passengers to cater for as well as Europeans, says it was worried about the “creepy” factor associated with such a hi-tech system essentially tracking and targeting passengers around the airport.
As a result, for the commercial end of its ultra connected airport project, it has gone into huge detail with its analysis of passenger types and what they are willing to accept in their interactions with the airport.
Erwin Hoffmann, Frankfurt’s head of business development for retail and real estate, says German passengers are “affronted by overly commercial content” on the airport’s mobile apps, so it simply doesn’t target them.
Whereas it has found that Chinese travellers are keen on redeeming coupons and vouchers are retail outlets.