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NEWS Last modified on October 13, 2015

BLOG: Peak Travel Season and the Importance of Flight Information for Airports

It was another whirlwind of a holiday season in the UK this summer with the number of flights at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports reaching record levels in July, writes John Grant.

On the 24th July, London Heathrow handled 130,000 departing passengers whilst London Gatwick handled 913 flights on the same day, with one flight every 95 seconds at peak times.

In July alone, Heathrow provided 3,972,829 seats, an increase of more than 200,000 seats from July 2014, according to data from OAG.

The outstanding performance of the two major London airports once again highlights the compelling case for additional runway capacity at both airports to cater for future demand.

However, with high demand came operational challenges and with the significant increase in traffic, UK airports also struggled to keep up with on-time performance.

At Heathrow, 140 flights were cancelled in July and 6,649 were delayed according to OAG data, a 19% and 15% increase over 2014, respectively. 

Despite one of the highest travel satisfaction ratings in the world, travellers to and from the UK continue to desire an even better airport experience, and often become frustrated when delays, cancellations and crowded airports affect their trips.

In times like this when capacity and traffic spike, pressure builds on all parts of the airport and airline operations and keeping passengers up to date with timely information becomes crucial.

Airports deal with a lot of moving parts every day – passengers, airlines, handling agents, maintenance staff, security, restaurants, retailers, public transport providers and more.

They are brilliant at handling the many facets of day-to-day operational management, but on occasion, massive seasonal spikes in traffic can strain even the largest airports, including the likes of Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. 

For every airport – regardless of size – keeping all parties informed and on-schedule, especially in the event of delays and cancellations, is key to creating a seamless travel experience.

On these peak holiday travel days, getting flight status information to passengers as early as possible, through all viable channels (mobile, web, terminal displays, FIDS, SMS and more) is critical as airports (and airlines) aim to manage an overwhelming load of passengers. 

For airports, gathering and disseminating flight information to millions of travellers per month is not an easy task, but it’s an absolute necessity – and not just for customer satisfaction.

Having a real-time and action-orientated picture of all flights arriving and departing, along with a clear understanding of the impact that delays will have, can help airports operate more efficiently.

For example, when several international flights arrive at the same time due to a backlog, airport staff can be redeployed to high-traffic areas, like customs and the terminals, to reduce customer wait times. 

When airport systems are under increased capacity pressure, the immediacy of flight information becomes critical. Real-time delay and cancellation information keeps airport staff and infrastructure on schedule and ensures that travellers are informed and satisfied.

In other words, accurate and timely flight information fuels airport efficiency.  
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One strategy that airports are increasingly adopting to deal with this issue is partnering with a flight information firm.

While outsourcing data to third parties may make airport executives nervous about cost and control, the benefits are clear: more accurate information – covering more airlines and airports – keeps travellers more informed and increases overall satisfaction. 

A one-stop shop reduces the internal headaches associated with data aggregation and dissemination and typically saves airports and airlines substantial resources.  

More importantly, investing in the proper technology and partners with the goal of providing the best and most transparent travel information possible can lead to increased airport revenue. 

For example, while not in the UK, Tampa Bay International Airport reported a 10% increase in airside concession revenue and 6.8% increase in dollars spent per passenger after equipping terminals with displays that offered more accurate travel information. 

With the average UK passenger spending over £52 per trip at the airport, a similar 10% increase in airport revenues would equate to millions of extra pounds for the UK airport operators over a summer season.

If keeping customers informed is key throughout the day of travel, then the revenue benefits derived appear significant for the airport as much as the passenger. 

• John Grant is a senior analyst at OAG.

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