Web of Opportunity

21 November 2007 (Last Updated November 21st, 2007 18:30)

Any leading business today needs to pay close attention to its online presence. As Fleur Doidge finds, airports, in a fiercely competitive environment, are no different.

Web of Opportunity

What would one day of website downtime do to an airport's business? Certainly an airport, like any other business, is heavily reliant on its web-based services. Downtime will affect the bottom line – if not in cancellations and missed flights, in lost sales and reduced productivity.

An airport is generally the first impression a traveller gets of a country. Top airports have therefore invested in a customer-focused website.

"Readability is an important factor for airport websites."

SYDNEY'S AIRPORT

On Sydney Airport's home page and you'll find a typical structure – individual pages offer flight information, terminal information, shopping, directions, corporate information and travel bookings.

Below each, a drop-down menu appears with further options. A properly linked menu setup saves customers from clicking endlessly around the site seeking specific information – flight information searches are often done in a hurry at the last minute.

Live flight information and an SMS service are hot-linked to the appropriate page. An 'instant search' box lets passengers enter their flight number to find out check-in desk numbers, time scheduled, route, estimated departure time and flight status.

News is near the top, advising passengers of the latest rules and restrictions. Below that, links to corporate information and sections on major topical issues such as the environment and security.

Readability is improved though the use of carefully placed text and unobtrusive graphics, interspersed with clickable features such as photos and hotlinks, working together to create a website that answers customer questions with the fewest clicks.

Michael Samaras, Sydney Airport communications manager, said the site is four years old but a new version should be up by 2008. "The most popular resources are flight information, maps of the terminals, shopping details, and information about how to get to and from the airport," he said. "Sydney Airport records passenger feedback and this is used to inform website development."

Customers today demand around-the-clock access to information via technology. Providing a world-class service means convenience and rapid service for travellers – as well as ground transporters that need to align their own timetables with flight schedules. A record 30 million passengers passed through Sydney Airport in the year to January 2007.

LONDON HEATHROW

The world's busiest airport, London Heathrow, has an even more comprehensive website. Live flight information happens right on the front page, without need for click-through.

"Website downtime will affect the bottom line – if not in cancellations and missed flights, in lost sales and reduced productivity."

In terminal five, opening in March 2008, global brands such as Thomas Cook aim to reach 30 million passengers a year both pre-and post booking. As part of a new strategic partnership, permanent links will be created between Thomas Cook's consumer website and the BAA homepage to promote facilities, including retail, dining and special offers.

Colin Hargrave, UK Airport Retail MD, said: "[The partnership] aims to fuse together the travel and airport experience, making for a seamless customer journey from booking to boarding the flight."

Heathrow recently launched its online service, WebTrak, which displays flight paths for planes, along with details of altitudes and flight numbers. The aim is to improve handling of aircraft noise complaints from local residents and help inform people about the flight paths and associated noise.

The website complements the services of an operations communications team who investigate enquiries and complaints from residents. Cheryl Monk, Heathrow community relations manager, said WebTrak was part of BAA's £1.8m investment in upgrading the noise, record-keeping and complaints-handling systems at London airports.

HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL

Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), six times winner of the SkyTrax World's Best Airport Award, launched its well-structured, user-friendly website in 1998, constantly reviewing and revamping it as needed. In February 2007, a new front page and some other major pages were added to introduce the new terminal two.

"An airport, like any other business, is heavily reliant on its web-based services."

On top of the usual flight, passenger, corporate, media and transport information, HKIA also posts circulars and notifications for its business partners using extranet and offers an online programme that emails selected flight information directly to customers. "The most important features for visitors are the real-time flight information and our interactive 3D map of the airport," a spokesperson said.

HKIA staff also use the site to post ad-hoc messages on typhoons and other local emergencies. A system tool incorporating warning messages continuously monitors the website's 'health'.

"Our website is running on high-availability design throughout the whole architecture. We have a redundant setup for our web, application and database servers," the spokesperson said. "We also have a special back-up agreement with our service provider, which lets us, for example, call for additional bandwidth during the typhoon period when internet traffic is busy."

SINGAPORE CHANGI

Singapore's Changi Airport might be expected to be as efficient as the island state itself. Changi's new website was developed in 2006 by leading IT service provider Satyam Computer Services, along with Qais Consulting. A spokesperson agrees that flight information and detail about the airport itself, including Air Cargo for business customers, have proven most popular with customers.

"The feedback and enquiry page provides a window for passengers and the public to detail their experience at Changi Airport, allowing us to continuously improve service levels," the spokesperson said.

"The sky's the limit when it comes to pleasing customers, and the world's top airports are continuing to raise the bar."

Good airport guides with shopping and dining tips not only help passengers in general but also encourage early check-in, helping airport efficiency, the spokesperson pointed out.

"We have contingency plans to ensure the level of service is not compromised," the spokesperson said. "The website is consistently monitored and immediate action taken to address any problems."

The sky's the limit when it comes to pleasing customers, and the world's top airports are continuing to raise the bar.

Changi occasionally introduces microsites to enhance airport offerings. Early 2007 saw one launched for terminal three, due to open January 2008. Themed 'Explore Paradise', the T3 microsite tempts customers with customisable virtual tours, fun downloads, visuals and contests as well as T3 information. We can expect other airports to soon follow.