Our latest blog by our CTO, Ian Ford Smith, shines a light on why data is key and four ways in which it can be effectively used to improve the customer experience...
When COVID restrictions ended last year, air travel was finally able to start getting back on track. And, for the first time since 2020, the UN Aviation Agency recently reported that air passenger demand would recover to pre-pandemic levels later this year.
Although positive, the industry continues to face issues – from staff shortages to operating under tighter budgets. So, the pressure will be on airports to cope with this influx and protect the customer experience while navigating these existing challenges.
A major area airports will need to get right is ensuring that passenger flow through the airport is frictionless – from check-in and bag drop to passing through security and departure halls and boarding. Essentially, the full journey from kerb to gate. And if one falls, then it’s quite literally a domino effect that can lead to long queues, delayed flights and disgruntled passengers.
So, what can airports do to set themselves up for success as air travel demand increases?
Data, data and more data
The answer to seamless operations and a frictionless passenger journey is data. And lots of it.
Small to mid-sized airports often use manual processes to monitor vital information, such as passenger queue data, flow patterns, and the time it takes for an individual to move from zone to zone.
This is resource heavy, slow to conduct, and can deliver inaccurate information to the airport operation and management systems. For instance, it can skew predictions and planning decisions on resourcing needs. Manual processes also don’t give a centralised, real-time view of what’s happening across the airport, which means decision-making is made in a silo and doesn’t necessarily deliver the optimum outcome.
However, airports can now use technologies to automate this process, tapping into computer vision to intelligently and anonymously accurately track passengers as they journey through the airport while being compliant with local privacy legislation, such as GDPR. When this data is combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), airports can spot trends, draw learnings, and predict future scenarios to inform more accurate decision-making.
How data can improve airport operations and experience
So, we know that having data is good, but what does this mean in practice? Here are four ways that airports can use data effectively:
Firstly, improved operational decisions: With real-time data, staff can be alerted to the unexpected and fix operational bottlenecks quicker and more effectively. For example, they’ll be notified when travellers have been standing, waiting at a check-in desk for over 20 minutes, which may mean they need to decide to open additional desks to fix the backlog immediately.
Secondly, better resource planning: By combining data insights with AI and ML, airports can maximise resourcing by redistributing employees based on operational needs. So, suppose they know that every Friday afternoon, departure halls are extremely busy between 2 pm to 4 pm. In that case, they may consider adding extra maintenance checks on the bathroom facilities or regularly emptying the bins.
Thirdly, frictionless passenger experience: Having the correct number of staff on duty according to passenger demand helps to deliver a better experience for travellers, such as limiting the likelihood of queues and ensuring facilities are up to standard. For passengers with access to a few different local airports, a good experience will also help nurture loyalty and encourage them to return to fly from your airport when their travel plans allow.
And fourthly, maximise concession revenues: For UK and European airports in particular, getting passengers through security and into departure halls to spend is a key source of revenue. Data on passenger movements will provide more commercial value to concessions partners like Duty-Free, retailers and hospitality providers as they can use insights to maximise spending. For example, if there is an influx of passengers at a certain time of day, they could consider running promotions or setting up a pop-up to entice sales. From an airport perspective, it also helps when considering layout changes, such as moving a seating area if it stops travellers from walking past shops.
It’s crunch time for airports’ innovation
It’s an exciting time for the industry as travel finally has started looking like it’s ‘getting back to normal’. However, the game is different to what it was before March 2020, with tightened budgets and staff shortages just two of the many challenges airports have to navigate. Those who weren’t previously investigating new technologies like computer vision, AI and ML – and the data and insights they deliver – will undoubtedly say they can’t survive without them this year.
My advice? Get on the front foot now and use technology to drive better operations, frictionless passenger experiences and, ultimately, healthier bottom lines.