Will I get to my gate on time? It’s the question that strikes a unique chord with aviation passengers, who face more barriers to entry than any other mode of transport. Arriving on time, getting through security, and finding the correct gate all factor into an unwieldy ball of stress – one that’s not helped by labyrinthine terminal layouts and queues that stretch from check-in all the way back to the airport entrance.
Mobility services provider DMI has been helping airports in the UK and US to deploy new mobility strategies in a bid to relieve this burden of ‘gate anxiety’. After all, if passengers aren’t as stressed, they will have more time to spend indulging at retail and food outlets.
In 2016, ACI World released the results of its Airport Service Quality annual global survey, which collated results from more than 300 airports worldwide and over 550,000 passengers. The survey found that an increase in global passenger satisfaction generated an average growth of 1.5% in non-aeronautical revenues at airports.
“At the end of the day, [airports’] objective is increased revenue for themselves and their partners,” says DMI director of business development Jon Morris. “A trend you’ll really see continue to evolve is how the airports drive more foot traffic to these retailers by relieving that anxiety, because time and effort really affects how much money they’re going to spend.”
Relieving gate anxiety would be a win-win scenario for passengers and airports. To this end, DMI has highlighted that technological solutions are set to shift the balance by offering customers more real-time information on flights and wait times, better wayfinding, and faster automated solutions.
DMI has been collaborating with the UK’s London Heathrow Airport since 2012, but more recently began working to enhance mobility at New York’s John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and Stewart airports. A crucial aspect, Morris says, has been providing passengers with real-time information, and smartphones offer a ripe vessel for this.
The potential for reaching passengers through mobile is already being utilised by numerous airlines, whose apps allow passengers to find, book and manage flights. A study by Juniper Research claims that 1.5 billion mobile boarding passes will be displayed by the end of 2019.
Third parties have also identified aviation travel as a huge market, and a number of apps already exist to make travelling through airports easier. MiFlight provides estimates on security wait times across 75 airports based on crowd-sourced data, while the AirportParkingReservations app does exactly what it says on the tin.
However, Morris says that airports should focus on creating mobile apps that link these various benefits together, providing a one-stop solution based on more reliable real-time information. This idea fuelled the creation of London Heathrow’s mobile app, which passengers can use to check flight updates, book parking, and even pre-order food and drink for collection in the terminal.
“What we’ve realised is how these airports can take control of that information and give their passengers a single destination, because they are inherently mobile and these customers are finding a lot of various ways to get that information today,” says Morris.
Wayfinding at airports
Ensuring that passengers are up to date with flight information is one thing, but actually helping them to find their way around is a whole other challenge. While many airports already provide static PDFs of terminal interiors on their websites, Morris says that a boosted effort to provide interactive maps both on mobile and at terminal kiosks has been key to its work with Heathrow.
While GPS technology has been a mainstay for directional wayfinding on the roads, it hasn’t always been as accurate indoors, leading companies like Google to look into smartphones with 3D sensors as a potential solution. Nevertheless, as wayfinding technology has evolved, airports can use it not only to guide passengers, but also to link them with retailers as they walk past.
“As technology’s gotten more accurate, you’ve seen the wayfinding and turn-by-turn directions as well as real-time push notifications based on your location,” Morris says. “So as you walk by a retailer it knows that you are directly in front of it and pushes you a 20% coupon or something like that.”
The advent of Bluetooth technology has enabled airports to reach areas that GPS can’t. In 2017, London Gatwick Airport implemented around 2,000 Bluetooth beacons throughout its two terminals. The beacons sync up with an augmented reality app, which overlays directional arrows onto an image taken through the user’s smartphone camera.
Digital signage forms another part of DMI’s airport mobility strategy. Though airports have typically used digital signs to communicate basic flight and baggage information, the advent of LED displays has provided new opportunities for interaction.
“I think again you’ll see it become much more contextual and personalised for each customer,” says Morris. “If I have a native app downloaded and it knows who I am and where I’m going, you’ll see signage actually change based on who the person is.”
Self-service and biometric technologies
Aside from just keeping passengers informed, airports are increasing looking to deploy digital infrastructure to speed up processes on the way to the airplane. Self-service bag drops and self-tagging solutions are available at more and more aviation hubs, allowing passengers to check in without the hassle of queuing for check-in desks.
Meanwhile, biometric technologies deployed at security permit travellers to move through to the gate seamlessly using facial recognition. Most recently, this model has been introduced with great aplomb at Singapore’s Changi Airport.
While Morris says that excess interaction can be reduced with more automated processes, he still sees personnel as being part of the customer experience. In particular, the introduction of mobile-enabled gate agents – check-in staff and attendants carrying tablets and moving freely – could be just as effective for relieving gate anxiety.
“Mobilising their staff so that they’re not tethered to a desk but can be inherently mobile, moving throughout the gate area – I think that’s a very interesting space that’s underutilised,” he says.
There are multiple angles from which technology could be deployed to combat gate anxiety. But Morris says that the biggest challenge for airports will be updating the legacy systems they already have installed. This has proven difficult when it comes to US airports getting access to wait times from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example.
“To get to the really autonomous information, it obviously takes a lot of investment versus doing things that are a little more manual in the beginning,” explains Morris. “It’s easy to plug in to, say, flight tracking info, but getting on-demand food delivery, real-time TSA wait times or parking availability – a lot of the time it takes both hardware and software that these airports don’t have today.”