Use of Mobile Technology at Airports

Mobile Technology is transforming many industries and is making lives of millions of people easier. In the next few articles, I would focus on the use of mobile technology in different industries and processes. In this article, I would elaborate on the use of mobile at Airports.

For a moment lets imagine ourselves at an airport. The images that flash our mind are that of crowded lines, flight delays, people scrambling for their luggage and uncertainty on taxis. This is not a happy situation for both the passenger and the airport authorities. Many people attempt to choose their airlines in a way that the busy and troublesome airports can be avoided leading to loss of revenues for the airports. Airports need to change fast and adopt the latest technology to fulfill the security issues without causing inconvenience to the passengers. Mobile technology can go a long way in providing better experience at the airport and improve processes leading to cost reduction. However, the initial investment would need to be made by the airports and the return on investments may look low initially but if the strategy is played well, then it can soon lead to substantial cost savings or additional revenues for the airports.

There are many areas where the mobile technology can be used at the airport. It can be used to improve the airport processes leading to passenger convenience, and/or increase revenues by generating higher footfalls at the retail points within the airports. Emerging technologies like NFC (Near Field Communications), RFID and indoor positioning along with increasing popularity of devices like smartphones and  tablets would go a long way in making the airports efficient and passenger friendly. The following are some of the use cases for mobile technology at airports:

1. Flight and Airport Information : The first aim of any airport should be to develop a mobile application that provides basic features like real time flight information, terminal maps and check-in facility. The flight information needs to be personalized and timely. The application can also help in booking the taxi at the destination. Heathrow Airport in London has an application that provides the following features:

  • Terminal Check
  • Comparison of travel options – directions, fares, parking, etc.
  • View the latest airport security guide
  • Mobile-friendly terminal maps
  • Full shop and restaurant listings
  • Live flight updates on demand

The application can also have a destination guide so that the passengers can browse important information at leisure (see the demo below)

2. Self Service: The next step should be to give a mobile boarding card (bar code or NFC enabled) so that the  passenger can check-in without having to stand in the queue for the check-in counters. For frequent travelers, permanent luggage tags may be issued which the passenger can configure online to include the destination details. The information from the RFID tags can be transmitted to the mobile phones which means that it should be possible for the airports to show the tracking of the luggage from the aircraft to the belt so that the passenger is not worried about the whereabout of the luggage while waiting for it to arrive. Also, the passenger would know when the luggage is likely to arrive.

Self service and automation of processes are likely to result in significant cost reductions due to simplification of processes. The luggage tags with mobile boarding pass should be able to eliminate check-in queues for over 80% of the passengers. This would lead to cost reduction for the airlines as fewer check-in counters would be required to service the passengers. Schiphol Airport uses bar code scan to print the luggage labels for self service. See the demo below

3. Indoor Positioning: One of the main advantages of using mobile technology is that the mobile phones can provide location. When a person is outdoors, satellite position can be very accurate but indoor positioning was so far a challenge. However, in the last couple of years reliable indoor positioning mechanisms have emerged that can provide accurate location of the users. The airline/airport staff is always looking for the missing passengers and make continuous announcements on the PA systems. Delayed check-ins sometimes result in delay of flights. With the help of indoor positioning, it would be possible for the airline staff to locate the passenger and ping him to board the flight. I do not know if missing passenger is indeed a key reason for delays but atleast I have got that impression by the pilot’s announcements when the there are no apparent reasons for the delay. Indoor positioning can also show the passengers the route to the gate and how much time it would take to reach the gate. Automatic alarms can be set so that passenger is reminded to start moving to towards the gate some time before the boarding time. This functionality would be particularly useful at large airports like Frankfurt airport. Copenhagen airport uses indoor positioning (demo below) to keep track of its passengers. At the Copenhagen airport. the indoor positioning system is RFID/blue tooth based which is given as a tag on check-in and is also installed on the trolleys so the mobile phone is not really required for tracking.

Another very important use of the indoor positioning system is to drive the footfalls to the retail outlets. Today, airports are like malls and are huge. The passengers are not aware of the location of the outlets or any promotions that the outlets might be running. With indoor positioning, a customer can see the deals around him or locate the outlets of his interest.

4. Augmented Reality: Augmented reality overlays location specific information over the smartphone or tablet screen. It can be used to improve passenger navigation, provide personalised offer or display other passenger feedback. Copenhagen airport would soon launch an augmented reality application as a way around limitations of indoor geo-localization services allowing passengers to use augmented reality to plan their time inside Copenhagen Airport and to get information on gates, shops, restaurants and other services in a fun and interactive way. Passengers will be able to ‘scan’ the terminals using their iPhone camera, which will then highlight the distance to certain points of interest and provide directions to navigate to them. Malaysian Airlines is using augmented reality application to find the nearest airport and book ticket (demo in the video below)

What should be the approach of Airports authorities towards use of mobile technology?

The approach of airport authorities towards use of mobile technology at airport is very critical towards success of the mobile initiative. There is a general tendency to approach mobile application development the same way as website development. However, this approach is a sure shot recipe for disaster. Mobile technology offers so much more than an average website due to features like location, camera, accelerometer, etc. On top of this, the mobile phone is very personal as is always “ON” unlike any website accessing device like laptop. The involvement of any user on a website is much lower than that on mobile phones and hence it is imperative from the brand and facilities perspective that the airport authorities either hire mobile experts or hire consultants who can program manage the implementation of mobile technology for the aurthorities.

The second most important aspect is the clarity on scope of use of mobile technology. It is important that there is a clear understanding amongst all stakeholders on the purpose of the mobile technology. The airport authority can use the mobile technology to either generate more revenues or improve process or both. The clarity on the purpose would define the required involvement of airport authorities. It is recommended that the airport start with the application development and use the mobile for location based services or process improvement in the second phase.

Another contentious issue is on the intellectual property rights of the application. The developers would insist on retaining the IP so that he or she can use the same application at other airports or modify the application in a way to increase its utility in other industries. By retaining the IP, the developers can increase their return on investment. Airport authorities can relinquish their claim on IP but will need to build enough safeguards in the contract so that the developer honors its commitment on a long term basis.

Lastly, use of mobile technology at airports not only improves the processes but can also provide additional advertising revenues to the airport authorities. Airports would do well if they do not confine themselves to within the boundaries of the airport. The airport authorities should see themselves as a part of the travel industry and hence the use of the mobile application should be extended beyond the airport like for booking hotels, taxi, etc. so that the revenue earning potential can be maximised for the airports.




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