From Beacons to Biometrics: Get Ready for the Connected Airport Experience

Thanks to connected technologies, people now can expect a more optimized travel and shopping experience in airports.

The numbers are striking: Global air passenger traffic has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, according to a report by Proxbook, and GlobalData says spending at airports reached a whopping $38 billion in 2016 and will hit $49 billion by 2021. Airports have changed from necessary pit stops in a traveler’s journey to very successful retail destinations.

“Airports have evolved into airport cities. If you think about it, they have entertainment, culture, dining, recreation, attractions, hotels, and then luxury retail is a big part of that. Gone are the days of limited duty-free shopping and offerings,” says Julie Hoffmann, head of industry strategy for travel and hospitality at Adobe.

Mobile and beacon technology are optimizing the travel experience at airports, where Proxbook reports 89 percent of travelers now carry smartphones. Along with facial recognition technology, these Internet of Things (IoT) tools will continue to improve the airport experience — whether it’s shopping for the latest trendy merchandise, getting through the terminal faster, or boarding a plane more efficiently.

Beacons and IoT tech enhance airport security and the retail experience

London’s Gatwick Airport, the second busiest airport in the U.K., already has about 2,000 indoor, battery-powered beacons that use augmented reality to guide travelers to specific locations via arrows on their smartphones. Heathrow Airport also uses beacons, which allows retailers to locate potential nearby shoppers and push marketing messages and special offers to those who have opted in to receive them.

Greg Reeder, head of government industry strategy and marketing at Adobe, says when you know where the cellphones are in an airport, you also know where the “choke points” — or pedestrian traffic jams — are.

“By using the connectivity on each traveler’s device, we can help redirect people to places without as much security traffic. We can make airport security more efficient because we understand the traveler journey,” he says. “So, technology can improve both the airport retail experience and get people to their flight on time.”

Technology that airports previously used merely to get people from one point to the next can now do much more. Such technology can offer up-to-date details about parking and restaurants, and turn-by-turn navigation through a confusing terminal. It can provide, directly to a smartphone, information about gate changes or the shortest security line. And, digital technology can direct those consequently less stressed customers to suggested shopping items, using input such as where a customer is located in the airport, how long the passenger has in the terminal, the season, and previous and current preferences. It also can suggest nearby products or offer a coupon code or a special meal discount right as a traveler approaches a certain restaurant or store. In this way, in-app advertising can add to an airport’s revenue.

Yet, a 2016 Concessions Benchmarking Survey found that only about 60 percent of North American airports even have a dedicated website, and less than 30 percent offer a mobile app. That’s despite the fact that, according to eMarketer, the average American adult spent about 2.5 hours on mobile apps each day that year, compared to less than 30 minutes browsing the mobile web.

It’s more than just shopping and wayfinding that is being transformed at airports. Mobile and beacon technology tools, plus facial recognition technology and other biometrics, can improve the boarding experience. IoT technology is creating a more connected airport experience overall, one that brands can capitalize on to reach and engage more passengers and to consolidate all customer touch points into a single, fluid experience.

“One of the goals is efficiency,” Julie says. “If we can reduce the wait time at TSA by 10 minutes, for instance, then those 10 minutes can be spent shopping versus waiting in line, and that equates to about a 30 percent bump in actual profit and revenue.”

A recent Walker study predicts that by the year 2020, it will be the customer experience that is the most important brand differentiator as opposed to price and product, and that 86 percent of people will pay more for an enhanced customer experience, including at airport terminals.

As moving through the airport becomes more efficient, there may be more time for passengers to shop after they make it through security. One key will be for brands to take advantage of impulse purchases often made by the traveling public, perhaps by creating an easy digital shopping experience with an online concierge-like service that uses data-driven and hyper-personalized offers and lets travelers shop before they even arrive at the airport.

Seventy percent of airlines and 80 percent of airports plan to increase their IT investments this year to the tune of almost $33 billion. What’s crucial is making sure customers’ experiences are frictionless and ensuring that IT investments are within the bounds of privacy.

Facial recognition technology makes an impact

Retail isn’t the only area where airports are attempting to create a more connected experience. Digital technology is having an impact on security and the boarding process, too. Some airports are using facial recognition technology to accelerate and optimize how quickly travelers get on their flight. They use airline-owned cameras to take passengers’ pictures at the gate, and then compare the photos with passport and visa pictures.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has partnered with JetBlue and Delta to introduce facial recognition systems at JFK International Airport, Dulles, and airports in Atlanta, Boston, and Houston as part of an effort to implement a biometric system for tracking the entries and exits of non-U.S. citizens. While facial recognition technology may expedite the boarding process, it does raise legal and privacy concerns in some passengers.

Julie says most people will be fine with it, though some will want to know they can opt out, and companies must give customers that opportunity.

“A lot of it is for ease of use and speed,” she says. “You already have to provide identification. The airline is already going to check your information. They just want to do it now in a new way that speeds the process.”

The era of the customer in travel and hospitality

The key for airlines and airports that want to create a more connected experience is data. Julie says data integration is the biggest hindrance today for this sector.

“They [consumers] really want a connected experience. If they were going to have an app or some other functionality, how do they make that a little better, so they aren’t downloading 100 apps from every place and destination?” she says. “To enable better experiences, and [to facilitate] offerings that are next to venues that have some considerations for your interests and likes, it really ties back to being able to share data among a variety of airlines and the airport itself so customers can be targeted.”

To accomplish this, airports and airlines need to leverage a data management platform (DMP) and put audience profiles closer to the place of delivery or point of service. Julie says many travel and hospitality brands are starting to integrate data from their customer relationship management system (CRM) with their DMP to use it as part of their profile of key audience segments. This integration also makes it easier for them to share data with key strategic partners, and ultimately could lead to a better experience for travelers as they make their way through the airport.

Greg says two things will affect how connected the experience ultimately is in airports:

how travelers’ attitudes about sharing their data evolve; and how aggressively local, state, and federal governments, which run the nation’s airports, focus on digital integrations.

“Whether it’s helping travelers find a better security line to get in, supporting airport employees with interconnected apps to manage the terminal more efficiently, or even helping travelers find the best place to park, government agencies will make tiny to large-scale improvements,” Greg says. “They’re starting to look for better solutions to enhance the travel experience.”

Read more in our blog series on creating Destination Experiences or learn about Adobe’s solutions for Travel and Hospitality here.