Destination airport! How San Francisco's high-tech approach is overhauling the passenger experience

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Pamela Whitby hears how San Francisco Airport (SFO) is using technology to ensure that it remains the region's airport of choice

Think the airport is just a place you go catch a plane? Think again.

Though perhaps not quite as important as the end destination, today’s time pressed, tech-savvy traveller increasingly takes the airport experience into consideration when making a purchasing decision. With its close proximity to Silicon Valley and a citywide desire to reflect the innovative spirit of the region, this is a trend that San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is looking to exploit.

“Our goal is to become a destination airport which people choose to fly from because of the features and amenities we offer,” explains Doug Yakel, public information officer, communications and marketing, at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Like any destination marketer, it’s crucial to think about your audience, and being near to Silicon Valley means that a high percentage of people passing through SFO will actively use a mobile device. That also reflects a global trend which other airports should take note of; EyeforTravel’s recent Mobile in the Air Travel Industry 2014 report reveals that as many as 70% of travellers today will travel with a smart phone or tablet. But the research also warns that profits from mobile may not come from direct revenue but the business efficiencies mobile delivers, such as improving check-in and deployment of resources

We believe that by improving our facilities and amenities, travellers are more likely to choose us over other airports

Doug Yakel, Public Information Officer, Communications & Marketing, at SFO

That said Yakel believes there are clear commercial benefits for investing in technology and specifically in mobile.

“We have to remember that although we are the largest international gateway in Northern California, we do compete with other airports in the region. We believe that by improving our facilities and amenities, travellers are more likely to choose us over other airports,” he says.

So, what exactly is SFO doing right now to deliver a great customer experience? Let’s take a look.

1. Hoop-free WiFi

Customer feedback is important, and recent survey highlighted some issues with SFO’s WiFi provision. Although WiFi has been free throughout the airport for over five years, customers were required to “jump through too many hoops” in order to access it. “There is certainly an expectation today that WiFi will be available, free and easy to access,” says Yakel, a point backed up by EyeforTravel’s recent research.

As a result, last year SFO took the decision to implement advertisement-free WiFi and what is more, they are investing in improving bandwidth by adding more routers throughout the airport. In January this year, in the terminal where United Airlines (it’s biggest airline customer) flies from, SFO went as far as to facilitate free WiFi for customers all the way on to the aircraft. While there is a cost to this, Yakel believes the pay off is worthwhile and access to such improved services is very much part of the travellers purchase decision.

As EyeforTravel’s research shows, many travellers today expect free and easy access to the internet while on the road, and they are more likely to download mobile apps if this is the case.

2. Wow-inducing way finding for the great indoors

As a department of the City of San Francisco, SFO is committed to improving the experience of customers, and especially those with disabilities. On this front, a pilot is underway to test a mobile application that utilises beacons to derive location information and points of interest.

One terminal is now fitted with 500 beacons, which reveal points of interest and help passengers navigate their way through the airport. While this could eventually be useful for all passengers, it is especially true for the visually impaired, or those with disabilities, who can find it very daunting to move through an airport.

Working closely with Indoors, an Austrian company specialising in location- based technology, SFO has developed a prototype and expects this will available for general use by next summer. “This is something that could really change the way-finding experience in the airport by replacing the visual signage that clutters terminals,” says Yakel.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what beacons can do

While the app still needs refining, it will highly customisable, depending on the customers wants and needs. The idea is that the app will be freely available but will only be released once it’s available for public use in every terminal.

Interestingly, one thing that has helped to make this possible is a mayoral office Entrepreneurship in Residence Programme, which encourages city departments to pair up with entrepreneurial companies like Indoors to solve a particular business case. The result of this relationship has led to the development of a prototype in just 16 weeks, but in Yakel’s view, “we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of what beacons can do”.

3. Collaborative spaces, a nod to Silicon Valley connections  

Another recent development is the opening of an 850-square foot facility equipped with tables, lounge-style chairs, power outlets, free WiFi, and a giant erasable white board, with markers, covering an entire wall. Those wishing to use the space are encouraged to promote their intended topic of interest, date, and time on their personal social media channels using the hashtag #Converge, and where possible tagging @flySFO. 

“Airports are a natural place for people to come together to collaborate, be creative and share information,” explains Yakel, pointing again to the high percentage of tech-savvy travellers who pass through SFO.

Airports are a natural place for people to come together to collaborate, be creative and share information

“It was through their feedback that we decided it would be interesting to create a space for collaboration, for brainstorming a new idea or technology or exchanging thoughts on shared economies,” he adds.

Launched a month ago, the space has already received interest from some high profile business leaders and the region’s tech elite.

4. The first airport website in Mandarin Chinese

SFO’s goal is to lead the way in airport innovation, to reflect the innately innovative spirit of the region and another recent example, is the decision to launch the first dedicated Chinese language airport website.

Going forward

Airports and airlines around the world are looking at ways to use technologies that can make the airport experience more enjoyable.

From mapping technologies, to wearable devices and location-based services, there are many ways to improve the customer journey while also driving incremental revenues. The importance of this topic will be explored at EyeforTravel’s upcoming Mobile & Innovation in Travel conference in San Francisco, March 23-24.

Clearly airports are not what they used to be, and more change is coming.

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