The airport of the future will likely resemble the airport of today – but with one key difference: passengers will increasingly depend on mobile devices and associated technology as they travel into, through and between airports, writes Dan Thompson, senior vice-president of global strategy and investor relations at GuestLogix.

Due to passengers’ preferences for a ‘mobile everywhere’ experience that covers the travel gamut, they expect their mobile device and the technology within it to handle everything, including booking, confirmation, lounge access, upgrades, boarding, in-flight purchases and content streaming within the cabin, to ground transportation and hotel check-in areas at their destination. For airlines, airports and travel operators, these increased mobile expectations and passenger demands also present many new opportunities to generate ancillary revenue and build long-term loyalty.

Although unseen by the naked eye, mobile technology is already dominant in the airport of the future, as evidenced by these statistics:

  • 97% of today’s airline passengers arrive for their flights accompanied by a smartphone or other mobile device (source: SITA)
  • in 2015, nearly one billion people worldwide will access the internet via mobile devices only (source: Ovum).

In the airport environment, passengers’ smartphones, tablets and wearables can function as search and booking engines, boarding passes, and digital wallets for payments and loyalty cards. Conversely, airport, airline and travel operators can rely on mobile devices as ancillary revenue generators, flight attendant record-keepers, mobile customer service agents, and on-the-go transactional devices for passengers’ purchases, upgrades, information tracking and more. Airports, however, will need the proper connectivity infrastructure, technology and equipment in place to support all of these new behaviours, interactions and transactions.

An airport technology spectrum

Over the past decade, GuestLogix has built its global reputation as an end-to-end ancillary revenue and retail platform for the airline and travel industries. Its point-of-sale devices are powered by mobile technology that supports ancillary revenue and transaction processing on and off-board.

In doing so, GuestLogix created opportunities for passengers to securely and conveniently purchase food and beverages, duty-free products, seat upgrades, destination-based content and other travel-relevant items from their seats, including simple-to-execute pre-orders, transactions with flight attendants or self-service modes.

In the past few years, mobile technology has changed rapidly and significantly affected airline and airport operations. Today’s point-of-sale devices and tablets, for example, help streamline the entire retail process, and larger screens support the visual display of products and more detailed product information. Underlying technology supports data entry and other logistical functions throughout the airport.

From the perspective of GuestLogix, the airport of the very near future will be heavily technology-enabled across a spectrum of activities and experiences within its walls.

The range of innovation will include:

  • self-service kiosks throughout airports for information, maps, amenities, buy-now-pick-up-later purchases, flight status checks, loyalty upgrades and more
  • handheld point-of-sale devices, tablets and smartphones, wearables and other technology to help airport retail clerks, airport staff and ground crew handle a variety of activities such as checking in passengers; scanning and tracking baggage; tracking passenger lists; and accessing important documents, policies, procedures and information.

The mobile-enabled airport

Many travellers today negotiate their trips almost completely within the mobile environment. Technology is so pervasive and adept that a mobile-enabled passenger can use a smartphone or tablet to execute a variety of activities that once required a telephone call, a hardwired computer or human assistance. Passengers can research and book a flight, check in, check baggage, pass through security, check flight status, board, rent an in-flight movie, deplane and track baggage, rent a car and access their hotel room from a smartphone.

When today’s airline experts talk about the need for ‘seamless’ travel experiences, the above scenarios are what they have in mind – the ability for passengers to begin a transaction from one device, their laptop or computer at home; pick it up midway on a second device, their smartphone on the way to the airport; and conclude it on another device, their tablet or smartphone as they wait in the lounge, without missing a beat, or having to reboot, re-enter information or log in separately. This seamless experience will become a reality when it spans and is supported by travel retailers, travel operators, airlines and the airport.

So how technologically seamless could a traveller’s airport experience become? Here are a few examples:

  • Pre-arrival: Even before they arrive at the airport, 38% of consumers say they are more likely to buy ancillary items like in-flight meals and amenities, upgrades, Wi-Fi and baggage fees through a mobile device, according to the 2014 NCR ‘Traveler Experience Survey’. Airport services will have to embrace mobile transactions and the facilities that support them, such as pick-up and delivery services for meals, or products purchased prior to airport arrival.
  • Self-service transactional opportunities: Today’s consumers are clearly ready for self-service opportunities: 61% of respondents in a 2013 Cisco ‘Customer Experience Report’ would be willing to shop in a completely self-automated store and 73% would like to be able to pay anywhere, at any time. Imagine an airport filled with strategically located self-service kiosks that are used by smartphone-swiping passengers to pre-order meals, buy duty-free products or souvenirs for pick-up at a retail store, rebook a cancelled or missed flight, upgrade tickets, rent a car, book a limo or taxi, or buy tickets to entertainment venues in the city to which they’re travelling. Mobile payment technology that supports any device and any operating system can make these transactions possible.
  • Mobile-enabled information hubs: Technology stations and mobile apps can support a host of activities throughout the airport. Connected to passengers’ smartphones, tablets or wearables, these services can function as airport map finders, store locators, dining guides, restroom and lounge maps, special services guides, baggage trackers and more. It’s possible some airports will establish concourse walking/fitness routes that enable Fitbit and Apple Watch-wearing passengers to track their steps, miles or times while they wait for flights – especially the delayed ones.
  • Passenger satisfaction opportunities in a data-rich environment: Beyond the ability to support transactions, mobile technology also provides rich data about the passenger-airline interaction. Mobile devices contain valuable information about the passengers who own them – contact information, demographics, loyalty status, transactional history and preferences, for example – and about the devices themselves like operating system, brand, location, movement, mobile app interactions and engagements. Data-armed airports, airlines, marketers and travel-chain partners can launch personalised promotions based on a passenger’s transactions, loyalty status, preferences, interests and destination. Marketers can view airports as an in-between-home-to-destination source of information, relying on data from the airport environment to create marketing opportunities before a flight (what will the passenger need or want for this particular trip?) and once the plane touches down (what will the passenger need upon arrival?).

The mobile-enabled airport of the future will require much cooperation among airlines, concessionaires and travel retailers, technology vendors, device manufacturers, app developers, payment-service providers and others, especially if they are collectively focused on meeting passenger demands for mobile technology and services that continuously enhance and improve travel experiences.

The GuestLogix vision is that this significant shift towards mobility represents a tremendous opportunity for the future airport. Through innovations that match passengers’ rapidly changing expectations of what the mobile environment can and should do, airports can deliver 24/7 connectivity, and supportive and seamless technology that creates satisfying, financially lucrative interactions and transactions from the beginning to the end of each journey. By doing so, they can position airports at the leading edge of the intersection of passenger mobility and technology.