7/27/2022 @ 9pm EDT
Before the pandemic, security in public spaces was a hot-button issue. Meta, nee Facebook, was and has continued to be in hot water over the third-party collection of user data, while heavily surveilled cities like London, U.K., were defending against accusations that the mass use of CCTV to combat and reduce crime was too invasive. Then Covid swept the globe and convenience became king. Convenience, of course, had always been a priority, though in the years preceding the onset of the pandemic, it became so ubiquitous that consumers almost seemed to take it for granted that their airport experience could happen, for the most part, on their time. Now, as the smoke from the worldwide crisis clears, people want to travel, they want to travel now, and they don’t want to wait, even if it means giving up some data to get a more streamlined experience.
“As consumers, we are used to being ‘tracked’ and we volunteer for it with apps like Google Maps because those provide a benefit to us in our daily lives,” says Tara Richards Biondolillo, director, strategic accounts – aviation and entertainment for Atrius, provider of insights into facilities’ performance through use of AI-powered location tracking. “When the value of enabling location services is clear to the passenger, as well as the option to turn off tracking when they’re not using the app, we see a lot of success. It requires transparency and trust, as well as true value to the passenger.” Passengers have been clear that they value a streamlined and pleasant experience from the moment they arrive on airport property, and they’ve acclimated to many new technologies and capabilities just over the last two years to get it.
Building the Experience
“We knew that we had to come out of the pandemic a different airport,” says Lynette DuJohn, vice president of innovation at Vancouver International Airport (YVR). AXN reported in May that YVR had completed the production of the campus’ digital twin – a virtual world designed to accurately represent the airport, its grounds and facilities, and incorporate real-time data to keep airport officials apprised of where people are and what they’re doing. “How could we leverage technology to serve our strategy as an airport? That’s where the concept of the digital twin came from. “When we started out, our first [focus] was situational awareness,” she continues. “So, basically, we have a tool that allows us to understand how passengers are moving through the terminal. Not specific passengers, but numbers of passengers that are moving through different processes at the airport, whether that be security, or customs, just how people move on the curb.”
This data, vast and varied as it is, creates an image of the airport’s current conditions for management, allowing resources to be reallocated as needed for optimal service. Cody Flores Shulman, president of Xovis, believes “passenger tracking is really about passenger flow, queue management.” Xovis is a crowd flow management service and platform started in Switzerland over a decade ago to track and analyze how people move through public spaces in large numbers. “It’s about first being able to identify people in a space – making sure that they’re not luggage or other things – and then taking that a step further to know how they’re behaving, whether they’re moving about, whether they’re in a queue, whether a space is full or there’s extra capacity and that can apply really anywhere that’s a significant touchpoint in an airport.
The obvious choices are security, immigration, check in, but those could also be those waiting to board a jet bridge or shopping at a retail space or standing in line for a taxi,” he says. In a letter to shareholders published earlier in 2022, biometric security company CLEAR reported that in the year prior, total enrollments in the program – which allows users to bypass the traditional airport security checkpoint and breeze through with a simple scan of their eyes, fingers or documents – increased by 112 percent, from just over 5,500,000 users in Q1 2021 to nearly 12,000,000 by the end of the same period in 2022. “The magical experience we deliver in airports and the trust we have built with our members has earned us the right to expand in travel, to enter new verticals and to bring the CLEAR experience to new industries. We give members back their most precious asset – time,” said Caryn Seidman-Becker, CLEAR co-founder and CEO, in the letter. “We remain bullish on the travel recovery as there is significant pent-up demand for experiences such as travel. March was our best CLEAR Plus enrollment month on record and that strength has continued into Q2.”
This abrupt jump in usership reflects not only on the viability of programs like CLEAR and TSA PreCheck, which allow users to provide additional access to their information in exchange for a smoother security process, but the willingness overall of travelers to be more open with data they may not have been comfortable sharing in the time before Covid. “It’s a hot topic in the age of self-service and touchless [tech],” says Xovis’ Flores Shulman. “Even in the U.S., where airports are publicly owned, they’re basically shopping malls that have flights. That’s where their money is. It is in their best interest to make it as smooth and functional and clean for the passenger as possible.”
United Airlines announced in September 2020 a feature within its app to allow users to navigate around the airport and take care of necessary tasks. “With the Terminal Guide [feature], we now offer customers personalized, valuable information, like estimated time to leave for the airport or where to check bags, to make their travel day less stressful and more efficient,” says Anthony Cozzi, director of digital products, mobile/travel for United Airlines. Cozzi and Atrius’ Richards Biondolillo spoke at the Passenger Terminal EXPO in Paris in June to discuss the feature, as well as the role technology will play in the airport experience looking forward. In an interview with AXN, he says, “To [provide this convenience], we use information from a customer’s booking, like their airport, gate and number of checked bags, paired with location-based services on the mobile device of passengers who grant permission for us to do so. Customers can easily access this information on the home screen of their United Mobile app.”
Being honest with customers about how and when their information is being used, and to what end, has built a level of trust, and consumers are willing to trust if the value is there, Cozzi says. Atrius’ Richards Biondolillo adds, “The new frontier in aviation will, we believe, be driven by location services. Whether you’re looking at improving passenger experiences by offering someone a direct path to their gate from where they are standing, or even precisely locating a lost bag or sending the nearest airport staff member to a problem in the airport, location services offer so much potential to airports and airlines to improve their processes. “There are many benefits to passengers to enabling location services – those benefits need to be clear to the user,” she adds.
Products like Thanks Again from GlidePathCX, which provides ecommerce solutions in airports, prove their value in the form of a rewards program active in many airport shops and restaurants around the country, which can provide discounts, loyalty points and other savings in exchange for access to user data. “In return for being able to gain insight into members’ transaction activity, we provide points and special offers that are targeted to those particular members,” says Edmund Puckhaber, president and COO of GlidePathCX.“
The Airport Side
GlidePathCX also provides insights to their airport clients, a far more vast selection of data than what a typical [airport] would ever need to see. “We have a real comprehensive approach to being a one-stop shop for airport data, providing the airport executives one place where they can log in to see a comprehensive view of what’s going on at their airport,” says Puckhaber. “We provide all that in a comprehensive data dashboard called Insight360. The airports can log in, they can see what’s happening on the loyalty side of the equation, they can see what’s happening on the surveys…they can also look at additional KPIs or metrics according to different input data that we receive from third-party sources, the airport itself, and airport vendors.”
Varied in style, approach and medium though they are, all these players seek to answer a common question: where is the passenger going, and what are they doing there? “’Tracking the passenger’ is really about providing important services to the passenger,” says Atrius’ Richards Biondolillo. At YVR, this is something the digital twin technology excels in. “We’re putting it in the hands of our guest service agents, so they know where there are chokepoints, where there is congestion within the terminal, and it tells them where they need to go to be able to help people move through the airport more effectively.” Accessibility for disabled travelers and those with conditions that make travel extra-stressful, like autism, could also be an important use-case for this kind of technology, DuJohn says.
While most agree that technological additions won’t replace a human workforce, United Airlines’ Cozzi says it can lessen the burden on short-staffed teams. “Operationally, while our customer service team is always available, Terminal Guide, in addition to other recent launches like United’s bespoke Agent on Demand service, helps reduce customer service wait times and gives employees more bandwidth to focus on providing excellent customer service to those situations that are a bit more complicated. “Additionally, the information gathered via Terminal Guide can be used to dispatch staff to areas where we might need extra focus in a real-time manner, such as large groups checking in, flight delays, lines and more. We can also leverage passenger trends, volumes and other insights for future planning,” he adds. That kind of actionable information is more valuable than some may even realize, according to Xovis’ Flores Shulman.
“As soon as someone’s wait exceeds ten minutes in a security queue, they’ll spend about 30 percent less money once they get through it,” he says. If that’s the case, technologies that both allow the traveler to take the journey back into their own hands, while also providing airports the insights they need to properly staff their facilities, may be the golden goose many are searching for coming out of the pandemic slump. To that end, the many stakeholders in the airport space may have to collaborate more than in previous years to meet elevated customer standards. “We see this as a critical collaboration opportunity between airlines and airports,” says Richards Biondolillo. “We are hearing from our global airline partners that innovation is back, customer experience and loyalty are again the number-one goal, and to get where they want to go, airlines absolutely need their airport partners to be a part of enabling the future.”