Technology to Transform the Passenger Experience

Aug. 27, 2014
Beacons provide business intelligence that keeps passengers informed and reduces traveler stress

Karen, the frequent business traveler, heads into an airport garage. As she does, her smartphone beeps to notify her of an open spot in the first aisle of Level 3. After she parks, Karen scans a QR code in the stall so that the airport app remembers where she parked, the app then sends her directions to the terminal and indicates it’s a 5-minute walk.

The app directs Karen to a check-in kiosk, where her boarding pass pops up automatically. She confirms her identity, prints boarding passes and tags her luggage, then heads toward security where the app directs her to the shortest line and tells her there is a 7-minute wait.

Once Karen passes through security, the app shares an airport map, showing the location of her gate and informing her it’s an 8-minute walk. The app then automatically directs her to the nearest coffee shop, without her having to do a thing.

As Karen nears the coffee shop, a percentage-off coupon pops up; a coupon she readily uses to purchase coffee, a Danish and a souvenir mug. She decides to linger awhile after the app notifies her of a weather delay. Twenty minutes later the app informs her of her plane’s arrival and she heads to her gate.

At the connecting airport, the app updates Karen as to where she is, which gate to go to, and how much time it will take to walk there. It also notifies her that boarding will begin in 20 minutes.

Upon arriving at her destination, Karen navigates the airport toward baggage claim with ease, as her smartphone directs the way. At the baggage claim, a message arrives when her baggage lands on the carousel. Karen grabs her luggage and heads to her hotel.

For passengers navigating today’s congested, busy and confusing airport terminals, this scenario may sound like a pipe dream. But in the not-too-distant future, the above example of Karen’s travel day will become reality—and beacon technology will pave the way.

In fact, it’s already happening. In June, American Airlines began a six-month trial of the largest deployment of iBeacon technology in airport history at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. And, AirIT, an IT company based in Orlando, Fla., recently began developing a Business Intelligence platform, which includes beacon technology, at Miami International Airport. 

“Mobile is the new frontier,” says Phil Easter, director of mobile apps for American Airlines. “And, iBeacons are what will really bring it all together.”

What is iBeacon?

Apple introduced iBeacon, a protocol that relies on Bluetooth 4.0 low-energy (BLE) wireless technology, with its iOS7 release. The technology marks a vast departure from the location-based information services provided to iPhones and other iOS devices in the past. Before these mobile devices relied on GPS and WiFi triangulation to track their locations, both of which had more than a few problems in the bustling airport space.

The beacons themselves, provided by companies such as StickNFind Enterprise Beacons, are a low-cost piece of hardware; small enough to attach to a wall or countertop. According to Jimmy Buchheim, founder of StickNFind of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the beacons tap into a smartphone’s BLE technology to transmit messages or prompts such as those listed above. “A beacon is essentially a small Bluetooth chip with a battery attached that wakes up and talks to BLE-enabled mobile devices,” Buchheim explains, noting that beacons transmit a continuous signal so that when a smartphone moves within range it can trigger an action on a mobile app.

By placing beacons in key areas throughout an airport, passengers can receive information about directions, walk times to gates, lounge access, concessions and retail offerings, boarding alerts and more.

AirIT CEO Betros Wakim stresses beacons simply emit a signal, but it is up to the app on an individual’s phone to determine what happens next. “These are not complex technology devices,” he says. “They sit there and announce their position. The application runs on the phone and communicates with the beacon.”

To privacy pundits who question if this technology inhibits a person’s right to individual privacy, Buchheim points out WiFi systems collect far more information about passengers than beacons. “There’s more tracking going on with WiFi than there is with beacons. A beacon doesn’t track people at all,” he says. “It doesn’t know who you are. It just wakes up when you pass, alerts the phone and shares the information it has to share.”

Opt In

To full take advantage of beacon technology, passengers must first opt to have an airport or airline app on their phones. Typically the first beacon passengers’ encounter informs them that an app is available for download but passengers decide whether or not to load it onto their phones.

Within these apps, there needs to be a means for passengers to control the information they receive. This might be achieved by having passengers clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a list of checkboxes that appear the first time they open an app. “Passengers must be able to opt in to receive the information,” Buchheim stresses. “It’s important that they can configure the application to receive the information they want. The last thing we want to do is push out information—that passengers don’t want and don’t care about—to their electronic devices.”

Easter believes the majority of passengers will take full advantage of the functions these apps offer. “Just to know where you are and where you need to be enhances the customer experience,” he says.

The catch is that airports and airlines, as well as concessionaires and retailers, can all have apps, and to take full advantage of what they have to offer, passengers will need to download each and every one. Buchheim suggests in the future it may be necessary to develop a single app that works at every airport to eliminate this issue. “It could be sort of a directory app that helps you look into different areas,” he says.

Putting Beacons in Place

The deployment of beacons is fairly simply. Remember Stick-Up air deodorizers, which had a sticky surface that allowed them to be placed anywhere? Beacons attach to surfaces in a similar fashion and operate there until their batteries run low.

The number of beacons required varies because users can set their range from one to 70 meters. In a typical Macy’s store of 175,000 square feet, a beacon’s range might be set to 50 meters and the store might only need seven to eight beacons. Battery life correlates to range; the smaller the range, the more often beacons communicate with mobile devices, which in turn shortens battery life. “Sometimes the beacon only needs to broadcast once a second, and then we have a beacon that can last three to nine years,” Buchheim says. “There’s a big difference between broadcasting once per second versus 10 times per second.”

But in a crowded airport, the maximum beacon range might be less than 35 meters. “The average airport requires 2,000 to 3,000 beacons,” says Buchheim. “They might need three to four beacons per gate, three to four at immigrations, three to four at arrivals and so on,” he explains. At a $10 to $20 per beacon, however, equipping an airport isn’t cost prohibitive.

Common-Use Platform

Wherever they are installed, beacons need to be a common-use platform that airlines, airports, concessions operators and retail outlets can access, according to Kevin O’Sullivan, lead engineer at the SITA lab. “There should not be a need for every stakeholder to deploy their own beacons when beacons can be easily shared, especially in common-use areas,” he says. “Likewise, beacons should not be placed anywhere without airport authorization.”

Jeff Shull, executive vice president at AirIT, agrees. He explains that Apple introduced this protocol as open architecture by design. To limit its use to anything other than common-use technology, limits innovation.

SITA launched a Common-Use Beacon registry in June to give the industry a single point of contact for beacons deployed at any airport in the world. According to Jim Peters, chief technology officer for SITA, this enables airports to control and share metadata with airlines and other partners and allows passengers to receive accurate and relevant information.

While Shull indicates this might be a logical step, he questions whether it’s being done from a revenue standpoint where airports may someday be asked to pay a subscription fee to participate in the registry and have their beacons maintained and supported.

“Beacons should be managed by airports,” he stresses, adding that this is where all aeronautical entities converge.

While there are some bugs to be worked out, Easter stresses, “Beacons provide a fantastic opportunity to improve the passenger experience but to do so they must be consistently deployed at all airports.”

Once this happens, every passenger will have a travel experience similar to Karen’s and the day of the connected traveler will have truly arrived.