Efficiency and passenger experience: navigating the technology options
Arrive at any major international airport, and a multitude of languages greet visitors. A wonderful recognition of the international nature of the crowds who visit, the gesture also has a strategic purpose: to make those visiting feel more comfortable in what could be a chaotic environment.
These could include an uncertainty about car parking. Disorientating check-in processes. Long lines. The arrival experience can set a tone that affects the visitor for the rest of the trip.
Not limited to amusement parks and entertainment venues, the challenge of managing customer experience – parking, entrances, customer flow – and leveraging that experience to maximise the value for organisations hosting customers can be universal. That is the challenge facing many of today’s airports.
Increasing passenger traffic nearing pre-pandemic levels combined with an aging infrastructure that, in the United States, reaches an estimated backlog of more than $500 billion in projects has degraded the experience for many.
For airports that have been able to make investments, technology has become a significant component to moving passengers efficiently and effectively through facilities.
Parking reservation systems, real-time information boards, self-check in kiosks, facility-wide wireless internet access, online food ordering – putting information into the hands of passengers is dramatically changing how both they experience flying and how airports accommodate increasing demand.
As the pressure builds for airlines to improve the passenger experience and make flying more efficient, the opportunities to leverage technology and data analytics increase. By examining where the choke points are, why they exist, and how to address, not only can the applications yield experiential benefits, but they could also improve airport financial performance.
Increasing experience by reducing stress
Passenger opinions about airlines are not high these days. Flight delays, cancellations, gate changes, and customer service rank in the top 10 of complaints. Airline use of differing boarding processes and a free-for-all placing overhead luggage also increase stress, leading to crowding the gates.
In the US, at least, couple those stresses with a first language other than English, and passenger stress levels rise.
The goal for any airport operation is to make the passenger experience as pleasant as possible. From parking arrival to entrance to security and boarding, whatever can be done to reduce stress and mitigate confusion both improves customer satisfaction scores and opens doors for other customer services.
Examples of how technology and analytics can reduce that stress and improve operational performance abound. Real time parking information with sensor-monitored stalls not only help arriving visitors know where to park, but it enables airport operations to manage parking using demand pricing to influence where customers park.
Technology has also reduced crowding and lines at check-in, with electronic boarding passes now representing 80% of all passes, usually secured before passengers arrive at the airport.
Long lines and wait times represent one of the more prominent anxiety-inducing experiences, mostly because of the questions they place in the minds of passengers about whether or not they’ll make it to the gate on time.
There are many opinions about how to improve the passenger experience with various consensus. From broadcasting announcements in various languages to interactive map displays to helping people navigate airports, improvements can vary.
The challenge is that applying the right technology takes someone who embodies both a technology designer as well as a behavioural psychologist to predict how people will react.
For example, a pilot programme at Tampa International Airport found that, while a technically adept system, passengers rarely interacted with the system.
Improving gate experience
Analytics-based systems exist that can track passenger flow and uncover reasons for wait times and how to reduce them. Similar to checkout lanes at a grocery store that use cameras to monitor lanes and send images for analyses to adjust cashier staffing, technology can help airport operations analyse and facilitate passenger flow.
It is a much more complex operation in an airport than a retail environment. Beyond cameras, wireless connection signals have been used to measure how long people wait in lines based on when the signal is detected and when it is lost on the other side of a checkpoint.
While not all passenger flow situations have an optimal solution so far, other solutions to reduce lines and stress are being explored.
One solution to improve efficiency in passenger flow is to utilise self-boarding technology that allows passengers to scan their own boarding passes.
Together with automated or AI-generated boarding announcements in different languages and voices that speak clearly and slowly without accents, the technology can reduce the confusion and stress – and, thereby, the tense interactions between gate agent and passengers – caused by the boarding experience.
The challenge to making such a system successful is piloting it in such a fashion that the right amount of data can be collected to inform decisions. If piloting gate technology, a wide variety of gates that are associated with different airlines, different sized airports, and various activity levels should be part of the pilot.
There also needs to be a good understanding of the limitations of the technology and the best areas within an airport to measure accurately and effectively.
Piloting a solution
Piloting a technology solution is both an implementation and coordination project.
First, it’s critical to select a location that is best to test the new system where it can provide real-world data that can be replicated many times. Users have to study the limitations as well as the capabilities to design a technology experience that works under various conditions.
Operators also need to answer what it means for the overall IT infrastructure. Will it create more traffic on the network? Will there be network security issues after the technology is deployed?
There also needs to be coordination with frontline staff who may be concerned about the impact that technology will have to their duties. As processes look to facilitate traffic flow and automate processes, staff need to understand how the technology is an enhancement to their positions as the corporate face to the customer, mitigating concerns that the technology is a replacement to the service they provide.
If the technology is to be deployed at multiple gates or in multiple airports, the test gate should also reflect this variety to determine how it will perform under different traffic flows and a diversity of onboarding processes.
Optimised efficiency adds value to operations
Every airport director is aware of their facility’s limitations which opens the door for technology solutions. Airports, at the most basic level, are moving people from point A to point B, and each airport must analyse where they have bottlenecks and how to increase as well as improve the flow between those points.
This can be seen in international terminals in the US, where Customs and Border Protection use wireless internet connections – once not allowed – to activate their own tablets and devices for checking passports.
It changed the design of the process, improving flow by allowing passengers to pick up their bags and then proceed to customs for passport and passenger screening in one stop, rather than going to passport check first, then picking up bags and proceeding to screening.
Airports today are more than just transfer points between ground transportation and flights. Today, they are commerce and business centers wrapped in a transportation hub. Airport revenue streams stretch beyond passenger and airline gate fees to include non-aeronautic revenues such as retail. At larger airports, such revenue streams can make up 40% or more of total revenues.
A passenger not waiting in lines is a relaxed and happy passenger. It’s also a passenger who will enjoy time in restaurants and shopping without the worry of when or how they will board their flight.
The ultimate goal is to make the flight as pleasant as possible, and that begins in the airport. From automated notification systems, direct messaging capabilities, AI-generated translation, and self-check in capabilities, putting information into the hands of passengers can help them remain informed, calm, and satisfied in what to expect from their experience.
• About the author
Santiago Beron is the Florida-based senior project manager for TLC Engineering Solutions.