CCO, London City Airport: “The one thing that technology cannot replicate is the personal relationship, which can only be developed in a face-to-face”

Matthew Hall, chief commercial officer of London City Airport  delivered a keynote speech on Day Three of Broadband World Forum. We find out how technology and connectivity is being used to improve the customer experience at the airport.

Why is being ‘smart’ and connected important for an airport?

Airports are all about customer experience. The simple fact is that people do not travel to an airport – they travel through it on their way to their destination. The airport is a means to an end, a necessary part of the journey, and it’s our job to deliver ease, amenity, seamlessness, high-quality and attention to detail bundled together as the customer experience.

The Smart Airport Experience takes this to a new level – one that’s not been seen before in the airport environment. Through innovative use of technology, we’re able to monitor passenger flow through the airport terminal, anticipating demand for services and acting to prevent queues and delays before they happen whether that’s in security, at border control or in the retail environment.

From an individual passenger perspective, we’ll learn about their travel habits and their personal preferences. We will guide them on the passenger journey, providing real-time flight information and alerts, supplying them with targeted retail information and enabling them to pre-order and purchase via a mobile device.

Can you give me some key examples of how you are creating a ‘smart city’ in the microcosm of the airport?

Once a passenger ‘plugs into’ the airport, via a smartphone or other Wi-Fi-enabled device, the airport delivers an augmented-reality environment, which includes flight information and retail/leisure opportunity.

On entering the airport, the passenger will receive a welcome message and preliminary information about their flight – and an instruction to check in and move to security. The sequence of instructions is based on the time available to the passenger to reach the departure gate in time to board the aircraft.

A passenger who checks in within a determined timeframe and has expressed a preference, will be able to pre-order from the airport’s catering outlets, for collection airside after clearing security.  Pre-ordered items will be purchased via an integrated mobile payment service.

The information that is fed to the passenger will come from an airport dashboard that is fed by cameras which monitor people’s movements through the airport. The technology does not monitor personal characteristics and cannot identify individuals, rather it monitors ‘flocking’ patterns and can show when and where queues might form and delays happen.

This data is used to provide transit time information to passengers and enable the airport to deploy extra staff or equipment accordingly.

Further functionality will come on stream as the project develops.

You have paid close attention to social media. What are the key things you have learned in the last 12 months?

London City Airport has the highest ratio of social media fans and followers to total passenger numbers of any UK airport – which implies that we’re doing something right.

Anyone who’s operated in the social media space will know that it is relentless, time-consuming and unforgiving – you must refresh your content regularly, be quick to respond, address the bad as well as the good, be open and honest and, at all times, be prepared for an unfavourable reaction. In the airport sector, all this is doubly true.

We use social media for a number of purposes, all of which require a distinct approach. Our followers want up-to-the-minute information about the way the airport is operating – particularly concerning weather conditions that affect arrivals and departures. We deliver this information quickly and as neutrally as possible, as passengers are quick to vent their frustration, and expect sympathy.

We use social media to gauge opinion – particularly to help us in new route development. We recently asked our followers about the possibility of a route to Warsaw, which was seen very favourably – and we’re now hoping to develop it in conjunction with a new partner airline.

And we use social media to reward a faithful, loyal and – mostly – friendly social community, who stick with us, are proud of their airport choice and many of whom (because we’re a small airport) we’ve been able to meet in person. We run regular competitions – and who doesn’t want to win a high-end ski trip to the Swiss Alps?

The airport industry is about physical connectivity. Do you believe technology will ever reduce the need for regular travel?

No. Ultimately, technology can make things easier, and can provide opportunities for communication that didn’t exist before. Undoubtedly, innovations like Skype and FaceTime and telepresence have had an effect on the way people interact with others; they’ve made the world a smaller place and they’ve enabled businesses to become more cost-effective, while maintaining and increasing levels of expansion and growth.

But the one thing that technology cannot replicate is the personal relationship, which can only, really, be developed in a face-to-face environment. Cultural differences, which are so important in the development of trade links, are often lost in email and on conference calls. Regular travel, whether for business or for leisure, will not be replaced by a technological solution – it may be enhanced and become more interactive, but demand for air travel can only increase.


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