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Create the right experience

Technology is key to a better customer journey, but it must be consistent and not overload the passenger, says Thella Bowens, President and Chief Executive Officer of San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.

Can you give us a snapshot of your airport?

We’re an origin and destination airport as opposed to a hub and we’re the busiest single runway airport in the US, serving about 18 million passengers a year. Just over 50% of our passengers use our airport for vacation and leisure travel while just under 50% are business travelers.

Annual passenger growth is on the rise again, as is the case with most major airports in the US. We’re an economic powerhouse for our region. According to the San Diego Tourism Authority, visitors who travel by air to San Diego spend about US$ 2.3 billion in the region each year.

Each domestic flight brings an average of about US$ 19,000 to the region and each international flights pumps in an average of US$ 89,000. The total economic impact of the airport each year is about US$ 9 billion to our region’s economy.

So what’s the role of IT?

We firmly believe that IT is a key touch point and enabler in the passenger journey. It assumes many forms: the home computer for purchasing tickets, goods and services and even checking in for flights; the self-service kiosk for obtaining boarding passes and managing travel request with the chosen air carrier; agent workstations where passengers can get help from airline employees and manage travel details; information displays for getting helpful information from flight and luggage status through the airport directory; and handheld personal devices where passengers can use a variety of apps to manage many aspects of their trip.

Technology is used for passenger processing, security, advertising, entertainment and the list goes on. Almost every entity within the passenger’s journey wants to provide and interact with the passenger using technology of some sort. Want to send passengers information? There’s an app for that. Find the closest restaurant? Board your plane? There are apps for those too. Passengers are now making choices on which apps to install on their personal devices to facilitate their journey.

The difficulty – besides just trying to influence the passenger to download your app – is to make sure that all of the data across multiple delivery channels is consistent and accurate and capable of being integrated. If the FIDS shows a flight is on schedule but the airline app shows the flight is delayed, which source of data is correct? If Google Maps shows there’s a restaurant located on a particular terminal but Yelp doesn’t, who’s right?

“Overall strategy must be considered carefully so that technology does indeed become an enabler and not just an additional source of stress.”
Thella Bowens, President / CEO, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

What’s your view about this?

Overall strategy must be considered carefully when developing new technology offerings for passengers so that technology does indeed become an enabler and not just an additional source of stress. This is not an easy problem to solve and it will take the joint effort of all parties interacting with the passenger along their journey. There is much more ground to break.

For too long, technology in the travel space was viewed as a cost-cutting, process-improving, time-reducing tool. Our goal at San Diego has been to speed up the journey for the passenger, empower them to manage their travel details and get them from the curb to the gate or from the gate to the curb as quickly as possible.

But what if instead of just speeding up their journey we were able to make their journey more enjoyable? What if we were able to create an experience for the passenger which got them talking about their journey, not just the destination? These are the goals we have for ways technology can work for our passengers.

What’s your approach to IT for passengers?

The idea is to make passengers’ time in our airport both a memorable and easily managed experience. We have added art, unique concessions and experiential elements to the terminal to, hopefully, create a lasting impression.

One idea we’re pursuing is beacon technology. This allows us to create interactions with passengers to create a unique experience. Need directions to your gate? Beacons can guide you there. Have some time before your flight and looking for a meal? Beacons can offer incentives to various concessions. Want to know about the art in the airport?

Or how about a self-guided tour of our sustainability programs courtesy of your handheld device? There are so many ideas and future challenges that beacons could help us address.

Our approach to IT is not just about improving the passenger experience. We also provide technology services for our tenants – including airlines, concessions and ground transportation providers. Again, beacons could help tenants. They could allow us to provide tools for tenants to target advertising messages to passengers who opt in.

For example, concession tenants could identify passengers in their storefronts and make service delivery much more personal. Airlines could identify their passengers and deliver customized information services. Our airlines could make operational decisions based on passenger location.

Of course all of this information must be balanced to keep technology from overloading the passenger with too many messages, too much customization and a confusing experience. The challenge is to balance diverse tenant needs with the desired outcome for the passenger experience.

“We have to think about how to facilitate our common goal – how to use the power of IT to address these challenges.”
Thella Bowens, President / CEO, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

What about the future?

It has to be said that tomorrow’s possibilities seem endless. Emerging technologies in airports offer one view of where things are going. But to address the broader issue of the passenger’s journey and future technology challenges and opportunities, we all need to work together.

Of course, the passenger is interested in information and an experience tailored to them. But they don’t want to be overwhelmed by too much information from too many sources. They don’t want to wrestle with separate apps for their departing airport, their arriving airport, air carriers, local attractions, and so on.

The real question is, how do we provide a common set of infrastructure and standards that allow each stakeholder the ability to manage their customers’ experience? 

We need to create a simple framework to allow an easy way for us to share information that underpins any experience we’re creating, whether that be a central clearing house model or a defined set of data standards. We have to think about how to facilitate our common goal – how to use the power of IT to address these challenges in a way that makes business sense, while addressing passenger needs in new and exciting ways. 


Technology as the route to agility and future strength

Technology is offering major opportunities to address the three dominant objectives faced by all airports worldwide: passenger satisfaction; commercial and financial success; and operational excellence. But airports have to work to achieve this.

They must become hotbeds of innovation, embrace the latest advances – in mobile, cloud, business intelligence, biometrics and location-based services – if they are to reap the rewards.

Backing that innovation must be an obsession with the basics, particularly in the back office. It’s about embracing the new without breaking the old – and without compromising innovation yet further into the future.

SITA can help airports address this challenge:

  • Optimizing the airport infrastructure
  • Expanding the physical boundaries with on and off-airport check-in solutions
  • Using a fully integrated common use infrastructure
  • Better managing of resources both fixed and mobile

Maximizing assets and combining this with improved passenger satisfaction ratings and airport rankings, airports become more competitive in attracting and retaining airlines and their other tenants.

Chasing agility

Airports also need to be agile if they are to effectively compete within an ever changing environment. Passengers are more empowered and expectant. Commercial models are evolving. The role of technology itself is changing.  

SITA can help airports to achieve agility in two ways, by:

  • Creating an environment of real collaboration that provides a complete view of airport operations: airside, landside, taxiways and Air Traffic Control. SITA’s Airport Operations Control Center allows all airport stakeholders to exchange real-time information, creating a collaborative environment where all important decisions and impacts are taken into account by all key stakeholders. Over 150 airports worldwide currently use SITA systems to make their operations more efficient.
  • Moving to a nimble and connected infrastructure. SITA’s connectivity solutions can help airports bring people and systems together by creating a single infrastructure that allows all stakeholders to connect. This ‘plug and play airport’ is more attractive to airlines and concessionaires.

It’s all in the cloud

Extra agility can be achieved through SITA’s ATI Cloud service, whether for applications or to provision their own Infrastructure. It’s pre-connected to hundreds of airports, with a growing number adopting cloud-hosted common use solutions.

Airports face a massive challenge in the decades ahead. Passenger numbers will keep growing, while the real estate needed for airport expansion becomes ever more expensive and the operational management of airports becomes more complex.

Technology offers many potential benefits and solutions. But it will also throw up its own challenges – which is why common agreed standards are so critical, why the whole air transport ecosystem needs to co-operate as much as possible where there is no commercial advantage to be lost, and why SITA continues to expand its horizons into unexplored areas of opportunity.


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