When walking through an airport, passengers hope that the experience is as stress free as possible. At the other end, however, are airport staff, trying to manage the flow of people as smoothly as possible, and airport retailers, hoping to lure passengers in before they depart.
Now, to better understand passenger behaviour, Helsinki Airport, operated by Finavia, has incorporated location-based technologies that, when combined with real-time analytics, help predict crowds and allow them to react accordingly.
Walkbase installed approximately 200 sensors throughout the airport last year. These iBeacons and WiFi routers track users who leave their WiFi on or who opt-in through an app, providing their precise location through a smartphone or other device.
For airport management, the appeal of this can be broken down into two areas, says Heikki Koski, vice president and director of the Helsinki Airport passenger management: "An airport is a complex system of infrastructure, processes, businesses and people. Indoor location-based technology makes it possible to provide an array of new personal digital services to passengers, such as indoor navigation, location services, providing location specific information, finding gates and personal guidance in the terminal.
"They [are] all targeted towards better passenger experience and providing passengers [with] better ways to find and enjoy the services at the airport."
The second is analytics, which help Koski and his team develop their understanding of passenger flows through the terminal and use resources and timing more wisely.
Engaging airport visitors in real-time
Digging deeper into the specifics, Juha Mattsson, head of business development at Walkbase, explains that queue management is one area where real-time data can be used to measure how many passengers arrive and then predict the level of crowding.
An online opinion poll organised in May had over 1,000 residents voting for Bristol Airport to be renamed as Banksy Airport.
However, as airports are now home to many retailers, the possibilities are far wider than merely managing queues of people and bottlenecks.
"For a shopping mall or an airport, one of [the] things is people movement within the corridors and how they use public space, and conversions from there into stores and store locations, these types of patterns," says Mattsson.
"So, how many go past the store, how many of those are ‘converted’ as visitors, from the visitors how many are converted to what we call engaged visitors, and out of these how many are converted to sales? That gives you the profile, if you will, of the store."
These "engaged visitors" are what Mattsson highlights as a crucial aspect of location-based tech. Engagement could work via push notifications, altering the user that a plane leaves in ten minutes, and, based on their location, works out they have eight minutes walking time to the gate.
"This means that passengers are able to feel more relaxed and spend more time in stores and restaurants," says Koski.
Notifications would require an opt-in from the user, "like accepting cookies on a browser," explains Mattsson, which could be done through WiFi or an airport or airline app – Helsinki has its own.
Speaking last year, Tuomas Wuoti, CEO and co-founder of Walkbase, described it as a 21st century experience, "where your smartphone tells you if there is time to shop or eat or make it to your departure gate".
This is what drives the enthusiasm behind the concept, the ability to create a personal experience for each passenger in real time.
"Location is a great way to streamline and contextualise experiences, [although] users will quickly push back when the benefits appear to be one-sided." says Ronan Cremin, chief technology officer for Afilias’ mobile and web technology division, which helps deliver content for mobile devices.
"As an example, at a very minimal level a web page or app can streamline a user experience merely by presenting a list of options sorted by distance to make it easier for the user to pick the right one quickly.
"If a user is 50m from a restaurant at a quiet time of day a coupon is a great way to drive demand without having to bother other customers who aren’t close enough that they’re likely to take up the offer."
Data control and the ‘creep’ factor
Despite the obvious advantages location provides to airport passenger management services and retailers within the airport complex, like any new development concerns have been raised.
Cremin highlights privacy as one. "People will need to feel safe giving up their location. What happens if someone in your family sees an ad based on a place you were, but weren’t supposed to be? Data is the pollution of the digital age.
"This location data will inevitably leak or get stolen at some point (because it has value)."
A 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, a US think tank, found that 35% of adults who have downloaded apps had turned off the location-tracking feature, while Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, has stated that the problem with tracking personal data is what he calls the secondary and subsequent uses of the data.
The UK’s regional airports – defined as those outside London – handled 87.7m passengers in 2013, an increase of 3.5%.
Marios Damianides, former international president of the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, also said in 2012: "Knowledge is power. People should educate themselves so they can understand how their data is being used or know how to disable this feature."
As well as this, Cremin says that transparency as to what the data is being used for is critical, as is what he calls the "basic spam problem" of too many notifications if location services become cheaper and easier to implement.
"Hyper-local solutions [those based on beacons] may limit the damage to some extent because their working radius is just tens of metres at most," he adds.
"User control and awareness is critical. An experience that feels ‘creepy’ will quickly turn people off. There is a very fine line between an experience that is usefully proactive and one that pushes the boundaries too far and feels creepy."
Beacons: an evolving technology
However, such concerns have not stopped the proliferation of location technology.
In May it was announced that marketing company Proxama had agreed to install Bluetooth beacons at a number of UK airports, including Gatwick, Stansted, Bristol, Southampton, Inverness, Newcastle and East Midlands, while Virgin Atlantic chose to trial beacons at Heathrow Airport last year.
"If we know when you’re going to arrive and what your favourite cocktail is, we can have that ready in the Upper Class Wing," Virgin Atlantic’s head of development for eBusiness, James Shanahan, told IBTimes UK at the time.
In the case of the Proxama development, the beacons will work by pushing targeted notifications while passengers wait for their flights, and Mattsson believes that the technology is evolving all the time.
"Looking at the airport industry and retail industry, this is definitely a technology that is gradually getting [more] mature," says Mattsson."Retailers and airports are starting to see the benefits of this. This is really natural, because if you think of any marketing activity, digital marketing or marketing automation, all of them start from the premise that you are able to measure accurately the impact of the marketing activities.
"Where we see ourselves [Walkbase] going now is building and marketing an analytics solution for retail and airports. That requires integrating other types of data from physical stores, including door counters, camera-based analytics and point of sale data."
For Helsinki Airport, the focus is on continuing their arc towards a greater, personalised passenger experience.
"These are the first steps and [there are] more to come in the near future," says Koski. Watch this space.