If you have ever landed at a major airport for the first time, with its multiple terminals and crowds of travelers, you will know the stress of moving to your next destination, especially if you are in transit. Even worse is the experience of a long layover, where you desperately need to catch a nap, but are scared that you will miss your connecting flight. Even if you are sitting in a lounge where you have been ensured that you will be notified when it is time to board, the ultimate responsibility still sits with you.

From the airport’s perspective, it is critical to them that you get to your plane on time, and of course, your airline does not want to have to run round trying to find missing passengers. For the airline, they could end up with extra apron charges for late departure; for the airport, their scheduling is affected, both for take-off and landing and for disembarking incoming flights.

The Secret to Success: Location, Location, Location

Fortunately, technology has come to the aid of all parties. Leading airports have commissioned either mobile application development companies, or their in-house IT resources to craft apps that assist you to navigate the airport. They have also implemented location-based (or proximity) technology both to inform you and to find you if necessary, in the form of geofences and beacons. A geofence is a virtual threshold – when you cross it, you have moved into the airport’s digital environment. You will be invited to download the airport app, if you have not already done so before arriving at the airport. This application is both a navigational tool and a facilities guide. If you have to rush to catch your flight, it will show you the quickest route from where you are to the departure terminal, as well as how long it will take you. The calculation includes variables such as the expected time to check in, drop off your baggage and clear customs, and is updated regularly.

For those with a long layover, you might want to head to an airport lounge. The full range of lounges and their entry conditions is available for you to make a selection. On the other hand, if you have enough energy, you can indulge in some shopping or a bite to eat at one of the airport shops, restaurants and cafes. As you near an outlet, promotional offers could be pushed to your phone via strategically placed beacons which have picked up that you are in the vicinity.

Boarding anxiety is a thing of the past; if you are running a bit late or have nodded off, the airport will be the first to let you know via a message to your phone. They may also notify one of the shop assistants or the cashier, who can let you know when you supply your proof of boarding to make your duty-free purchase. This will be a boon for passengers who do not speak or understand the language of the country in which the airport is based. What is more, even if you did not get the message, the beacons will advise on your location and an airline or airport representative can find you with ease – no more of those dreary “last call for passenger John Smith to proceed to boarding gate 999 immediately” messages over the loudspeaker.

Other Value-adds Provided by Location-Based Technology

As passengers, this automation will definitely de-stress our travel experience. However, there are a number of other uses that airports can find for beacons, especially for its operational processes.

  • Operational efficiencies. The use of beacons to broadcast messages is being deployed for airport services as well, where employees are supplied with mobile phones or tablets and communications are relayed through these devices.
  • Collaborative decision-making (CDM). This is the management process for handling delays and cancellations of flights and the disruptions they cause. Of course there are other disruptions that must be included here, such as strike action, extreme weather conditions, and regrettably, terrorist attacks. While some 33% airports have implemented and automated a robust CDM process, only 10% of airports have integrated their CDM with their Air Traffic Management systems.
  • Baggage handling. Always a top issue with the air industry as a whole, while the volume of mishandled baggage is declining year-over-year, it still amounted to 23.1 million bags in 2015, as reported by SITA in a report on baggage handling “The 2016 Baggage Report”). There are many innovative solutions for reducing the risk of theft, breakages, misrouting and the other hazards your life in a bag encounters. One of these is for the airline carrying the passenger to attach a beacon to the bag, so that it can be tracked throughout its journey. There is also a solution using RFID tags.
  • Receiving data. Beacons and geofences accumulate copious data for the airport to analyse and use. The modern airport is as much a shopping mall as a travel hub, some airports obtain almost half their revenue from spend within the terminals. The data obtained by the beacons can be used for retail analytics, just as for a shopping mall. The potential for retail spend in an airport must not be underestimated. Unacast’s Proxbook for Q3 2016 compares the annual number of visitors to the 10 busiest airports with the largest malls, theme parks and stadiums.

Dubai International Airport alone saw over 83 million passengers through its gates in 2016, and is planning for 100 million passengers by 2024, with an eventual capacity of 240 million.

Are Airports Taking on this Challenge?

As you may expect, the largest and busiest airports have already implemented or are planning to implement proximity solutions. The report produced by SITA in 2016 on behalf of Airports Council International, “Airport IT Trends Survey”, which included responses from 225 airports globally, revealed the following statistics on emerging technology spend:

tech initiatives

(extracted from SITA’s “The Airport IT Trends Survey Report for 2016”, p5)

Clearly, beacons are the focus for the majority of airport CIOs, for now and the next few years, predominantly because of their ability to automate processes such as getting passengers to board on time and avoid disruptions. Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai International Airport, explained the benefits of using new technologies at the 2015 SITA Air Transport IT Summit:
“If you take all the processes out (of the terminal) you can create space,” he explained. “Doubling the process flow and doubling capacity is far cheaper than doubling the size of the airport – and it’s actually what customers want.”

Other things customers want is freedom from worrying about where there luggage is and whether it will be there to pick up at their destination, and a more efficient journey through the airport from arrival through to the boarding gate and on to the airplane. Everyone in the industry is aware of these requirements and in some cases have already provided solutions, or are working on them, using digital technology to transform air travel in the near future.