On Good Friday, 2011, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) took a hard shot to the chin when an EF4 tornado ripped through its historic domed concrete terminal. Two days later like a prize fighter rallying from what might have been a knock-out punch the airport was on its feet again and open for business.
When Jeff Lea, Lambert public information officer, shared at JumpStart how airport officials, construction workers and community members came together to make this possible, he mentioned that he wished that there had been an easier way to dispatch emergency notifications and calls for assistance.
Today there is, says Michael Benjamin, CEO of FlightView, a Newton, Mass.-based provider of accurate, real-time flight information solutions for the aviation and travel industries. FlightView officials became inspired to create a simpler notification system after hearing Lea’s talk.
The company combined the power of mobile and the simplicity of Twitter to craft a system that allows airports to easily send out up-to-the-minute emergency advisories to mobile website users.
The system works in four easy steps, says Benjamin. The airport creates a Twitter stream specifically for these announcements, FlightView integrates this stream with the airport’s mobile website, the airport sends out a Tweet with the desired information on it, and the message is syndicated to the top of the airport’s mobile website automatically.
“With more than 80 percent of travelers carrying smartphones (as revealed in a 2012 FlightView survey of more than 2,600 people), this new method of disseminating information improves the ease of airport operations, especially for small- to mid-sized airports, as well as passenger experiences by providing them with timely, critical alerts,” Benjamin says.
Info on the Go
It’s a system airports like Virginia’s Roanoke Regional Airport (ROA) are quickly embracing.
ROA offers more than 50 scheduled flights daily, providing nonstop service to nine major cities and transporting nearly 320,000 passengers a year. But a convenient emergency notification system wasn’t top of mind until the bustling regional airport decided to develop a mobile version of its website, and hired FlightView to help.
“The timing was perfect. We’d been planning to do a mobile site for awhile,” says Sherry Wallace, director of ROA. “FlightView let us know of this new option, and my first thought was: ‘Oh I wish we’d had this last winter.’ It would have been great for sending emergency weather alerts saying the entire Eastern seaboard is closed to air traffic, go home and call your airline.”
The system works perfectly with mobile sites, which are typically simplified sites that only contain a handful of data, such as arrivals, departures, airport amenity information, etc. “At the top of the page, there is usually space for an ad or something,” says Benjamin. “But with our system, a Tweet shows up instead.”
While most airports already have Twitter accounts, this system requires them to set up a separate Twitter account that only authorized users, such as an airport director, marketing or media professional, may access. ROA, for example, has its marketing and communications department sending Tweets. Wallace indicates that though they can—and do—send information via their traditional Twitter feed, that information does not show up on the airport’s mobile site. The FlightView system put these updates at the top of ROA’s less-clunky mobile site where they are easily accessed by travelers and their families.
“Airports still have their normal Twitter feed to interact with customers, but they have a separate Twitter feed for priority announcements and the only people who will have access to it will be those authorized to do so,” says Benjamin.
Airport officials can release Tweets from wherever they are too. For example, if the airport director encounters snow so deep he cannot leave the house, and needs to notify passengers that the airport is closed due to weather, he can Tweet from his cell phone or his home computer. If a tornado rips through and knocks down power lines, he still may be able to send messages via his cell phone.
As part of the mobile site implementation, FlightView sets up a back-end system that Benjamin describes as a “really diligent Twitter follower.” This scans for Twitter feeds from the emergency notification system every couple minutes. When it spots a Tweet, the system posts it at the top of the airport’s mobile website automatically.
“We don’t have to bother our IT guy at all to do this,” says Wallace, adding, “for which they are eternally grateful.”
What’s in a Tweet?
A well-informed traveler is a happy traveler, says Benjamin.
And Wallace readily agrees. “This system is great for immediate, need to know information. And it gets to our customers. They don’t necessarily have to follow us on Twitter or look at our Facebook page to see it.”
It works best when relaying information about irregular operations, where things are not going as planned. The most obvious use of the system pertains to weather delays but it also can be used to report other issues. For example, if the road around the airport is being rerouted due to construction that might be a Tweet that airports want to put on their site. Maybe an airport parking lot is closed, so a Tweet stating Parking Lot C is closed for renovations makes sense. And, Twitter limits such posts to 140 characters, which easily fit at the top of an airport’s webpage.
While it hasn’t been that long since smartphones have been on the scene, they have definitely changed the way everyone—including airports—does business. Today’s traveler expects to have up-to-the-minute information, and is let down when they don’t. FlightView’s new system provides a way for airports to spread the word in a very transparent and rapid fashion.