Technology focus: airport innovations

17 Jun 2009 by Mark Caswell

Paperless boarding using barcodes scanned from mobile devices has been well reported, with airlines such as Lufthansa, SAS and Air France all trialling solutions. But technology provider Real Time is behind further innovations in airport technology, aimed at helping strategic planning within terminal buildings.

Real Time's RT-Queue system allows airports to track the Bluetooth signals of people transiting through their terminals. Frankfurt Airport, London Luton and Leeds Bradford International have all recently adopted RT-Queue in an effort to monitor passenger congestion. Further undisclosed airports are also understood to be evaluating the technology.

"We've spent a lot of time with airports asking ‘How can we track our passengers?'" said Real Time's technical director Alastair Deacon. "If they're monitoring a queue, they might go out with a clipboard and time passengers with a stopwatch. What we're able to do is track a passenger in real time through the terminal by logging their unique Bluetooth ID. We're then able to build up a picture of the paths passengers take through an airport."

Used in ‘real time', RT-Queue tells an airport operator where to divert manpower, open new queues and relieve congestion. But as Mr Deacon explained, the technology has a wider implication in strategic planning. For example, an airport could find that its travellers are taking too long to get from one terminal to another. Bus services could then be increased accordingly. Mr Deacon said: "Generally architects use simulation tools to draw a plan and say ‘yes, it takes about this time to walk'. But people don't always go the way you think they will. Airports can plan, but this gives a real world view of what's really going on in terminals."

RT-Queue is a system for tracking crowd flow rather than the individual passenger. As such, not all travellers need have their Bluetooth on, and in fact many do not. "Yes, it has to be enabled," Mr Deacon added, "but it's surprising, we see around 15-20 per cent of passengers with a mobile we can track, which is quite significant. Airport staff with clipboards might take two readings an hour. In a small airport we can track up to 5,000 passengers a day."

Keen to dispel concerns over privacy, Mr Deacon explained that Bluetooth information is encrypted and only the unique ID number is tracked. There is no way of knowing who that device belongs to, or a person's telephone number. He said that some airports are even putting up signs telling travellers that they may be being tracked by Bluetooth, in the same way CCTV signs tell them they're being watched.

While paperless boarding using mobile devices is nothing new, Real Time's FirstPass barcode system is arguably more relevant to business travellers. Real Time's solution allows mobile boarding without having to first specify a phone model or even make. Not immediately impressive, but as Mr Deacon argues, not everyone has that information readily available, crucial if a barcode is to display correctly.

"With some other similar systems, you have to go to their website and they ask ‘oh by the way, what make and model do you have?' Well I might know it says Nokia on the front, but if you don't know the model number you have to take the back off and read it off the serial plate. That's not going to work," he said.

Despite a partnership with Lufthansa Systems, Lufthansa the airline is trialling its own mobile boarding technology independent of its sister IT company, as are other carriers. According to Mr Deacon, many of these solutions are being developed "in house" but without the unique ability to automatically send barcodes in the correct display format.

"If you're used to using a PC and you use Firefox, Google Chrome or Internet Explorer, you'll see that web pages appear slightly differently on all three. The same thing happens with mobile phones. It is extremely difficult to get pictures on to a mobile phone that are the correct look and aspect ratio. Even two models of Nokia will display a picture slightly differently. That's the big trick to it," he said.

FirstPass could also open up a new source of revenue for many airlines, with ‘no-frills' low cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet in mind. Mr Deacon said: "With the low cost market we have the facility within the system to reverse charge to the mobile phone. For a low cost carrier, depending on what they want to set the bill at, we can charge a passenger several pounds to receive the barcode and pass that on to the airline." So far no budget airline has taken up the system as a new source of revenue. But as Mr Deacon revealed: "There is interest in that market place, and that's worldwide. I'm talking to some in the US right now."

If checking-in online rather than at the airport wasn't convenient enough, Austrian Airline's passengers will soon be able to check-in and confirm seating simply by replying ‘yes' to a text message. Mr Deacon said Austrian is to enhance FirstPass mobile boarding with SMS Check-in "imminently", which texts passengers 24 hours before departure with a suggested seat number. "There has been some SMS-based check-in in some of the Scandinavian countries on domestic routes," Mr Deacon admitted, "but those don't give you a mobile boarding pass too. The difference is we're delivering you a full, industry compliant boarding pass as part of it."

Real Time is primarily targeting business travellers with its SMS Check-in and FirstPass system. Mr Deacon said: "We did have a guy turn up with four boarding passes for his whole family on his one mobile phone, and stood there and pulled up each one in turn, it's not really intended for that. That's not to say it can't be used by anyone. Mobile phone penetration among airport travellers is very high, generally everybody has one."

Real Time could realise its hopes of a boost in revenue by selling RT-Queue to the world's increasingly efficient airports. But it's the convenience afforded passengers using FirstPass and SMS Check-in, not to mention the potential revenue stream, which will be the most attractive prospect to an airport's other key customers, its airlines.

"Full service carriers are seeing FirstPass as a passenger convenience and a differentiator for them. It is driving competition on some routes," said Mr Deacon. "But it really comes down to efficiency. If I'm a business traveller lying on a beach and a text message comes in saying ‘we've put you in seat 3 tomorrow' and that's fine, three button clicks and I can go back to the bar."

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Report by Andy Gough

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