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IT Last modified on January 5, 2017

The benefits of beacons

Unisys Corporation’s vice president and global head of travel and transportation, Dheeraj Kohli, explains why he believes that beacons represent the future for air travel.

It’s a situation most air travellers can relate to. After arriving in an airport terminal, you check the monitors and see you have some time before your initial or connecting flight is set to depart, so you can relax and decide to enjoy the best the airport has to offer in terms of amenities. 

Finding them, however, can be a totally different story as the information kiosks at even the most sophisticated airports can be a frustrating experience.

In today’s age of the connected traveller, more people rely on their mobile phones than ever before, especially as part of their travel experience. 

And as more people use their mobile devices to not only download their boarding pass and check in for their flights – but also to shop, surf, and catalogue their journey on social media – the mobile device presents an incredible opportunity for airports to connect with, support, and learn from the people travelling through their terminals.

According to a report last year, it is estimated that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the past two years. For context, we now generate more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day, enough to fill 10 million Blu-ray discs. 

However, the vast majority of that data is unstructured, leaving many businesses – including airports and airlines – trying to figure out how to best gather and analyse this data to better inform how they operate. As the old axiom goes, getting started is the hardest part.

Enter the beacon

In my opinion, the technology that can help build the bridge between airports, airlines and their travellers revolves around beacons. 

A beacon is a small wireless device that broadcasts a short-range Bluetooth signal. That signal is detected by an app on a mobile device as it comes in close proximity to the beacon, and can trigger notifications, open web pages, or push advertisements directly to that mobile device. A passenger need only download an app, which most airports have already developed. 

Bluetooth beacons are relatively small, inexpensive and have a long battery life of several years. As long as a passenger downloaded the app and opted in for the notifications, beacons placed throughout a facility would enable airports to offer customers a range of helpful information about their flights, parking, security checkpoints and retail. 

Real-time updates and navigation

Airports can use beacon technology in conjunction with mobile apps to deliver real-time ‘day of travel’ information services directly to passengers at the appropriate point in their journey. 

For example, if a passenger’s flight changes gate as they are going through security, their device would ping a beacon in the security checkpoint allowing the airport to relay the new gate information directly to their phone in real-time, so they can adjust their path accordingly, rather than walk through the terminal only to arrive at the wrong gate. 

For the passenger with extra time who might otherwise be standing at a crowded information kiosk, beacons can help the airport communicate directions straight to their smartphone. 

As an example, say traveller John Smith lands in Atlanta with two hours before his connecting flight takes off. As he gets off the first plane, the app on his phone pings the beacon in that part of the terminal, and he is instantly sent the details of where he is, where he needs to go for his next flight, and the fastest way to get there – all while avoiding a crowded monitor or having to wander aimlessly in search of the tram to the next terminal. 

Airport-Passenger-Mobile

Generating non-aeronautical revenues

When it comes to dining and retail, beacons can also play a valuable role in offering food and shopping options, as well as additional incentives to promote airport shops. 

Continuing the example above, let’s say John Smith arrives 90 minutes before his connecting flight is to depart. Hungry for lunch but not sure where to go, upon arriving in the terminal his phone pings the beacon there and John is sent information on nearby dining options and a coupon for 20% off his meal at the new high-end restaurant a short walk from his gate. 

This type of service makes it easier for travellers to plan out their stops, it builds customer loyalty, and most importantly it can foster growth in non-aeronautical revenue – always a priority for airports.

With the right application and the right array of beacons an airport can get a detailed sense of their network and where their customers are going. 

While it’s impossible to expect 100% of all travellers in the airport to be using the app at once, the data generated from it can still provide valuable insight. For instance, if a beacon in Terminal A shows a heavy volume of people frequenting one location while another is neglected, an airport can look closer to try and determine why that might be the case. 

It also allows the airport or retailers the opportunity to send a ping to people nearby with promotions encouraging them to visit the store. Over time, it can help gauge whether a change is needed in order to maximise revenue opportunity. 

Passenger flow management

Information generated from beacons about passengers, airlines, and baggage can be key to effectively planning an airport’s service capacity, resource distribution, and staffing levels. 

If an airport sees a high volume of travellers pinging a beacon around security checkpoint 1 with a relatively low volume of people pinging the beacon at checkpoint 2, for instance, resources can be diverted to either move passengers to the less crowded security line or provide additional staff at the busy location. 

This not only creates a more harmonious experience for the airport and the traveller, but the data can also be used to generate predictive models that can allow the airport to better plan for and allocate resources where they are needed most, before there is an urgent need to do so.

Operational efficiencies

Similar to the example with passenger flow, beacons can also help airports track their own employees to ensure that they are best utilised.

For example, if a problem arises near one of the gates, the airport can quickly check to see which employees ping the beacon near where the issue is allowing for a faster and more efficient response to problems as they arise. 

Additionally, beacons can help detect if any employee or individual tries to access an area that they are not supposed to, which can help ensure proper airport security. 

As for the security of the beacons themselves, most beacons come with different security features – many of which are customisable. Depending on the application in which you use your beacons, there are several ways to ensure that the data being generated is kept secure.

Summary

Not only do beacons generate analytics that can provide airports with an opportunity to improve the experience they offer to their travellers, but the data generated can help them bolster their own efficiency, organisation, and most importantly, their profitability. 

In the age of the connected traveller, being able to directly engage with customers where they are already playing can be a major differentiator for any airport or airline. 

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