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Fly easier


Rich Stinson tells us more about San Antonio International Airport’s multi-layered approach to customer service and how it is using technology to enhance the visitor experience.

Like many airports throughout the world, San Antonio International Airport (SAT) wanted to provide a sense of place for passengers when travelling to or from San Antonio.

To accomplish this, Karen Ellis, SAT’s chief customer experience officer, has built a team that consisted of a marketing section, customer experience section and an arts, music and culture section, all working together to replicate the sights, sounds, flavours, smells and rich culture of a city that is more than 300 years old.

Whether a passenger is arriving in San Antonio for the very first time or returning to their lifelong home, the airport is a warm and immediate reminder that you have arrived deep in the heart of Texas and the state’s most historic city.

The results of Ellis’ efforts were fruitful – earning SAT the 2018 Best Airport Award for Customer Service from ACI-NA. But the genius in the application was the incorporation of technology at every step, to help maximise the reach of the airports’ efforts to the greatest number of passengers.    

  One such example was the roll-out of the airport’s Park Assist feature. Passengers are able to access the airport’s webpage, and in real time, see the number of vacant parking spaces in each of its various parking structures – Economy, Long Term and Short Term.

Through the use of a mobile application, real time updates could be monitored while passengers were in transit to the airport. Once passengers arrived, hundreds of cameras placed throughout the parking structures would illuminate parking spaces – indicating if they were vacant or occupied.

If the lights were red – the space was occupied. If green – it was vacant, and if blue, it was an available ADA parking space.

“Passengers no longer wasted time driving up and down rows, only to be frustrated by finding a smaller car parked in what appeared to be an open space,” said Clay White, SAT’s customer experience manager.

“They simply followed the coloured lights directly to an open and available parking space. Passengers loved the convenience.”

The technology has saved passengers precious time searching for a parking space. Data shows that the average time a passenger spends searching for a parking space is now less than five minutes. In addition to saving time, it lowers the stress and anxiety of flying – making the flying experience easier.

An area Ellis placed special emphasis upon was the customer experience for passengers requiring easier accessibility. Applying a technological solution, SAT partnered with AIRA – a service that helps visually impaired individuals live independently.

SAT purchased the AIRA service within a geo-fenced area encompassing the entire airport and offers it as a free service to all of its visually impaired passengers.

Passengers requiring the service simply access it through their mobile device and are quickly connected to a live operator through the application and their cell phone.

The trained operator has the ability to view a map of the entire airport, while also determining exactly where the passenger is located.

If a passenger states they need help finding their gate, by accessing the camera on the passenger’s phone, while also synchronising their location with the map of the terminal, the operator can speak to the passenger and guide them to exactly where they need to be – all while avoiding the suitcases, wet floor signs and other items that can make navigating a busy terminal seem like manoeuvring through an obstacle course. 

Specially trained operators serve as visual interpreters and navigators for the visually blind or impaired, allowing them to independently navigate the airport through the use of technology.

Local resident and frequent air traveller, Michael Guajardo, is one of the many to endorse the new service. Guajardo, who has retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to lose most of his vision when he was in his early-twenties, said: “There are a lot of obstacles that I need to avoid at the airport, and the service from SAT and the app just make it a lot easier. They are able to guide me directly to where I need to go.”

Not all technological investments for customer enhancements are geared toward expediting a passenger’s movement through the terminals. Inevitably, there will be some wait time while travelling – be it at the gate prior to boarding or at baggage claim after arrival.

Knowing this, SAT has installed a series of interactive Augmented Reality (AR) stations that have proven to be a huge hit with travellers of all ages. Enforcing the sense of place the airport provides, children are both entertained and educated, as they take ‘selfies’ with heroes from the Alamo while learning about San Antonio’s significant historical figures.

Located at various locations, passengers can take a ‘virtual’ tour of the Alamo battlegrounds while learning interesting facts and seeing virtual images of historical maps and artefacts. 

The Alamo AR exhibits, created in partnership with QuantumERA, are identified with barcodes that passengers scan with their mobile devices. It then connects to a virtual video of a genuine historical figure, sharing their story from a first-person perspective, with a little Texas flair that only San Antonio can provide. 

“I liked seeing Davy Crockett,” said Erin Stinson, a nine-year-old third grade student from San Antonio. “I have been to the Alamo and I felt like I met Davy Crockett at the airport.”

Ellis and her team are just getting started, and have a number of other technology-based enhancements planned to continue to provide the highest quality passenger experience and truly make flying easier at SAT. 

Application-based technology will soon allow passengers to purchase food, drinks or retail items from any of the concessions within the airport – and have them delivered to their location. 

No more travelling the terminals to find your favourite restaurant or convenience item, then losing your seat or missing an announcement about a gate-change.  Passengers will simply place their order via a mobile app and their items are delivered to their location.

And this summer, Ellis’ team will launch a brand-new, state of the art airport website that will include all of the current web-based best-practices and technologies. The all-inclusive site will provide everything from real-time flight updates, to parking, wayfinding and more. 

If passengers do not have the time to take in the current art exhibit displayed at SAT – they can view it virtually through the new website. 

Collectively, all of the efforts of Ellis and her Customer Experience Division support her recently launched airport brand campaign, ‘Fly Easier – Fly SAT’. 

“Our customer experience at SAT is designed to make everything associated with air travel easier,” said Ellis. “Technology is rapidly changing and evolving – and we are continuously looking at ways
to incorporate technology into aspects of our customer service to make flying easier at SAT.”

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