This is not to say passenger Wi-Fi isn’t important: People increasingly see connectivity as an essential amenity and travellers do not want to pay roaming rates – they want free and reliable connectivity.
So, there’s a clear need for airport operators to look at how wireless is delivered and how the cost is justified.
Making passengers pay for Wi-Fi is one option, but that alone isn't enough to justify the cost of installing the system – and more importantly it misses out on a whole range of savings that wireless can enable.
Wireless should, and must, mean more than Wi-Fi and it should be for more than just passengers.
In fact, it can improve a number of other services and enable new ones that can save money in multiple areas: from tracking passenger movement, to retail EFTPOS and internal communications, through to security and premium services, wireless can offer airport operators much more than just the ability for passengers to pick up emails.
If all of these aspects are considered then it’s possible to install a system that keeps passengers happy, while providing both cost savings and new revenue streams to the airport.
Plus, different wireless services (from air traffic control radar to Wi-Fi), even in different frequencies, can all interfere with each other if not properly managed, so a holistic approach to wireless is essential to keep the airport running safely, smoothly and efficiently – as well as attracting more passengers.
Wireless in the skies
Wireless services for airlines and airports have been a high profile news topic in recent months, primarily as a result of the introduction of 4G (also referred to as LTE) and the relaxation of phone and laptop usage regulations on flights.
We’ve also started to see announcements that could make reliable and high-speed data connectivity on aircraft a viable option.
This can be done from base stations on the ground up to aircraft, from satellites in space down to the aircraft, or via a combination of both.
However, while most focus is on passenger communications the real commercial value can be for airline and airport operations.
Providing reliable wireless communications within airports can make life easier for both cabin crew and the ground staff charged with getting aircraft ready for departure.
These efficiency savings can deliver significant financial benefits; transmitting data in the background wirelessly saves time and on-line access to maintenance information can avoid problems. These services can reduce delays and problems.
Delays and congestion are a serious problem for airline operators. In 2014 over 20% of flights were delayed with around 2% cancelled.
If a single flight is delayed, the knock on effect can be felt by any number of other flights passing through both the host and destination airports.
It also results in significant costs for the airline, with upset passengers today being much more informed of their rights and ability to claim compensation.
In this environment, the result of these issues can be most acutely felt in customer service and satisfaction – which in turn impacts the return custom seen by the airlines and airports.
A solid wireless infrastructure can streamline processes, reduce the risk of delay, mitigate those that do occur and maintain customer satisfaction levels.
For cabin crew, instant access to the latest departure times at the arrival airport can help those with connecting flights find and plan alternative connections.
Another use case for wireless is in helping to get aircraft back in the air.
There is a huge amount of information associated with each plane and turning it around, and it is striking how much time it takes to handle this.
Using wireless can accelerate this dramatically, saving time and money.
As a simple example, upon docking each plane needs to restock food, drink and utensils for the next flight. By relaying stock levels wirelessly as the plane begins its approach, or whilst it is still taxiing to the terminal, crew on the ground can ensure these are all prepared and ready to load on board as soon as the plane docks.
To put this into perspective, reducing turn-time by just 10 minutes (with an average trip length of 500 nautical miles) improves aircraft utilisation by 8%.
Wireless on the ground
The most obvious opportunity for the aerospace industry is clearly in Wi-Fi for visitors. This might be paid for or as a benefit that can encourage travellers to select a particular airline.
Given air travel and stop-over times are almost entirely wasted time in the eyes of most passengers, there are clear benefits to customers if it meant being able to stream video or play games.
But there are other opportunities that this enables for airline operators that can lead to improved revenues –allowing ‘free’ Wi-Fi to be profitable.
One example is via a shared infrastructure for 3G and 4G mobile coverage for all mobile operators: this can ensure consistent coverage through the airport and act both a benefit for passengers and a revenue stream for airports.
The installation costs can also be shared with the infrastructure for operational communications, substantially reducing costs.
Advertising is another example: whenever a user connects to the network, targeted promotions can be pushed to their device, creating a new revenue stream for both the airport shops and businesses, or even those in the nearby towns and cities.
Much more sophisticated are techniques that track usage and device location metrics, to profile passengers and supply personalised advertising and offers.
This adds vastly value than traditional email marketing, which goes out to a wide list with no personalisation.
Managing traditional advertising boards also becomes much simpler – look at the example of Transport for London, using wireless to remotely control what electronic advertisements appear at bus stops.
Other examples include Burberry with their personalised displays, designed to catch the attention of particular shoppers.
Using a dedicated wireless system also opens up the potential of monitoring passenger behavior in airports, spotting the most popular routes and walkways and planning accordingly.
Rather than relying on the bigger mobile network from outside the building, providing wireless from inside the building makes it possible to spot the most popular bars and routes to and from the airport – opening up not just advertising options, but the ability to plan future developments with passengers in mind.
This can spot congestion or wasted spaces, helping make the most of valuable real estate.
Wireless for safety and security
Given the intense scrutiny, pressure and regulation put on modern airlines and airports to guarantee customer safety, the benefits that wireless infrastructure can bring to this aspect of a business are particularly significant to this industry.
We’ve seen the recent developments in 4G-based push-to-talk devices for security, to replace existing TETRA based communications units.
Not only do these now have a longer life span, with the emergency service standard TETRA facing a gradual phasing-out in some parts of the world, they bring additional security benefits.
No longer do staff need to rely on vague spoken descriptions of suspects or incidents, instead they can record video and photographic evidence and share it to their colleagues at the touch of a button.
We’re already seeing staff at venues use these services and it has the potential to be of use to both public and private staff alike.
In the event of a disaster or evacuation, the ability to communicate instructions to passengers is vital.
With debate around whether to use private or public networks for emergency service communications, having the right infrastructure is vital.
By ensuring there is stable, reliable connectivity in and around the premises, it becomes possible to do more than just provide voice communications, for example, pushing alerts and information directly to devices.
We have already seen a similar system in use in the United States, via the Nixle public safety system.
Revenue, efficiency & new business
Wireless is something that airports and airlines need to consider from the outset, and to take a much wider view.
A basic level of Wi-Fi access for passengers is a ‘hygiene factor’: necessary, but not a route to new business.
But with the right approach and planning, wireless can enable new services, new revenue streams and operational efficiencies both on the ground and in the skies, delivering a significant return on any investment needed.
As passengers expect more and more from airlines, wireless provides the ability to tailor personal services, track foot fall through buildings and get planes back into the air much quicker – worth much more than just letting passengers update Facebook from a departure lounge.
• Mark Keenan is commercial director of UK-based Real Wireless, an independent advisor in wireless technology, business, strategy & regulation worldwide.