Airports are not fun.
If you’ve ever been on a commercial airline you can attest that many words have been used to describe airports, but “fun” is likely not one of them. Unless you’re 5, then everything’s fun. Gone are the days of a leisurely, civilized journey through an open and trusting environment where people can come and go freely. It’s been replaced by a gauntlet of labyrinthine parking structures, impersonal ticketing kiosks, 4th-Amendment-violating security checkpoints, and a never-ending sea of cookie-cutter retailers. And your gate always seems light-years away. Add to that the ever-increasing cost of traveling by air and it’s enough to make someone want to take the train.
But news reports in the past year have hinted that the winds of change may be shifting in our favor. Airlines, facilities planners, and even the TSA have begun to acknowledge that delivering a satisfying customer experience is not only the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense as well.
Since 9/11, the very nature of the airport experience has involuntarily shifted. Most existing airports were designed during an era when it was commonplace to arrive at the airport a mere 30 minutes before your departure time. Today, travelers need nearly three times that to ensure we get through security and they spend more time there once through, resulting in a greater demand for a wider variety of amenities – especially food, since meals aren’t served on flights as they once were. Pre-9/11 airports were designed with one primary goal: get people in and out as fast as possible, and most have not yet evolved to meet the shifting behavioral needs of the 21st Century traveler.
New airport experiences have begun to arrive on the scene, though. New projects like JFK’s new JetBlue terminal and imaginative renovations like SFO’s international terminal have the customer experience at their core – focusing on comfort, hospitality, and sustainability. From simple touches like intuitive wayfinding signage and more natural lighting solutions, to technology enhancements like digital avatar guides and timely, relevant information fed directly to a traveler’s mobile device. Many airports have even begun to offer free wifi and waiting area seating options that offer more functional – and humane – options beyond huddling on the floor near the occasional power outlet.
Airports and airlines have also begun exploring how new technology can help reduce traditional pain-points and bottlenecks in existing terminals – in lieu of a complete overhaul or redesign. Replacing barcodes and paper boarding passes with RFID-enabled travel documents, or geo-fenced secure mobile apps, that automatically check-in passengers as soon as they enter the airport and display their boarding criteria on their smartphone. Augmenting traditional security screening procedures with “cumulative biometrics” that allow travelers to build up a reputation with TSA the more they fly – with rewards for frequent flyers such as being granted access to the TSA “bypass” lane for trusted travelers. Augmenting cumbersome and generalized wayfinding signage with personalized digital maps, turn-by-turn directions, and augmented-reality views tied to the traveler’s itinerary and their triangulated location in-terminal. And much of this experience will be further streamlined as wearable technology – like Google’s Glass project – become more pervasive. Google Glass could provide support or validation to a retinal scan ID via an NFC connection to the security screener, display the fastest route to your gate (or a family restroom with a changing station), or quickly identify your bags amongst a river of similar luggage on the carousel – all while leaving your hands free to manage carry-ons or wrangle squirmy offspring. And for international travel, the added stress of navigating a foreign language could be mitigated by automatically translating signage and other text into the user’s native language.
A growing trend in the realm of the airport experience is community-driven apps. Startups like AirportChatter are working to provide a conduit for travelers, airports, airlines, and retailers to keep each other informed about important happenings and make the most of their time in-terminal. Crowdsourcing their data provides a greater level of freshness than traditional models, as it’s being provided by people experiencing it in real-time, thereby enabling others to make better decisions that impact their own experience – from determining which security checkpoint is moving faster to which airport pub has the best happy hour prices. And for singles, there are apps and sites like meetattheairport.com that are banking on this new spin in online dating, if that’s your thing.
Several surveys have also cited the importance of a good experience before a traveler is anywhere near their local airport. From the moment we check in for our flight online, thoughts of our jaunt through the airport begin to creep into our minds – along with the laundry-list of preparatory to-dos. Apps like Mozio and Uber extend the realm of convenience and comfort beyond the terminal to provide fast, cost-effective, and up-scaled travel options to and from your local airport. Cloud-based apps like Wunderlist and Clear offer travelers an effortless way to log and track the list of tasks related to their upcoming trip, including the ability to share and sync tasks with a friend or colleague.
As technology continues to infuse itself into everyday items, scenarios involving “umbilical” products may become more prevalent – imagine being able to track your GPS-enabled checked baggage from the moment it leaves your hands and get an alert if it happens to end up on the wrong plane. Ideally, these “smartbags” would also have RFID or NFC that communicates with airport and airline infrastructure to ensure that the lost-bag nightmare becomes a “when I was your age” story we tell to our grandkids.
International travel could also benefit from connected experiences that bridge the analog and digital worlds. One idea we are exploring spawned from work we did recently for the youth market using “smart-toys” designed to interact with a mobile device’s on-screen UI: digital passports. Rather than the traditional book-style passport, the digital version is stored securely on the user’s mobile device. When the user arrives at customs, geo-fencing automatically fires up the passport on-device and begins communicating with the airports infrastructure to pre-screen the traveler. ID is confirmed by the customs agent using visual inspection and/or biometric scan (fingerprint, retina, voicewave scan or a combination of the three). The traveler’s passport is then digitally “stamped” with an e-signed device that is tapped on the traveler’s screen. The benefits we see in this scenario include peace-of-mind and security for the traveler, passport information that is always up-to-date, faster customs processing to reduce airport congestion, and parallel authentication for travelers with dual citizenship.
Can fun be had in airport? Granted, security and shopping will continue to define our travel experience, but one hopes that the evolution of the world’s airports and the technology that connects to them might help. Fun isn’t a word that people have come to expect from airport environments, but there are many passionate folks exploring ways to change that.