Tech savvy passenger? It’s time to start getting excited as airports plan to make record investments in IT.

With more travelers crowding into the world’s airports on a daily basis, it’s welcome news that airport operators are expecting to spend a record US$9 billion on IT investments this year, according the 2016 Airport IT Trends Survey.

A good chunk of that money is likely to go on improving the processing steps of the journey with 59% of airports rating passenger processing as a high priority for IT investment. So what changes can travelers look forward to?

Mobile programs

Mobile investment will see its fair share as airports seek to take advantage of the growing influence mobile devices play in the lives of travelers.

Nearly every airport worldwide (90%) is undertaking either a major program or a trial project related to mobile apps for passengers over the next few years.

SITA research expert, Christelle Laverriere believes it signals a new wave of more sophisticated airport apps for travelers, going beyond the basic functionality, such as flight status notifications, common today.

“Airport mobile apps are going to act more like a personal concierge, placing useful and relevant information at your fingertips when you need it, while also keeping an eye on the clock to make sure you get to the right gate in good time,” she says.

Grids of beacons

To build in these context-aware capabilities, as they’re known in tech circles, airport operators are planning to lay out grids of beacons and other sensors around public spaces to act as a trigger on the mobile device of the passenger as they pass by.

Over the next three years, these types of implementation will become commonplace with the majority of airports deploying sensors in security (66%), bag-drop (61%), retail areas (60%), boarding (54%) and bag reclaim (52%).

Self-service baggage

Most people check-in luggage when they travel. In fact, SITA’s Passenger IT Trends Survey indicates only one in five passengers travels light with just hand luggage.

For the vast majority that don’t, the ease and simplicity of passenger check-in is not always replicated for bags, often requiring a long wait at an airport counter.

However, enhancements are close at hand, and today the majority of airports worldwide offer both kiosks for self-printing the bag tags and either an assisted or unassisted bag-drop to complete the check-in.

Tipping point

This marks a key milestone, according to Laverriere. “Passengers with hold baggage have largely missed out on the advantages of self-service that travelers with hand luggage only have been enjoying for years.

“This is changing and we have reached an important tipping point with over 50% of airports letting passengers print their own bag tags and deposit their bags at a bag drop. This should make self-service a reality for every passenger.”

Less free Wi-Fi

One unwelcome trend from a passenger perspective is that it’s going to be harder to find free Wi-Fi at airports.

Today, 74% of airports indicate they provide unlimited free Wi-Fi to passengers, while a further 23% opt to provide time-limited free Wi-Fi with paid access for additional usage.

By 2019, the number of airports offering time-limited access to Wi-Fi will jump to 37% and those offering unlimited free Wi-Fi will fall to 54% of airports.

As Laverriere points out, “Airport operators are increasingly looking to build a business case around their Wi-Fi access and encourage passengers to spend more time in the retail outlets rather than visiting Facebook.

“However, it doesn’t fit the mobile strategy of airports that are trying to boost revenue through their mobile apps. Providing free public Wi-Fi would encourage passengers to download the airport app and use and purchase airport-related services, such as duty free or lounge access in the event of a flight delay,” she adds.

The survey results support this view. It’s clear that many airports see a big opportunity to grow their retail sales through their mobile app. By 2019, 84% of airports plan to enable purchasing of airport services this way, well up on the 68% reported in the 2015 survey.

Future flying

Looking ahead, there are some exciting new technologies that could make flying in the future a more enjoyable experience.

One interesting trend starting to take shape is the use of kiosks loaded with the latest movies, TV shows and magazines for passengers to download directly onto their mobile devices for viewing on the flight. Today, only 4% of airports are offering this, but a further 26% have plans to do so by 2019.

Adoption of contactless mobile technology Near Field Communication (NFC), which could enable passengers to pass through checkpoints without the need to take the smartphone out of the pocket, remains subdued with only 10% of airports planning a serious deployment.

However, a sizeable proportion (43%) of airports are assessing the technology with small scale evaluation projects.

Another change on the horizon is to replace the paper-based tags used for most check-in baggage today with electronic ones that can be more easily tracked through the baggage system.

Only 12% of airports are showing serious interest in this over the next few years, but a further 48% plan trials, which could eventually lead to widespread deployments.

New technologies that perhaps your children are more likely to get to use on a regular basis include single biometric travel tokens, robots or virtual reality technology. The majority of airports expect to do no more than test these technologies over the next decade.

New tech cuts congestion in China’s airports

With over 4 billion domestic trips in 2015, China's travel boom shows no signs of waning. To cope Chinese airports are directing IT investment at technologies that can help alleviate passenger congestion.

For example, self-service bag-drop has grown rapidly over the last year with 84% of major Chinese airports having implemented the assisted version, up from 45% twelve months ago.

Self-boarding gates are also being implemented more rapidly at Chinese airports than their global counterparts.

Strong interest

New infrastructure technologies, including sensors and cloud, that are key enablers for driving adoption of the IoT, are drawing strong interest from Chinese airports. These will help support new mobile services, such as Navigation/Wayfinding and Customer Relationship Management (CRM), will be offered through apps at four in five airports.

Disruption

Travel disruption remains a growing problem in China, but the shift in focus towards investment in operational technologies indicates airports are increasingly looking to address the issue.

In particular, 50% of Chinese airports over the next three years will invest in systems to predict potential disruptions before they occur taking the total to 67% of airports by 2019.

For more, see the full version of IT trends at airports in China in a special report in our 2016 Airport IT Trends Survey booklet.

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