Connected Customers + Digital Airports = Remarkable Experiences

Digital Airports

by Matt Burns, PE

Airports are the gateway most travelers pass through when visiting a major city. They create the initial, sometimes lasting impression of the overall journey. Because of this, airports understand how important it is that their destination be distinctive and memorable, as well as enjoyable and efficient. Customer satisfaction surveys are widely used to measure and benchmark airport operations, and are important to an airport’s public image. As echoed in the recent McKinsey & Company article “ Developing a Customer-Experience Vision”, airports know they must go beyond the basic strategy of having a diverse mix of airlines at competitive price points – they now value the customer end-to-end experience as a success factor for their operations and overall satisfaction rating.

For travelers, the airport experience extends beyond price and convenience, especially in destination cities looking to attract repeat business, conventions and vacation travelers. New and evolving technologies like Experiential Media, Passenger Processing Systems, and other multimedia features are the next steps in enhancing the airport experience, while at the same time improving operational efficiency, customer service and airport revenue. Investments in the next wave of technology infrastructure are proving to be as important as investments in traditional brick and mortar infrastructure.

At Burns, we’ve been fortunate to be part of the evolution of airports and airline operations in North America over the last 30 years. As an engineering firm focused on constantly improving transportation infrastructure, we’ve seen a greater realization that the customer experience is worth the attention of airlines and airport management. This translates into infrastructure projects that increasingly consider the traveling public as a customer with powerful economic choices and influence.

For example, early investments in Flight Information Displays (FIDS) to keep passengers informed about gate assignments or delays improve both operational efficiency and the customer experience. Early systems were controlled independently by each airline, but over time have migrated to a common-use shared system, providing passengers more relevant and timely journey information.

Similarly, investments in restroom modernization and gate hold room seating have traditionally proven to be some of the best choices in enhancing the customer experience. Some terminal buildings are overcrowded as a result of large aircraft deplaning simultaneously and a higher density of gates shoe-horned together, with the ultimate goal of greater capacity and increased operational efficiency. This squeeze causes important customer service features such as restroom availability and cleanliness, and hold room aesthetics to suffer.

The next generation of technology systems at airports is evolving rapidly and promises to create a unique passenger experience. Multimedia technology is being incorporated into architectural aesthetics, and passenger smart phones can now be linked to Passenger Processing Systems, providing journey-enhancing information. Experiential Media that goes well beyond static displays and artwork offers passengers a dynamic entertainment and cultural experience. It provides an exciting introduction to the hospitality of the region. This type of media also enables new revenue potential in the form of advertising. In just a few short years, airport travelers will be peppered with memorable moments where technology will play a very different role than it does today.

Here’s a vision of the future of airport travel. Imagine you check into your flight online, send your boarding pass to your smartphone, and print your bag tag from the comfort of your hotel or living room. You arrive at the airport with navigation assistance for parking or rental car return. Your mobile device is on, and the airport instantly recognizes you are on-site. You self-drop your tagged bag at a self-service station and proceed directly to security. You open the airport’s mobile app and you can see your flight number, departing gate, boarding time, and arrival time at your destination. Your mobile device also tells you approximate security queue times for all checkpoints.

You see some of the security queues are longer than normal so you plan accordingly without becoming overly anxious about missing your flight. As a result, you clear security in plenty of time, and have time to relax. You decide to stop at your favorite coffee shop, which you find in a menu of concession options right on your mobile device. You also have time to visit some airport shops that you conveniently locate from the on-line menu. You pause in front of the exciting experiential media display to learn about events taking place in the metro region. When it’s time to board your flight, you get a silent boarding announcement sent to your mobile device. You feel the whole experience is well managed because you constantly know what to expect on your journey through the airport.

Beyond enhancing the traveler experience, airports and airlines have found that Passenger Processing Systems can make financial sense, too. These new forms of technology provide passengers information that increases operational efficiency, capacity, and convenience, while lowering the cost to serve passengers. For example, situational awareness, real-time passenger information, mobile device applications, integrated self-service passenger processing, and queue management systems hold promise for automating traditionally labor-intensive activities, while at the same time improving the customer experience.

Our nation’s transportation infrastructure is an important asset. The technologies that only a few years ago sounded far-fetched have become tomorrow’s realities. The application of these exciting new technologies will increase operational efficiency and capacity, and act as a competitive advantage to increase economic activity, all while creating a truly unique customer experience for travelers.