Enabling the Passenger

Airline passenger customer service is increasingly becoming the responsibility of the airport as airlines continue to cut costs. Fortunately, new technology is becoming less costly, and innovative uses and forms of digital communication are becoming more prevalent among the air travel consumer base.

With the rise in social media users and the increased utilization of mobile technology among airline passengers, as well as the increased desire of business travelers to have more automation and control throughout the travel experience, airports now have a number of customer service solutions at their disposal.

airport business recently spoke with SITA’s vice president of airport services Catherine Mayer, regarding airport IT trends, and Parsons Brinckeroff senior vice president Roddy Boggus, regarding changing passenger demographics.

Comments Boggus, “I believe there are a lot of things that are driving change in the industry as a whole.

“I preach that now is the time of the airports; the time of the airlines has come and gone. Not that [airlines] are on the way out, but airports, while maybe not comfortable holding all of the stones ... they have all of them.”

Passenger empowerment

Passengers are now demanding control over their travel experience, relates Boggus. Passengers now have the capability to do it all; they are self-reliant, he says.

“Many passengers, especially the younger tech-savvy business travelers, are wanting to be empowered because they have the tools; they have a smartphone,” explains Boggus.

“I just got through talking with the Port of Portland ... talking about what to do with their ticketing lobby and struggling with some of these issues on customer service and technology, and what to do with an expansive lobby now that they don’t need so much of it.

“We talked about multi-carrier bag drops. The fact that all of our kiosks have room for a bag-tag spitter; it’s conceivable you can get your bag tags for a year all at once, provided your carrier knows who you are and that you’re a frequent flyer with them.”

There is a sustainability aspect here as well, says Boggus. Without the need for large ticketing lobbies, airports can build less, and focus on facility optimization.

“I talk about turning the terminal upside down … placing ticketing down below in the crammed basement space, and locating the baggage claim upstairs. Why are we celebrating people leaving the area instead of celebrating the arrival?

“The other point to make regards facility O&M costs — whether it’s an older existing facility that gets rehabbed, or a new facility — we have more shared services, and less systems to maintain; we can give ourselves the opportunity to create a much more efficient operation.”

IT trends

Each year, SITA, in partnership with Airline Business magazine, develops and distributes an airport IT trends survey. According to Mayer, the biggest takeaway from the survey in recent years is the positive continuation of investment in IT.

“We were coming out of an economic downturn and things have started to look better, but airports have never really stopped investing in IT projects,” remarks Mayer.

“They kept moving forward, they still kept customer service a priority, and they started being more aggressive about enhancing their operational side ... maybe more on the airside of the business, which to me confirms that self-service is here to stay; it’s moving forward, and it’s being driven by the passengers.”

In terms of specific technology, charts show that passengers really want self-boarding and e-gates, says Mayer. “Airports are seeing that for the passenger they can always do more to help passenger processing,” she adds.

“E-boarding is just a natural extension and evolution of the whole self service process, at least in the passenger’s mind; airports see it as another way to get people on the plane more efficiently.

“I also believe its being driven by the phenomenon of having smart devices. People have less interaction face-to-face, and that interaction is when the user wants it — it’s the user’s choice.”

Regarding the 2011 IT trends survey, Mayer says there is a larger focus on mobile technology, and what airports are doing with it. View results from SITA’s 2010 Airport IT Trends Survey at: www.sita.aero/content/airport-it-trends-survey-2010.