Smart Environments: The Airport of Today and Tomorrow

By Alan C. Brawn, CTS, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME

Let’s face it, we are living in an increasingly “smart” world. We talk on smartphones, work in smart buildings, and watch television on smart TVs. We even have smart appliances and smart cars! In this manner, we are using the term to mean connected and informed, in stark contrast to “dumb” devices which are not. All of these “smarts” involve making us more knowledgeable, better informed, faster to respond and interact, and able to do so more efficiently. In other words, smarter. With airports being the most pervasive form of mass transportation, it is only natural to want to make them smarter, as well. Let’s look at what this can (and should) mean.

The goal is to have seamless dissemination of information in real time, keeping in mind that one size and/or type does not fit all. Information may be general in nature on big screens throughout an airport, or personally significant via a self-service kiosk (or a personal mobile device). Information may be informative, directional, or entertaining in the type of content that is produced. Think about this as a digital networking ecosystem, made up of a variety of customer touch points intending to provide an improved (and hopefully exceptional) passenger experience. All of this can be configured to function as a single technology ecosystem to support overall airport operations.

All airports of any size have an effective flight information display (FID) system, providing real-time data from their networks showing flight status and delays. FIDs are located at arrival and departure areas and at check-in counters. They provide valuable information to passengers, informing and guiding them about flight schedules and departure gates. FIDs are also very effective in managing traveler expectations, especially in the event of a delay.

Airport Terminal Display Ceiling Mount

Airports can also leverage gate information display (GID) systems. GIDs provide timely information before the flight, specific to that flight… they can also be effective in facilitating the boarding process. GIDs also promote passenger self-service to reduce frequently asked questions of gate agents. Information on GIDs might include boarding zones, departure times, passenger upgrade lists, standby lists, or information about arrival cities, displayed and updated as needed.

After a long flight, your priority will no doubt be getting your luggage as quickly as possible and moving on to the next location. Baggage information display (BID) systems are a fitting example of self-service, used to relay baggage carousel assignments. Behind the scenes, BIDs can also inform baggage handlers of the proper luggage drop-off and pick-up points, helping them identify and route bags quickly to arriving and departing aircraft.

Airport Baggage Claim Display

Of course, to qualify as a smart airport, it goes beyond the basic FIDs, GIDs, and BIDs. Expanded services include wayfinding that can guide passengers every step of the way inside (and perhaps outside) of the terminals.  To be most effective, you need to move past simply showing a map on a screen. Providing interactive wayfinding, offering guided maps of the airport’s layouts, amenities, concessions, and the most efficient way to go with turn by turn instructions can make all the difference in the passenger experience. This can even be linked to a mobile device for access on the go. This reduces passenger stress and reduces the need to ask airport staff for directions freeing them up for other tasks.

Keep in mind the instructional aspects of a smart airport digital signage system. It is not safe to assume that everyone knows all the pertinent information that is required to successfully navigate through the terminal, to the gate, and find your seat on the plane.  Information is needed about the check-in process, mandatory security checks, baggage policies, first aid availability, and other airport-specific procedures. This information-based system can also be used for emergency notifications, broadcast disaster updates, and instructions on how to get to safe zones.

Beyond the basic information that a smart airport can provide, the effect of stress on passengers cannot be overstated in terms of what many consider unproductive time spent at the airport waiting for a flight. At this point, one of the worst words that can be spoken is delay! It is proven that properly deployed digital signage can significantly reduce perceived wait times and stress. While it is important to keep the passengers continuously informed with updates on arrivals, departures, flight status, flight numbers, etc., more positive distractions are called for to mitigate the negative effects of sitting and waiting.  These elements can take the form of news feeds, weather reports, streaming media feeds, and branded videos and advertising used to entertain passengers and take their minds off the delays.

Airport Baggage Display

On the surface, the smart airport digital signage is made up of a myriad of resources that help travelers get to their destination efficiently and as stress-free as possible. But it goes beyond traveler facing information comprised of FIDs, BIDs, GIDs, wayfinding, and emergency notifications. It goes behind the scenes as well. If properly designed, it also can engage with the internal staff and daily routines of the airport. It influences at the organizational level with positive results that show better efficiency and ultimately a more informed and happier team that serves the traveler’s needs.

Digital signage in airports is truly diverse. In a sense, an airport is a captive environment. As such, the more the information that is (effectively) disseminated the better. The secret is to find ways to seamlessly provide that to travelers (and staff) where they are, when they need it, and on devices that are easily available to them. We know that digital signage can improve the experience but to be truly successful it needs a call to action that prompts engagement. As one subject matter expert told me, “All it takes is a little bit of creativity and technical expertise”.

Video wall mount installation

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