Airport Wi-Fi, The Hybrid Approach

This article was developed by Scott Phillips, CEO, Advanced Wireless Group.

Founded in 2004, Advanced Wireless Group (AWG) installs, manages and integrates wireless Internet networks into airports and other large venues.

For airport operators, AWG creates a new revenue stream by coupling public WiFi Internet access with advertising, sponsorship, and media content, reaching key demographics through new media in a controlled setting;

For many airport travelers, the feeling of “I want Wi-Fi, and I want it free, fast, and now” is growing to a fever pitch where it is almost always listed in customer surveys as the leading negative aspect to any airport experience.

While delivering customer satisfaction should always remain a high priority, the fact is that the hesitancy remains for many airports to kick the paid Wi-Fi habit, since at a high-level perception, it can lead to lower revenue. That perception does have some merit, but we’ll touch more on that shortly.

In order to deal with “Mr. or Ms. Airline Traveler,” it is best to consider Wi-Fi usage based on both their needs and frequency of usage.

In the last four years, airport Wi-Fi usage has surged. What was the reason for this sudden change in usage? Following the driving force of the iPhone launching the smartphone revolution, in the spring of 2010, Apple’s initial iPad was released to the market and initiated the tablet craze.

All of these mobile devices crave the ability to gain Internet access from anywhere, and ideally through a Wi-Fi connection that usually provides the fastest speed. In addition to the explosion in numbers of users with devices, there has been exponential growth in the amount of how much data each user demands to keep up with the latest generation of video and graphics-rich content sites and apps.

Now, think about what your facilities look like at this very moment. Roaming up and down the terminal hallways, sitting at the gates, and boarding the awaiting planes are travelers armed with more devices than ever. Naturally, each one of these customers have similar expectations to those found at their homes and workplaces — that the Internet bandwidth should be fast and reliable and not fail just because they are at an airport. Just as other airport concessions sales fluctuate throughout the day tied to peak travel periods, so does the demand for bandwidth.

While travelers do have growing expectations around what their bandwidth experience should look like, there happens to be another factor at play — each traveler has an individual expectation for their airport experience that incorporates their favorite features from several different airports. One airport offers free Wi-Fi, another has a wine bar, yet another one has high-end shopping in one concourse — simply put: “I want it all and I want it now!”

‘Airport amenity envy’ among travelers is nothing new, and it happens to be one of the top driving factors for meeting the moving target of customer satisfaction. One of the latest focus points from this new amount of envy has been around Wi-Fi, and it seems that some airports are willing to go to great lengths to deliver an in-airport wireless system that still may not end up meeting the needs of today’s multi-device traveler, and therefore certainly not matching tomorrow’s demand.

The ‘Hybrid Approach’

Take a macroscopic view of the traveler’s in-airport experience, and one would notice that the airport embraces choice from restroom locations to which seat someone will take in the gate area when waiting to board their plane.

Since airlines offer up very little in terms of free choices — except maybe the occasional beverage — the airport serves as the last refuge for travelers to experience a multitude of choices before setting off to their destination. With this in mind, offering up a series of choices through a “hybrid” approach is perhaps the best way to appease travelers regardless of their quantity of devices or bandwidth needs.

In breaking down the “hybrid” approach, the value between the two options — complimentary or paid access — is based on both time (the amount of time the traveler needs to spend online) and bandwidth (the speed the traveler prefers during their session), sometimes the need for Wi-Fi is simply to check a hotel reservation or email before boarding, and in this situation the only obstacle standing between the traveler and checking their personal email is the requirement to view a sponsored 30-second advertisement.

The complimentary, or sponsored Wi-Fi option has countless benefits, but the largest advantage we have seen is that more individuals find their way online simply because it is available for free.

Think about this, the airport patrons are enjoying a resource provided by the airport, while at the same time they are sitting amongst a host of other high-end amenities presented by the facility. This comfort to travelers, along with the concept of surfing the Web from the airport without paying, can translate directly to high customer satisfaction scores.

So, why is the premium option available if so many individuals enjoy the complimentary option?

It’s actually very simple. The paid option, which represents the second component of the hybrid model, gives travelers the option to enjoy a faster Internet session with an extended time limit free of advertisements. At the same time, the airport benefits by recouping some of the revenue lost in moving away from one of the previously popular payment models.

Creating an airport experience that is noteworthy, self-funding, and potentially profitable for the facility is an endless challenge that can at times defy logic. Airport Wi-Fi appears to be the latest customer service target for airport administrators, and its requirements will continue to evolve as devices and data needs evolve.

By presenting a multi-faceted option, like the hybrid Wi-Fi model, airports can now add another element to their passenger services program for travelers continually seeking choice.