Director's view: The next destination for Airport technology
Nigel Scott, Business Development Director at Bristol Airport, explains how technology is changing the way we think about air travel.Air travel has helped to shape the world we live in. Sights, experiences, opportunities and connections that would have been closed to most only a few decades ago are now accessible for millions of people. Families and friends separated by great distances can remain close, businesses can reach customers thousands of mile away, and students can experience new and different learning environments.
We have come a long way since the early days of commercial air travel, but the pace of change in our globalized world shows no sign of slowing. Whether through new aircraft design, automation of passenger processes or changes to established business models, advances in technology present opportunities for airports.
It has been famously observed that Uber - the world’s largest taxi company - owns no vehicles, Facebook - the world’s most popular media owner - creates no content, and Airbnb - the world’s largest accommodation provider - owns no real estate. Whatever the product or service, new technology puts the customer in control: providing flexibility, efficiency and ultimately a sense of freedom is the new name of the game.
Air travel is no exception. It has been estimated that within three years there will be 50 billion connected devices. Airports of the future will need to incorporate the latest technology, speeding up journeys, reducing queues and ultimately giving you more freedom over your journey.
Take the first step in air travel: booking. Dutch airline KLM has introduced a simple but innovative way of blending social media into the payment process. The airline can send messages direct to customers’ Facebook or Twitter profiles, enabling them to click through to pay online. In another example, easyJet’s app sends passengers a notification as soon as boarding begins, among other features designed to make journeys as smooth and stress-free as possible.
On the day of travel, the airport process can begin before the passenger sets foot in the terminal. Take the Hong Kong Airport Express train. Travellers check their luggage in at a downtown train station up to a day before their flight and only see it again at their destination. More locally, picture Bristol Temple Meads having a Bristol Airport drop off section on the platform for the direct train to the Airport, resulting in more space and comfort for passengers on the train. No more struggling with luggage on buses or in car boots!
While this may still be some years away, other changes to the travel experience are happening here and now. Bristol Airport saw self bag-drop kiosks introduced earlier this year for passengers flying with easyJet, and this could be rolled out for all airlines by 2018. Passengers utilise a streamlined process of weighing and tagging bags themselves, reducing time spent queueing. Twelve self-service kiosks and four bag drop desks have been installed and customer hosts are on hand to offer guidance and assistance to passengers.
Once at the airport, seamless transition through each checkpoint - from check in to departure gate – can be facilitated with biometric technology, such as the Aruba Happy Flow system. Piloted at Aruba International Airport, the system utilises user-centric self-service points that recognise passengers by facial recognition technology, which then permits them through each check point. Documentation need only be shown at the first point of entry to the terminal.
The proliferation of connected devices is already helping us better understand and improve passenger processes. Here at Bristol Airport, we can monitor the signals from Bluetooth and Wifi enabled devices to track journey times between key points across our site, such as the bus transfer from our Silver Zone car park to the terminal. We can also monitor the performance of individual security search lanes and apply learnings from those which are performing the most effectively. This helps to build a picture of the total passenger journey ‘from kerb to gate’, identifying any bottlenecks and enabling prompt action to be taken. This data could potentially power an airport app for passengers, putting real time journey information at their fingertips in future.
Airports are also becoming less uniform, with terminals using digital displays which take inspiration from local culture and customs. Bristol Airport’s 14 metre long digital wall in our departures area showcases local people and places. In future we want to encourage customer interaction as well, so you could send real time messages to friends and family when flying off to new horizons!
Digital technology is also changing the way people shop at airports, with traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers now offering online ‘click and collect’ options. For example, World Duty Free lets customers browse online and reserve the items they want up to a month ahead of travel, collecting their items on departure.
But technology is not just changing the way we operate within the terminal. Advances in aircraft design and manufacturing could herald exciting opportunities for new routes from regional airports like Bristol, bringing new destinations within reach while reducing noise and emissions impacts on the local community and environment. And there is a huge opportunity to improve the efficiency of the airspace these aircraft operate in by bringing UK airspace – which was designed in the 1960s – into the 21st century by fully utilising the latest precision navigation systems.
These are just a few examples of how, short haul or long haul, business or pleasure, the airport experience is changing. The proliferation of data will increasingly personalise our travel experience, offering more flexibility and passenger freedom than ever experienced before. How we adapt and prosper these new technologies and platforms will be led by airports, airlines, tour operators and others, but it is ultimately you - the passenger - that will benefit.
As part of the development of a new Master Plan setting out its vision for 2050, Bristol Airport will be seeking views later this year on initial concepts for meeting the growing demand for air travel over the next three decades.