Are You Ready for the Airport Webolution?

Author: 
Greg Gerber
Published in: 
March-April
2012

Airports are hotspots of mobile technology. Business and casual travelers alike peck away at smartphones and other electronic portables as they converge from countless directions, only to leave a few minutes later in different directions. They incessantly gaze at their LCD screens to read a text, update their Facebook page, check a website or simply to relax with a game or book. 




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Project: Marketing via Mobile Technology

Locations: Greater Rochester (NY) Int'l Airport (mobile website); Indianapolis Int'l Airport (mobile app)

Mobile Website Pros: Easy to develop, inexpensive to maintain, accessible by a variety of mobile devices; don't require special software

Mobile Website Cons: Requires more effort by users to enter correct web address & find homepage; limitations on displayable information; must be search engine optimized for users to find correct links

Mobile App Pros: Decreasing development costs; reside on user devices for easy access; easy navigation; can incorporate airport mapping software; icons provide logo exposure

Mobile App Cons: More costly than mobile websites; generally available only for Apple & Android devices

Airports are jumping on the technology bandwagon to keep up with these customers by developing mobile websites and applications. Both are relatively new technologies made possible by software and hardware improvements during the past three years. 

In September, CNN/Fortune reported that smartphone use nearly doubled from about 40 million users in December 2009 to 75 million last June. And that's just cell phones. Infinite Research expects tablet shipments to increase from 16 million units in 2010 to 147.2 million units in 2015. And Corning, the maker of Gorilla Glass, predicts there will be 220 million laptops sold worldwide in 2014 alone.

With so many people getting their information on the go, airports are under increased pressure to serve travelers toting various mobile technologies.

Fortunately, industry specialists say it's easy and relatively inexpensive. The big debate seems to be whether airports should use mobile websites or applications.

The Case for Websites
Katherine Wellman, vice president of marketing and product management at FlightView, is a proponent of mobile websites. With travelers so accustomed to getting FlightView's arrival and departure information on airports' primary websites, mobile websites were a natural progression for the company.

A mobile website is specially designed so content displays easily on the smaller screens found on smartphones and tablets. Viewing traditional websites on a mobile device is sometimes frustrating, because users have to scroll up and down, back and forth on the screen to find the information.

"The key to developing a successful mobile website is to make sure the navigation is easy to use by people in a hurry," Wellman explains. "It should have the same look and feel of the airport's primary website, while giving users access to the information they need at the moment."

Most airports have content for a mobile website already displayed on their primary website; it's just a matter of extracting the most important information for someone on the go, and designing the page to display on a smartphone, she explains. 

According to Wellman, timely information about arrivals, departures and delays is most important to travelers. Next, they want to know about the airport layout and amenities such as restaurants, shops and parking. Directions to the facility and information about ground transportation options are also important, she adds. 

"Some of the information on a primary website is not well suited for a mobile environment," she notes, citing narratives about airport history and information for contractor bids as examples. "Airports need a separate (mobile) website providing critical information to travelers. There is a big difference in the information needs of someone accessing a desktop version from home or business and someone needing information while heading toward the airport in a taxi."

FlightView hosts content for mobile websites on its servers, which saves airports the cost of acquiring and maintaining their own equipment, notes Wellman. The sites use software that determines whether users are accessing information from a desktop/laptop or smartphone and directs them to the corresponding platform. 

According to Wellman, the process of directing some users to an airport's mobile website doesn't take traffic away from its primary website; it actually increases total traffic - often by 20% to 40%. 

"More overall traffic is generated by a mobile website than by having just a primary website," she explains. "You still have the same people looking at the airport's website at home plus additional people at the airport."

Regardless of size, she emphasizes, any airport can benefit from a mobile website.
Wellman prefers mobile websites to applications for two main reasons. First, airports using apps need two versions: one for Android devices and one for Apple users. (See sidebar titled A Technology Divided Page 34 for an explanation why.) This, she explains, significantly increases development time, effort and cost. Secondly, apps require users to download additional software that takes up memory; mobile websites are available to anyone with a browser on their phone.

"We have worked hard to make sure our mobile website framework supports multiple user interface designs to accommodate whatever device a traveler is using," she notes. "Even though some Blackberry devices have smaller screens, people using them can view the content on a nice-looking mobile website just like users with larger screen devices, like iPhones."

FlightView designs mobile website pages with an airport's own branding, builds them within an existing framework, hosts and maintains them on its servers, and backs up the data throughout the day. The company developed sites for 22 customers in the past year and has another six projects underway.

According to Wellman, mobile websites are becoming substantially more popular. She estimates about 60 airports currently use them.

Spinning a Mobile Web
The new mobile website for Greater Rochester International (ROC) went live last September, and the New York airport is still in its honeymoon phase with the new technology, reports marketing and public relations coordinator Jennifer Hanrahan.

Providing instant access to arrival information, including an option that allows users to track the progress of active flights, was a main priority, explains Hanrahan. The airport also added what she calls "convenience features" such as links to airline websites and information about ROC's dining, shopping and parking options.

Soon, users will be able to calculate parking rates and make valet parking reservations from their smartphones and other mobile devices - transactions they can currently complete on the airport's full web page, notes Hanrahan.  ROC's staff is also working to develop downloadable coupons travelers can use in airport restaurants and shops.

Travelers especially appreciate the convenience of checking out car rentals while waiting at baggage claim via links on the airport's mobile website. 

Maps showing the location of ATM machines and links to ground transportation services and local hotels are provided at no cost to the businesses. "We do all this in the name of customer service," explains Hanrahan.

Assistant airport director Andy Moore considers the marketing initiative a work in progress. "Developing the mobile website was a nominal expense to our budget, but the value to our passengers greatly exceeded the cost," reports Moore. "They have embraced its convenience and simplicity."

While he is unaware of any complaints about the mobile website, several passengers have suggested features they'd like to see added.

Officials selected FlightView to develop ROC's mobile website because the airport was already using the company's flight displays and tracking software on its primary website and in some terminal displays.

"It is a consistently reliable product with benefits that outweigh the reasonable costs associated with its development," says Hanrahan.  "We want our mobile website to be a one-stop shopping service for people traveling to and from Rochester."

Having a mobile website has also helped boost the airport's web rankings with search engines. People using a smartphone device who enter "Rochester Airport" into their browser will see the airport's website first on the list of results. Simply clicking on that brings them to the mobile website.

"The most convenient aspect of a mobile website is that a passenger does not need to go to an app store to download and install the software," says Moore, noting that users on a variety of platforms can see the same information. "For many people, that makes mobile websites easy to use and convenient to access."

The Case for Apps
Arpit Malaviya, vice president of business development for ProDIGIQ, says mobile applications are far superior to their website counterparts. Malaviya reports that 15 U.S. airports are currently using or developing such apps.

"Gone are the days where apps were difficult to have because of the fragmentation of the platforms between Android, Blackberry and iPhone," he explains. "The market has pretty much consolidated around Apple and Android."

The cost to launch and support mobile apps has dropped significantly in the past 24 months because developers no longer need to work on multiple platforms, reports Malaviya. "That means airports now get significant value and return on the limited marketing dollars they use to develop a mobile app," he explains.

Previously, it was difficult and costly for small- or medium-sized airports to develop apps, he acknowledges. "Today, thanks to the consolidation, it has created a new opportunity for airports to launch apps and brand themselves to millions of users."

When marketing to loyal customers, an app that is easy and free to install is definitely preferable to a mobile website, insists Malaviya. And coupons for food/drinks or parking are an easy way to get customers to download the app.

"Once they realize the incentives exist, it's very easy to encourage people to download and use the app regularly," he explains.

The biggest advantage to apps, says Malaviya, is that users don't have to thumb in a long URL to access a website. They simply click on the app and it's instantly available.

"Apps don't require search engine optimization either," he adds. "In some communities, if you type in the name of the airport, users have to wade through a page or two of links to parking sites, hotels or other vendors before they find the airport's official website. If a website doesn't appear in the first five search results, chances are people will stop looking for it. Plus, website (names) are not logical. They could be .com, .org or .net. You can't go to lasvegasairport.com and find the airport."

Malaviya is not a particular fan of third-party apps that aggregate data from U.S. airports because airports have little or no control over their content.

"Busy travelers don't want all the information about an airport," he notes. "They just want to focus on accurate, real-time flight information, parking and food and beverage options, to name a few."

Apps allow users to access such information with the click of a main screen icon. From the sponsoring airport's perspective, the app icon continually reinforces its brand. "The user sees his home airport's logo all the time," Malaviya explains. "That provides invaluable marketing."

He likens the current interest in apps to the discussions most airports were having about websites back in 1999. "The adoption and use of apps is inevitable given the increasing use of smartphones," he says.

A CNN report in early February supports Malaviya's prediction. According to data supplied by Flurry Analytics, smartphone and tablet users now spend more time with apps than they do surfing the Web. These days, users spend an average of 94 minutes per day using apps vs. 72 minutes browsing the Web. Just 11/2 years ago, the relationship was reverse: mobile users spent an average of 64 minutes per day browsing the Web and 43 minutes per day in apps.
The CNN report linked a spike in app usage to Adobe announcing its plans to abandon development of Flash software for mobile browsers.

While mobile apps are still more expensive to develop than websites, the cost is only incrementally higher - not the 10 to 20 times higher it was just a few years ago, reports Malaviya. These days, the number of features included in an app and its flight feed integration are more likely to influence its development costs, he adds. 

ProDIGIQ markets its fully managed, turnkey apps as a cost- and time-saving option. When Indianapolis International Airport (IND) wanted an app to assist travelers flooding in for Super Bowl XLVI, ProDIGIQ had one fully functioning in 45 days.

Just-in-Time App
With 25,000 people flying out on Monday after the big game, IND sacked its previous single-day traffic record, set last Thanksgiving. With so many additional customers to serve, the airport's new mobile app could not have come at a better time, notes Al Stanley, IND's chief information officer.
"Like every airport, we have a strong website presence that offers information about flights, parking and concessions," says Stanley. "But we wanted to stay ahead of the game by developing an app that provides our guests with immediate access to airport and airline information without having to fumble through URLs in a web browser."

IND's app also provides Google maps that pinpoint the location of stores, restaurants and vital airport services.
According to Stanley, European airports are quickly adopting apps as their preferred way of communicating with travelers. "Not everyone wants to go to a website," he notes. "They find apps to be more flexible and user-friendly."

IND also uses its app to integrate with social media outlets like Twitter and, soon, Facebook. Doing so allows the airport to monitor chatter and look for opportunities to improve customers' experiences within the airport.

If guests are tweeting about frustrations at the airport, IND staff can communicate back in real time and address the situation- before it becomes a public relations challenge, notes Stanley. The airport also uses Twitter to communicate about special situations that may impact guests' experience during big events such as the Super Bowl. "Utilizing social media in these types of situations via your app can prove invaluable," he stresses.

With customers tweeting and re-tweeting all day long, negative comments can go viral quickly, Stanley cautions. "Whether it is good, bad or ugly, if anyone is saying anything about @IND, we want to know about it so we can thank folks for praises or get in front of a potential bad situation and correct the problem," he relates.

For example, if an airport guest complains about dirty restrooms, an IND staffer can jump online to apologize and reassure the traveler that custodians are on the way to clean them.
"We recognize that a majority of travelers have a smartphone of some fashion," says Stanley. "We want to take advantage of technology to communicate with passengers in another forum other than traditional forms, like static signs or the public address system."

As CIO, Stanley considers it his job to think progressively about the airport's communication options. "We don't necessarily want to be on the leading edge or bleeding edge of technology," he explains, "but we feel it is important to be wherever our customers are to provide them timely information in a user-friendly format."

Staying ahead of mobile technologies that change at the speed of thought is a formidable challenge for any airport. Listening to customers and communicating in their preferred venues, however, increases the odds of keeping pace.





A Technology Divided

Why can't Apple and Android devices run the same software? It all comes down to a language barrier.

Apple uses a proprietary programming language called Objective-C. Programs written in the language consequently only run on Apple products. In contrast, Google's Andriod uses Java, an open-source software system developed by Sun Microsystems, that allows any product to use it.

Airports building mobile apps must consequently use two completely different sets of code in two different languages. "The two apps may look the same, walk the same and quack the same when used on different phones; but in their guts, they are completely different," is how Will Conley, of Demand Media, explains it.

Like many other industry watchers, ProDIGIQ's Arpit Malaviya recognizes the "fan base" nature of Apple aficionados. "Apple products are like eye candy," he notes. "More people are transitioning to them. Even those who are skeptical about Apple's computer operating system have been drawn to the iPad and iPhone."

At the same time, however, Malaviya acknowledges its competitors' strengths: "Because Google developed Android with an open source software, there has been a significant increase in adoption of the Android platform simply because so many applications are being developed for that system."




Mobile Mapping Comes to the Airport Sector

Millions of people have grown accustomed to - some even say overly reliant on - using Google Maps or other online tools to locate and find directions to stores, offices and other destinations. Today, they can use the same modern mapping device to navigate through airport terminals. And there's no pesky paper map to try to refold.

The Chicago Department of Aviation launched a new Google Maps feature last year that maps the terminals at Midway and O'Hare International. By simply zooming in to MDW and ORD, Android users can view detailed floor plans of each airport, including gates, food vendors and restrooms.

Airport visitors can use the "My Location" feature to pinpoint specifically where they are inside the facilities, as represented by Google Maps' familiar blue dot, and use it to guide their movement through the airports.

"This new Google Maps feature will give travelers more opportunity to enjoy their time at our airports by visiting restaurants or getting a cup of coffee, getting some last-minute shopping done, or just get to their gates more easily," explains Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

The maps are currently available only for Android phones, but Google isn't the only company mapping airport locations. Clear Channel Airports, a firm active in the airport advertising business, provides a free, location-based mobile app called FLYsmart that is available for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Android devices.

The app uses GPS information to show travelers where they are in a terminal and what other businesses are within 1,000 feet of their current location. To date, it includes maps for about three dozen U.S. airports.

Last November, Clear Channel launched new features and enhancements to the personal electronic wayfinding tool, including richer terminal maps with new details such as airport art exhibitions.

"Passengers who have very little time, especially if they are at an airport for the first time, want information quickly," says Ryan Kovalchick, director of digital media for Clear Channel. "They want to know where they are now, where their gate is located, what time it is now and when their flight leaves."

Static signs are great to direct people to baggage claim, rental cars and security screening areas, notes Kovalchick, but they don't help customers find a Starbucks.

"Airports are the perfect place for interior mapping," he adds.

The app displays information about locations travelers typically deem most important: gate locations, restrooms, cash machines, newsstands, gift shops, restaurants, lounges and more. Users can also access data feeds for flight arrivals and departures.

Outside the airport, FLYsmart acts as a "location discovery guide," enabling users to access information on hotels and services in the area and providing details on local attractions in destination cities.

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) was the first to take advantage of the app's new feature that showcases airport art. Maps of the PHL on FLYsmart now include the location and capsule descriptions of 15 curated art exhibits, such as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Including such data bolsters the app's primary value, notes Kovalchick: "It is a handy tool that improves passenger service by promoting a better understanding of what is inside airports and where it can be found by simply tapping and dialing from a smartphone."

Subcategory: 
IT/Communications

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