In the last couple of months, airports in the UK, Europe and the US have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. As passenger demand came roaring back, staff shortages and strikes created the perfect storm leading to delays, cancellations, and some very unhappy customers. 

So far, it’s been a different situation in Asia, where passenger numbers have been slower to bounce back to pre-pandemic numbers. But wherever they are in the world, airports need to find solutions to both today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Passenger volumes are forecast to rise significantly over the next couple of decades so they need to find ways to maximise capacity. Airports also need to create opportunities to uplift revenue, and, armed with the knowledge that happy customers spend more, they need to improve the customer experience in ways that go beyond efficiency.

Digital technologies can provide the solutions. By utilising new technologies combined with data analytics airports can both streamline processes and create apps that optimise opportunities for passenger engagement and cross-selling. And with millennials and gen zeds now making up three quarters of the market, airports need to provide the kinds of digital experiences they expect while not alienating their older passengers.

Cutting the queues and increasing efficiency

The number of global passengers is expected to more than double in the next twenty years, from 8.8 billion in 2018 to 19.7 billion by 2040. Airports everywhere need to get more people through without greatly expanding their facilities.

Dubai is one airport already rising to the challenge. Back in 2018 it was the busiest in the world with just under 90 million customers passing through each year. Planning for 118 million passengers by 2023, the airport worked with digital technology partners to create a system that could monitor every step in a passenger’s journey, then use machine learning to find ways to increase capacity and reduce queuing. The system cut queue times at Terminal 3 immigration from 14 minutes to 8 in just three days. 

Though passenger volumes haven’t yet hit that projected figure of 118 million due to the pandemic, the airport’s commitment to digital transformation means it has the systems in place to deal with increases in volume before they happen. 

Virtual queuing is another way to minimise the time passengers spend in bottlenecks around, for instance, security or customer service desks. Instead, passengers are given a specific time slot to join the physical queue, and are free to enjoy themselves shopping, eating or relaxing in an airport lounge until that time. Trialled in both UK and US airports in recent years it benefits both customers and airports who are under considerable pressure to uplift non-aeronautical revenue.

Goodbye boarding passes, hello biometrics

Since the pandemic there’s been a renewed focus on self-service and contactless interactions, from check-in to bag drop and beyond. Airlines and airports around the world are testing ways of doing away with the paper boarding passes we always worry about losing, and even passports in some circumstances.

British Airways are using self-service biometric boarding for all domestic flights at Heathrow’s Terminal 5; meanwhile Delta Air Lines has brought in biometrics at Atlanta and Detroit. Singapore’s Changi Airport uses iris scans and facial recognition cameras in Terminal 4. Dubai Airport has trialled a similar set up with an extra layer of engagement. Passengers were required to walk through a tunnel simulating an aquarium, with shoals of virtual fish capturing both their attention and all the different facial angles needed to authenticate their identity

Raising customer satisfaction levels and spending

Making things more efficient is one way to improve the customer experience, but airport passengers want more than just streamlined processes. They want travel information so they can arrive at the airport stress-free. They want choice in how the spend their time, and they want distraction while queuing for the next stage of their journey. 

In the next few years beacon-enabled airport apps able to offer highly personalised experiences have the potential to come into their own. Such an app becomes an ecosystem where different partners can add value, and maximise revenue, at every part of the journey. At Glasgow Airport for example, parking revenues from digital channels increased by 20% after the launch of their highly rated airport app together with a redesign of the website.

Of course, different customers want different things. Personalisation is key and the more access airports have to data the better the experiences they can provide. For example, business travellers may just want to get in and out as quickly as possible. For other passengers, having fun at the airport is an essential part of their holiday experience. Data will allow airports to serve individual customers with the experiences they are looking for, from special offers on food and drink to games for children or directions to the most instagrammable spots in the terminal. 

Airport apps can also assist with way-finding, directing passengers to check in, bag drop, security, gates, and – that saviour during flight delays – phone charging points. They might even suggest alternatives to busy areas, so if one eatery is overrun, another close by is suggested.

Robots to the rescue

And it’s not just about apps and behind-the-scenes technology. Robots are being trialled at airports around the world for a number of different functions. Some engage with customers. A friendly electric airport parking robot named Stan has already been trialled at both Charles de Gaulle and Gatwick Airport. At Incheon Airport in South Korea, AIRSTAR can talk to you in a number of languages and lead you to the check-in desk. Gita at Philadelphia International will deliver your food order, while cleaning robots at Heathrow disinfect areas using UV light and security robots are on patrol at Quatar and Kansai.

Serving passengers through technology

With almost endless possibilities created by new technologies and data capabilities, it’s an exciting time for airports. But no matter how advanced the technology, passengers are still the most important factor. It’s those airports that work hard to get to know their passengers better, build the technology around their needs and then deliver highly personalised experiences at exactly the right moment will be the ones who find themselves ready for take-off.