How Social Media and Emerging Technologies Influence Passenger Flow

Dec. 12, 2012
Analyzing real-time data allows airports to gain a deep understanding of passenger behavior

As the number of passengers traveling through the world’s airports increases, managing passenger flow becomes a critical priority. Minimizing wait times and improving the way in which travelers navigate airports should increase efficiencies while also generating substantial non-aeronautical revenues. International air traffic to/from the U.S. alone totaled 104.03 million passengers from January through July 2012, an eight percent increase over the first seven months of 2011.

Also, in 2012 the average North American business travelers’ expenditure per visit to the airport ranged from $44-$69. Utilizing this information and recording and analyzing real-time data allows airports to gain a deep understanding of passenger behavior. This is a recent trend, but airports seem to be catching on. A recent study commissioned by Frost & Sullivan revealed that airports are setting new operational and commercial KPIs with passenger experience being at the core of these plans.

An Insightful Approach

When looking for effective tools and platforms to uncover passenger traffic patterns, the industry need not look far. The retail industry has been using various technologies, e.g., thermal sensors, video analytics, GSM, and Bluetooth, for years to glean information about customer habits. From the moment a shopper enters a store, they are being measured — how long they wait and to which displays they gravitate. The data points collected are then analyzed so store designs may be optimized for greater retail revenue. While many airports still use cameras solely for security purposes, video analytics and other technologies, e.g., bar coded boarding pass tracking, Bluetooth, thermal sensors, and Wi-Fi are being introduced in airports across the globe to monitor customer habits and use that data to improve their overall experience.

Last year, Copenhagen Airport began an innovative project to study the movement of passengers by monitoring travelers’ movements based on the Wi-Fi enabled devices they carry. Such monitoring was the first of its kind in the world and was put in place by SITA’s technology research team, SITA Lab. The comprehensive collection of data makes it easier for airports to get real-time and historical pictures of traveler behavior. They use this information to improve airport design, direct the flow of passengers, or shift employees to improve the efficiency of security and immigration checkpoints.

In fact, according to the 2012 SITA Airport IT Trends Survey, the world’s airports are now turning to mobile apps, social media, and intelligent technologies including location based services to improve passenger experience. Additionally, airports are investing in business intelligence solutions to deliver an improved passenger experience. Some 86 percent of airports see it as a priority for sharing information and collaborating with partners; 83 percent to ensure more accurate service information for passengers; and 76 percent to reduce flight delays due to ground operational issues.

The survey also uncovered that half of participating airports see passenger flow monitoring as a top priority for reducing passenger congestion. While currently just 10 percent of airports offer wayfinding services on mobile devices, this is set to rise to 70 percent over the next three years.

Airports Go Social

In addition to new technologies used for monitoring passenger flow, airports are beginning to use the real-time monitoring of Twitter feeds and Foursquare/Facebook check-ins to interact with passengers while they’re in the terminal. These tools have the ability to provide airports with insight to help them better understand the patterns of travelers, such as where they eat and where they shop. New tools also open up more opportunities to boost non-aeronautical revenue and positively influence overall passenger experiences, allowing airports to take social listening to a strategic level and focus on the right passengers at the right time.

“An example of an airline implementing a powerful social program is Estonian Air,” said Elizabeth Cecconi, SimpliFlying's head of airport engagement. “They have been recognized as an outstanding example of a link between an airport and regional carrier by launching the world's first social loyalty program, where passengers are rewarded for Facebook and Foursquare check-ins and the recommendations they make.”

Leading customer loyalty programs are now able to provide airlines of all sizes with the ability to offer frequent flyer programs. Beyond loyalty programs, airports are integrating social media into their customer service departments. Recently, Portland International Airport (PDX) and Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) began training their guest service representatives and call center staff to monitor Twitter feeds and respond to passengers just as they would if a call had come in to their airport.

Social media, which allows for monitoring of check-ins through location-based tools such as Foursquare, also provides the opportunity for airports to leverage new mobile apps and turn them into social rewards platforms. Passengers can be rewarded for checking-in on their Foursquare accounts and writing reviews of their travel experiences while at the airport. Retailers and restaurants located within airports can leverage social media to develop targeted one-on-one communications to travelers, alerting them that there is a special discount available close by.

Interestingly, research has shown that customers who check-in on Foursquare are likely to spend 3.5 times more than the average traveler. For this reason, it’s in the best interest of airports to partner with their key retail and dining locations to offer specials and encourage users to shop and dine before their flights.

A Personalized Experience

Another trend highlighted in SITA’s 2012 Airport IT Trends Survey is the expected increase in mobile and social media apps that deliver a more personalized customer experience. Keeping passengers informed about their flight status and wait times is the chief reason for airports to offer mobile apps, with 88 percent planning to invest in them by the end of 2015. During this period, 78 percent of airports also plan to invest in social media.

SITA’s recently published 2012 Passenger Self-Service Survey discovered that just over half of passengers are interested in mobile advertising, and out of those currently not interested, 61 percent would welcome it if it were relevant and personalized.

The ultimate creation of an airport mobile application, linking social media channels and incorporating a social rewards program, will allow airports complete access to useful, actionable data. Once funding is obtained and beta testing is finalized, data will be mined and analyzed.

It is predicted, based on successful pilots across the globe, that findings will favor a boost in IT spend to address growth challenges. Once IT resources are implemented, these emerging trends stand to fundamentally change the way engineers plan and build airports, not to mention how airport managers operate them.

Evolving with the Times

“The fact of the matter is, as technology advances and social media continues to grow at exponential rates, legacy systems in today’s airports are not going to be able to keep up,” said Faith Varwig, Faith Group LLC.  “With the assistance of well-established leaders such as SITA, airports can leverage their experience to build industry-leading platforms for their reusability, flexibility, and agility.”

Another recent evolution, according to Varwig, is the overall interest and adoption of previously mentioned technologies for passenger flow management. This is on the rise due in part to its ability to identify anomalies and areas of potential improvement.

As everything shifts to real-time and our market continues to evolve, the time has come to implement innovative technologies. We now have the power to uncover various potential issues before they arise, avoiding delays and improving performance.