McCarran Las Vegas Airport gives a whole new meaning to the word slots: there are 1,300 of them all over the airport – slot machines, that is – and every day thousands of departing passengers can and do ride their luck right up to the moment the gate is called.
The commission earned from these machines helped McCarran decide to initiate free Wi-Fi access across its 2,000,000m² property, which today, two years later, is still the world’s largest single Wi-Fi installation.
Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's assistant director of aviation, information systems, says: "There was a lot of thinking behind the Wi-Fi project, not just from a technology standpoint, but from a business model as well.
"After looking at a dizzying number of models, we realised that at the end of the day the dollars and cents that we could earn were frankly not that large. But the more we thought about it, the more we felt Wi-Fi was an important customer service that we could provide, and we are very customer service-driven. Last year we won the JD Powers Award for Overall Customer Satisfaction.
"And we pay more than lip service to that. Given that a trip to Las Vegas is such a discretionary travel buy, we want to make sure that it is a very positive experience for our customers."
Ingalls adds that in the light of all the post-9/11 travel difficulties, including the challenges of security screening, the airport decided that offering free Wi-Fi would differentiate it, particularly in the minds of US travellers.
McCarran researched widely, but found few clear answers about introducing Wi-Fi into an airport. Therefore, despite careful planning, the system has thrown up surprises, most of them pleasant.
The Wi-Fi system was provided by Aruba at a cost of some $80,000. There is an annual maintenance charge of $10,000 and the monthly subscription for a 10MB connection is $1,500. There is also the cost of the helpdesk, but therein lay the first surprise.
"We weren't sure what the helpdesk call volume would be," explains Ingalls. "Once we had offered the service, we had set an expectation and we thought our customers would be more upset if it didn't work than if we had not offered it in the first place."
Thousands of cards with basic instructions and the helpdesk number were printed and as a fall-back option, a call centre service was hired and set up in case the helpdesk was overwhelmed.
Ingalls says: "What we found out right from the start was that there was really minimal call volume. I am not sure of the maximum numbers of calls we had in a week, but I don’t think we even went into double digits." The initial calls, Ingalls adds, were invaluable, since they enabled the system to be fine-tuned, reconfiguring some ports and adding some additional access points.
McCarran's Wi-Fi did not go live until January 2005, but it was actually turned on the previous October. "It was amazing," Ingalls recalls. "The afternoon we flicked the switch, we were almost immediately getting 15 to 20 users as people's laptops picked up that there was a signal. We had customers from the get-go."
He admits that in focusing on the benefit they were giving their customers just by offering free Wi-Fi, they failed to appreciate another advantage. "Folks were pleased with how much more productive they could be by just flipping open the laptop in the 20 or 30 minutes before their flight," he says. "They were being immediately connected, rather than having to sign up for an account or look for an account, trying to find a password and going through all the normal rigmarole. We hadn’t foreseen this benefit and we have heard it loud and clear from our customers."
The McCarran Wi-Fi does in fact come with a sponsorship flash page that directs browsers to a specific link, but once that has happened users are free to go wherever they want. The airport is still looking at how it can best package the sponsorship and make additional revenue. According to Ingalls: "We have done some initial convention-type sales, but the bottom line is that it really must be unobtrusive to the customer."
Las Vegas may still be largely a leisure destination, with travellers arriving in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, but Ingalls says the airport also has to cater for the sharp-suited business people arriving for the many conferences and conventions the city hosts. "These are folks who may be on the road 250 days a year. Travel is their life, so our challenge here at the airport is to serve both ends of the travel spectrum." In addition, leisure travellers are increasingly using computers or PDAs and expect and welcome Wi-Fi connectivity.
Another surprise for Ingalls and his team was the demand for Wi-Fi in the arrivals area, where they initially did not set up any connectivity. "Our thinking was we have people jumping off their flights and their sole focus is to get their bag and get into town," he says, "so we concentrated on departure and gate-hold areas.
We have since found that a lot of people work on the plane and the first thing that they want to do when they get off the plane is actually send that information. So we have now put in some seating down in the baggage claim hall and you will see people sitting there working on their laptops while they are waiting for their baggage to come up."
The impact of the service has gone even further than expected. "I have also been told by passengers that they sit down in the arrivals area and get their work done so that when they get to the hotel, they are ready to do something completely different," says Ingalls. "They know the signal is complementary and reliable here and they will spend a couple of hours with a coffee to finish their work. It is another aspect of customer service that we had not anticipated and have had to react to after we rolled out the system."
One important consideration has been the provision of power sockets to charge laptops while people work on them. As areas are refurbished or new facilities added, floor mounted sockets are being installed beside most individual seats.
The next stage is to take the Wi-Fi system outside the airport to the ramp and operational areas for carriers, primarily for baggage reconciliation systems, but also for a maintenance management application and a point-of-sale application for fuel. "This is going to mean some significant benefits," says Ingalls.
"Ten years ago you could never have got data points to all those places, but now with hand-held devices, you have a dynamic and flexible environment where all sorts of information can be exchanged." As Las Vegas counts the benefits, it can't be long before Wi-Fi becomes a standard expectation of travellers everywhere.