Using Apps to Ease the Hassle of Navigating Airports

For Brett Fox, just getting around an airport could be difficult enough. From check-in to security lines to finding a meal that he actually wants, it added stress to the journey.

But then he discovered the turn-by-turn direction feature on American Airlines’s app when he and his family arrived at Miami International Airport from a Bahamas vacation last fall.

With it, he could find La Carreta — a Cuban restaurant at the airport where he had dined years before but whose name he could not remember — on the airport’s map.

“My wife and I had three kids who were hungry,” said Mr. Fox, a sales manager based in St. Louis for a legal research company. He did a search for Cuban restaurants at the airport, found La Carreta, and the app “showed us exactly where it was and the best way to get there.”

The capability on American’s app — known as “wayfinding” — is part of a growing trend among airlines and airports to use smartphones along with other technologies to make the airport experience smoother and less stressful.

American’s app uses Wi-Fi to give travelers customized information and directions on its airport maps. Other apps use sensors called beacons that also can help figure out the shortest security or customs and immigration lines.

In addition to the Miami airport, the American Airlines app offers turn-by-turn directions on maps of Chicago O’Hare International Airport and the San Jose and Phoenix airports. Soon directions will be available for, among others, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, La Guardia Airport in New York City, Los Angeles International Airport and Heathrow Airport in London.

Many other airlines and airports, like Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, home of KLM, are introducing the technology.

Albert van Veen, chief information officer of the Amsterdam airport, said its app could help reduce passengers’ stress and create a seamless journey “without the hassle of checking paper documents all the time.” He said, “Information and wayfinding on a personal level are crucial elements in attaining these goals.”

Mr. van Veen said Schiphol’s research found that 50 percent of travelers cannot find what they want at airports.

“Our goal is to be the world’s best airport,” he said. “Therefore, we have to offer an amazing airport experience.”

Many of the new systems require travelers to download an app from an airline or the airport. While some, like American’s, use Wi-Fi to provide information to travelers, others — particularly those developed by SITA, a communications and information technology company owned and operated by major airlines — use beacons. Beacons are transmitters that use Bluetooth technology to communicate with travelers.

SITA has deployed beacons at airports in Miami and Nice, France.

In a survey last year, SITA found that 30 percent of airports around the world “are planning major investments with sensor technology over the next three years, with a further 51 percent evaluating the technology.”


Mr. Fox, a regional manager for Bloomberg BNA, uses the American Airlines “wayfinding” app to navigate airports. CreditWhitney Curtis for The New York Times

Some United States airports use technology to provide other types of information.

Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, for example, is testing a system involving beacons and an app that helps visually impaired travelers, with the use of audio instructions, find their way to gates, restaurants and power outlets.

And airports in Austin, Tex., and Cincinnati use beacons to assess wait times at security checkpoints and display the information on terminal monitors. Terminal 4 at Kennedy International Airport in New York displays processing times on monitors for security, customs and immigration, and its taxi line located in the terminal, near the first-floor street entrance. Last week, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport began a six-week trial compilation of security wait-time data through SITA’s beacons.

Besides allaying travelers’ concerns about getting through security, wait-time data can also alert security officials about processing bottlenecks.

Airlines other than American offering apps include United, which is testing an “indoor location” app feature at Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport.

In Europe, easyJet’s Mobile Host app, developed with Gatwick Airport, outside London, assists travelers as soon as they approach the airport, telling them where they can check bags and providing directions to their gate.

One app feature that potentially could irritate travelers is the capability of bombarding them with unsolicited commercial offers. Also, privacy advocates are concerned about the data that marketers could potentially collect about travelers through such apps.

A spokeswoman for American Airlines said the carrier’s mobile app does not track or share user data.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said: “We have not tracked who is utilizing beacons. However, we do know that a number of airlines are considering harnessing the new technology of beacons to communicate with passengers.”

Beacons can use passengers’ locations to provide instructions, flight and gate information, proximity to gates and other important messaging to ease their travel experience. The beacons are shared between airlines and airports to analyze customer behavior.

Antoine Rostworowski, director of airport customer experience and technology for Airports Council International-World, a trade group, said that the group did not recommend sharing any personal information with airport security officials. He added that his organization urged members to adopt an opt-in policy for sending commercial information to travelers.

A spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta — which begins concessions marketing in the fall — said travelers would receive the information only if they requested it.

Then there is the issue of how many travelers will find the apps useful.

“Will consumers download an app they use from a business they only use intermittently, or of a hub they transit regularly?” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research. “The challenge is who will be the gateway to the customer’s phone, the airport, airline or another business entity?”

Travelers, he added, “are still trying to figure out what the real value is, if the services offered are compelling enough to download one more app to their phone.”

Mr. Fox, for one, is sold on American’s offering: “You have to know so many things today to be a frequent flier. What they’re trying to do at American is to take that knowledge so any traveler can have inside tips and be confident he can get to where he wants to go.”

[SOURCE :-nytimes]