Spread the Word

June 21, 2013
FlightView system helps Roanoke Regional Airport put priority announcements in plain sight of the traveling public

Pullquote: “…  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 timely, critical alerts.”

Michael Benjamin, CEO, FlightView

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 Jump Start how airport officials, construction workers and community members came together to make this possible, he mentioned how he wished there had been an easier way to send out 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, using Twitter as a content management system. The system works in three easy steps, says Benjamin.

  1. The airport creates a Twitter stream specifically for these announcements,
  2. FlightView integrates this stream with the airport’s mobile website, and
  3. 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.

“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 an emergency notification system like this one 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 optimized so that when someone accesses them from a smartphone, a site designed specifically for such devices pops up. Typically these sites are simplified and 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 of an ad.”

While most airports already have Twitter accounts, to use the mobile site in this way requires them to set up a separate Twitter account that only authorized users, such as an airport director, marketing or media professional, may access to release advisories.  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 puts 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 them will be those authorized to do so,” says Benjamin.

Airport officials can send Tweets from wherever they are too. For example, if the airport director encounters snow so deep he cannot even leave his 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 it 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 so that users accessing that site see it when they log in.

“We don’t have to bother our IT guy at all to do this,” says Wallace, adding, “for which they are eternally grateful.”

Wallace points out FlightView set up the mobile site and Twitter notification system, saying it was a “completely turnkey operation.” ROA received its first site mockup in just over two weeks, and had a final site to look at within another two weeks. “FlightView took care of everything and that’s why we went with them instead of creating our own from scratch,” she says. “Using a vendor that already creates mobile sites for airports and knows the capabilities we need, has accurate flight information, and has redundancies built in so we don’t go down, just makes sense.”

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. “Most people don’t get to the airport more than a couple times a year,” says Benjamin. “The people in the neighborhood know the road has been dug up for weeks, but it might come as a surprise to those who don’t live nearby.” Maybe an airport parking lot is closed, so a Tweet stating Parking Lot C is closed for renovations makes sense.

The nice thing is Twitter limits such posts to 140 characters, which easily fit at the top of an airport’s page. They are short and to the point, says Benjamin.

Ready access to such information is something travelers greatly appreciate. Whenever FlightView surveys mobile customers, they find timely flight information ranks at the top of their list. But Benjamin reminds airports to keep in mind those who pick up and drop off passengers have a need for up-to-the-minute advisories too. “The person picking up the traveler has to go up and down the same road under construction,” he explains. “We have seen [in our data] that the flight information picked up by mobile sites skews more toward arrivals than departures.”

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 get the word out in a very transparent and rapid fashion.