Gatwick tech drive keeps customers happy

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Airports around the world are investing heavily in technology to improve the customer experience, and the world’s busiest single runway airport is no exception

Airports can be excruciating places but through considered investments in technology they can play an important role in improving the travel experience.

From the 2016 Airport IT Trends Survey, it seems that airports have recognised this. The survey, which was co-sponsored by SITA and Airports Council International, finds that airports are placing higher priority on IT investments. In fact 50% say IT is a top priority, up from just 37% on the previous year. The number one priority for airports is passenger-processing technology, followed by security.

Technology investments have certainly been a priority for Gatwick, the world’s biggest single runway airport, which meets 44 million customers each year. It was an early adopter of biometric security gates, has the world’s largest self-serve bag drop, has invested in real-time people monitoring to better understand the flow through the airport, and has developed an app for airport employees to communicate with each other. And that’s just the beginning.

…technology transformed the passenger journey and improved operational efficiencies

Speaking at the EyeforTravel Europe Summit in May, Guy Stephenson, Chief Commercial Officer of Gatwick Airport said technology had transformed the passenger journey and improved operational efficiencies. As an example, in 2009, 150 people went through security every hour, but today that number has risen to 700. At the same time, queuing time went from 30-40 to less than five minutes. 

Connected travel

Like many other airports Gatwick is also working to meet the demands of the connected traveller, whose needs have changed in the past few years as technology has advanced. In 2011, Stephenson said customers were saying ‘I don’t want to queue’, hence its investment in technology to improve passenger processes and flows. But in 2016 passengers have indicated that they want to feel in control. And for airports like Gatwick to meet this need, they must invest in technology that provides personalised experiences.

Tesco virtual supermarket at Gatwick Airport
Image Credit: Pocket-lint  

Mobile is playing a crucial part in this process and 90% of airports are already involved in a major programme or trial, with around 74% of airports committed to piloting context-aware and location based technology in the next five years.

Although Gatwick was a bit late in developing its own mobile app, Stephenson insists they wanted to get it right. And today the Gatwick app, which links to a passenger’s flight, allows them to leverage prior knowledge of a consumer and talk to them directly. 

Gatwick is also exploring ways to make the building more “intelligent” and has invested in passive Wifi analytics to understand the movements of customers as they travel through the airport. Stephenson highlighted some of the benefits, which include the ability to optimise staffing, use real-time data to understand customer needs and increased advertising revenue, through intelligent data-led promotions. By using data to offer customers relevant premium services, for example, it has seen net promoter scores rise to record levels.

By using data to offer customers relevant premium services it [Gatwick] has seen net promoter scores rise to record levels

Opening its API to its commercial customers has also allowed companies like Easyjet provide an excellent app by harnessing Gatwick’s rich data.

So committed is Gatwick to becoming the most technologically advanced airport in the world, it’s even investing in start-ups that are innovating with technology. One innovation could be giving customers the ability to hail disabled assistance on demand. Other possibilities could be virtual sniffer dogs that operate 24/7, drones to inspect runways and Internet of Things sensors placed all round the airport so that bins, for example, become ‘smart’. Gatwick Airport is already deploying artificial intelligence to ‘hoover up’ data on its customers that will be used to power chat bots in the future.

For Gatwick investing technology has made a massive difference to operational issues but there is also significant potential for revenue generation.

Airports around the world are certainly looking to technology to generate non-aeronautical revenue. According to the 2016 airport survey, 84% are looking to enable the purchase of airport services through their mobile app. Another trend is the shift to providing hybrid public Wifi services that combine the convenience of limited free access with commercial offerings. The survey says that over the next three years the proportion of airports planning to offer unrestricted free Wifi will drop from 74% to 54%, a change being driven mainly driven by airports in North America and the Middle East.

Ultimately, however, airports are in a battle with others for a share of the customer wallet. For Stephenson it’s about making the airport as efficient as possible to make customers happy, because happy customers spend more money.

There is still work to do.

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