Most passengers have, at some point, found it difficult to find their way around an airport, even when signage is clear. Rushing to find a connection can be a stressful experience that detracts from passenger satisfaction, which is why airports are keen to invest in wayfinding solutions that not only guide people through a physical environment, but also provide detailed information about where to locate key points of interest. Efforts to provide this capability have come in a variety of forms to date, but a new solution can now be found in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and the William P Hobby Airport (HOU).

At its core, a wayfinding system can reduce passengers’ anxiety by providing easy-to-follow signage and directions that are simple to interpret. Such systems, however, can become complex and costly, and map applications on mobile devices can be problematic, as they tend not to be very accurate indoors. Furthermore, as interior layouts in airports change and become more complex, the need for clear visual cues for wayfinding increases. Passengers flying from IAH or HOU, however, can now use the simple, easily accessible and up-to-date Maps Online service through the Fly2Houston website.

Turn-by-turn guidance

“The development of the system was driven by our understanding of how important wayfinding is,” explains Kathleen Boyd, head of marketing for Houston Airport System. “That comes from working in two airports, one of which is quite large. In 2016, we launched our new website, which focuses on the passenger journey through arrival, departure, connections, parking, picking up and dropping off. Our analysis showed that the number one page – after the landing page – was maps. This used to have a downloadable PDF file of each level in every terminal. Even that was better than the map we had three years ago, and it was very important to the passenger journey.

“We looked at our passenger satisfaction research and our international passenger hierarchy of needs survey, and found that two of the top priorities related to wayfinding, which means it is of paramount importance. The PDFs were good, and our maps have developed to include baggage reclaim, parking lots and even the art on view at IAH, but turn-by-turn wayfinding was necessary,” she adds.

Maps Online provides turn-by-turn graphics and text directions for each step of the path to a desired destination within the airport. The system also provides estimated travel times that are updated in real time and take into account the pace at which a passenger is moving.

“People cannot believe that they didn’t have this tool before,” says Boyd. “Turn-by-turn wayfinding is one thing, but it can also show you all of the steps to your destination and how long it will take to get there, including average times for security checks. It reduces passengers’ anxiety about whether they can get to their destination on time.”

Download-free directions

The core feature of Maps Online is the simple directions that guide the user from their start point to their destination. It also allows passengers to search for specific location information and points of interest including gates, ground transportation, ticket kiosks, shops, restaurants, security checkpoints and much more. One particular facet of Maps Online has made the system much more useable and accessible for passengers – it does not require passengers to download an app. Instead, it is easily accessed from any device or browser because the wayfinding tool resides on the website

Turn-by-turn wayfinding is one thing, but it can also show you all of the steps to your destination and how long it will take to get there, including average times for security checks.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Apps that take up space in the memory of a laptop, phone or tablet are less appealing to passengers, partly because the download and installation process may not seem justified when the functionality is only used infrequently and for a short period of time. Quick access to clear and relevant information through a website, however, is of great value.

“Our new website was developed as a mobile-first site. Downloadable apps are very expensive and the usage is not high for that level of investment, so we needed to do wayfinding through the web,” Boyd remarks.

The development process began when Boyd’s team looked at the maps United Airlines uses for its app. These were created by a San Francisco-based start-up that specialises in indoor wayfinding tools.

Boyd contacted the company and found that it was already working on a browser-based solution. This allowed the project to progress rapidly and for Houston to become the launch venue for Maps Online.

One added advantage of a web-based solution is that it enables the airport to update maps in light of changes to the indoor environment.

“IAH has five terminals and we have a two-year process of changing more than 200 concessions, so there is an unusual degree of change,” Boyd says. “Instead of the developer sending out carts to map the airport accurately, we provided it with our excellent geographic information system (GIS) data for public areas and, when we adjust these, which we do at least once a month, we use the great depth of information on points of interest to update Maps Online.”

The system is also being integrated with Apple Maps’ indoor service, so passengers can track their location accurately indoors using Apple’s familiar blue dot, and with Google Maps.

“The developer does not own any of our data on points of interest, and instead of doing quarterly updates, as might usually happen, it pushes our own data out to Apple and Google,” Boyd explains. “That means the data is always up to date. That also gives more depth to the information we provide. For instance, if passengers are looking for dining options they can not only see the description and location of an outlet, but also check if it is currently open, the times it serves breakfast, whether it has vegan or gluten-free options, and much more.”

Following in Houston’s footsteps

The response of passengers to Maps Online suggests that the solution has been a resounding success, even though it is in its early stages of release.

“The feedback has been very positive. People comment on how easy it is to use, and we have found no navigation errors. The system is also getting smarter, and we are making it easier to search in the language passengers use when they are searching for destinations, retail outlets or dining options. It gives them more flexibility to browse opportunities in the airport because they know the timings for their journey through the airport,” says Boyd.

Alongside the planned improvements to Maps Online, this opens up potential marketing opportunities. The system will soon link to live waiting times at security gates to provide live updates on approximate walking times to a given destination, and the airports are also planning to add accessibility features so that a passenger’s route can avoid escalators and guide them to elevators instead. At some point in the future, airport shops and restaurants may even be able to provide exclusive location-based deals through the map, enabling them to promote their services and allowing travellers to save money.

Nevertheless, Boyd is adamant that these marketing opportunities will not become the driving force behind the map service.

“We could add mobile ordering or coupon offerings, as well as clickable menus and other features that could have a positive impact on revenues,” she says. “There is a huge opportunity for that, but we do not want to be too pushy with promotions. People will need to opt in for coupons, for example. Everything must stay passenger-focused. It is all about giving passengers confidence by improving their journey through the airport. We are removing the fear of the unknown.”

There is no doubt that effective wayfinding solutions are a necessity in any large airport, and there will undoubtedly be many different approaches to creating the right functionality. The UK’s Gatwick Airport, for instance, is using a beacon-based system as part of its £2.5-billion transformation programme. This new technology will underpin a system that relies on augmented reality wayfinding, which gives clear instructions through mobile devices to ensure that passengers are less likely to miss flights. The 2,000 battery-powered beacons provide a relatively inexpensive solution and were deployed quickly across two terminals to deliver an indoor navigation system that is much more reliable than GPS.

There is certainly scope for many different routes to an effective wayfinding solution, each of which will depend, in part, on the priorities of different airports, but the simplicity of the technology being used in Houston will no doubt make web-based systems the ‘must-have’ technology for many airports around the world.