There can be no disputing the fact that since the launch of the first generation iPhone almost seven years ago, smartphones have played a major role in redefining the airport experience and empowering passengers in a way never before possible. Having previously relied on airports and airlines as the sole source of travel-related information, all of a sudden passengers could pro-actively take it into their own hands, quite literally, to access the information they want exactly when they need it.
In the years since, passengers have come to expect a more personalised travel experience, with information specific to their own journey and their own preferences very much in demand. In some instances, airports and airlines have taken it upon themselves to provide interactive, engaging, more personal experiences that leverage mobile technology, but increasingly, third party companies are getting involved. So, are these ‘third parties’ actually the ones redefining the airport experience and, if so, should airports and airlines be concerned?
The role of Google and independent apps
Firstly, let’s look at some recent examples of ways in which the airport experience has been impacted by mobile technology. At the end of 2013, Google announced that its Indoor Street View service had been extended to cover 16 airports, meaning passengers who need directions through the airport, and who want to find points of interest and recommendations on what to do and see, can rely on Google instead of the airport or airline.
Two major airlines, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, announced in late 2013 that they had also teamed up with Google, in this instance to offer Google Now, offering passengers automatic reminders about their travel plans and information on their final destination.
Then you have independent mobile apps, the likes of tripchi, which offers passengers real-time flight updates, recommendations on what to do, eat and drink in the airport. Having successfully raised $10,000 in a crowd-funding drive, tripchi is now working to create what it calls “Airport 2.0” – “an airport designed to make you forget you’re in an airport”.
With each of these examples, it’s easy to see how they can improve the passenger experience. However, equally interesting is the fact that none of them have been directly developed by an airport or airline. So, is the smartphone-based airport experience of the future not, in fact, being defined by airports and airlines, but by technology developers?
In-house development vs Leaving it to technology partners
According to Chandra Jacobs, Co-founder and CEO of tripchi, the answer is “yes”, but she says there is no need for concern. “What we’re seeing today is a highly fragmented market when it comes to airport mobile solutions, which are developed in stovepipes, and are therefore reliant on a huge marketing budget to remind customers to use the app.
“Secondly, an airport’s core competency is not app development (whether it’s web or mobile) – it’s delivering safe and efficient air travel to a traveler.
“It’s true that many airports are beginning to focus more on the customer experience, and that the quality of the interaction with the customer and content that is offered, while still providing safe and efficient air travel, is growing in importance. This is a good thing.”
She added that airports should adopt the “umbrella app” schema, when looking to improve and personalise the passenger experience through mobile technology, rather than being “dead-set” on developing and owning such solutions themselves.
Gatwick Airport’s Chief Information Officer, Michael Ibbitson, who will be taking part in a conference session exploring the future of key passenger touch-points at FTE Europe, would seem to agree that airports should not feel obliged to offer an in-house developed smartphone-based service that passengers can use to define their airport experience. He explained that Gatwick Airport – which incidentally doesn’t have an official smartphone or tablet app – “worked closely with Google to make the new mapping services as comprehensive and detailed as possible”, adding “this latest technological development will make it easier than ever for passengers to make a speedier trip or the most of their time at the airport”.
On a similar note, upon the announcement of the Google Now deal, Emirates’ Patrick Brannelly, Vice President, Product, Publishing, Digital and Events, stated: “Emirates prides itself on constant innovation and working with technology partners that will enhance our passengers’ experience.” So, not exactly an assertion that it plans to single-handedly redefine the travel experience for its most mobile-savvy passengers. Instead, the “technology partners” will seemingly play just as important a role.
Copenhagen Airport and Japan Airlines embracing mobile technology
There are, of course, some exceptions to the rule – airports and airlines that are taking it entirely upon themselves to make use of mobile technology to define and improve their own passengers’ experience. Copenhagen Airport, for instance, has this year launched a dedicated Chinese app that can be used to translate airport signage, while it also offers an innovative 3D mobile wayfinding function for passengers to find their way around the airport.
Also, there is the FTE Award-winning Japan Airlines, which is surely the industry leader in this area. Not only is the airline using mobile technology to improve the airport experience for passengers, it is doing it in every way possible. Travellers can use their smartphone to search for flights, book and purchase tickets, access the security checkpoint, download and use shopping coupons, and board their flight using Near Field Communication (NFC) boarding passes. Apps have also been developed to allow passengers to tour terminal buildings in three-dimensional augmented reality, view live video feeds from airports to check the weather, view live queues at security lanes to assess waiting times, and access details on local events that may be of interest, all of which will be highlighted in more detail by Andrew Kenji Wang Fujiyama, Manager Planning Group Web Sales, Japan Airlines, at FTE Europe 2014.
Outsourcing the passenger experience?
Japan Airlines and Copenhagen Airport are, however, rather unique examples, and it seems that if a passenger is looking for a more personalised, mobile-based airport experience in the future, it could well be the third party developers – the likes of Google and tripchi – that they turn to.
While the benefits that they can bring to the passenger are clearly appealing, there is, perhaps, the need for at least some level of caution. While effectively outsourcing the development of innovative smartphone-based services that can help to improve the passenger experience undoubtedly makes sense from financial and resource viewpoints, airports should at least take a moment to ask themselves if they’re happy for their passenger experience, and travellers’ perception of their airport, to be defined by the information and recommendations they receive from third party companies that are beyond their control.
At FTE Europe 2014, which will take place from 3-5 March in London, Samsung European Enterprise Business Team’s Chief Technology Officer, Andy Guile, and Head of Manufacturing, Retail and Transportation, Asier Sinde, will jointly deliver the Inspirational Keynote entitled: ‘Transforming the travelling experience through digital technology’.