So last fall the company started testing new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones.

The above quote isn't about an airport, but retailers. It was only a matter of time that this type of tracking technology was to be put of use in the airline industry though.


✈︎ LISTEN: The power of sensors for better airports (29:25)


Blip Systems has introduced such systems at various airports, from Amsterdam Schiphol to Geneva and they've publicized the results of the implementation at Cincinnati's CVG:

CVG initially partnered with Purdue University in 2011 for technology proof-of-concept testing prior to research and acquisition of BlipTrack. The Purdue team returned in 2014 to quantify the security wait time improvements in the reconfigured terminal and the impact of the new pre-check lanes:
·  In comparison to standard wait times in 2011, wait times were reduced by nearly 4¼ minutes in 2014 (from 13.2 minutes to 8.9 minutes).
·  In comparison to standard screening wait times, TSA pre-check saved more than 26,000 person hours in wait time over Nov-Dec 2014.

With the poor experience that is security in most airports (I've never been to CVG to judge that one in particular), this is a pretty cool result.

Orderly and civil. (image credit: Blip Systems)

Orderly and civil. (image credit: Blip Systems)

How does this tracking work? Unlike iBeacons-based systems that would only cover the last generations of smartphones, the idea is to track the MAC address that every phone connected to Wifi gives out (think of it as a unique identifier, the Media Access Control address, that interfaces your phone with the network). With that information in hand, the airport can map out the movements of passengers (like foot traffic of a store like the quote refers to at the beginning of this post) and assess if flows need improvement, or, at least, give some real-time information on how backed up an immigration queue or TSA check-point is—which is what CVG does.

cvg-airport-queues-tracking.png

Estimote, a YC startup that offers iBeacon solutions, was providing such a system at their inception when I met them in Poland back in 2011. Whilst a bit baffled at first ("you can track me without my knowledge with such precision?"), I began to understand all the possibilities that this could offer, some sort of Google Analytics for Real Life.

No, I hadn't thought of queue management, but airports are one of the only place where, to simplify, a provider knows pretty much when its customers will arrive in its premises (you have to clear check-in and security) in which they'll have to stay for a defined period of time. Having the ability to understand how they move around, what are the heat maps within existing constraints, what are the usual patterns, etc. opens the door to a lot of design thinking opportunities.

With an estimated 81% of passengers carrying a smartphone compared to 25% five years ago, according to SITA's report The Future is Personal, and with a renewal rate of roughly 18 months, there's no denying the appeal of such technologies for airports, much much cheaper than the traditional camera-based ones big retailers have been using. And Blip doesn't limit the idea to the usual pain points, see for yourself:

The waiting-time journey.

The waiting-time journey.

iBeacon-based solutions are also taking off, Miami International has deployed it throughout its terminals, for instance. Frankfurt Airport uses those low-energy bluetooth beacons to notify travelers of the real-time waiting times at various checkpoints.


✈︎ LISTEN: The new Frankfurt Airport app gives real-time waiting time information and faster indoor routes (29:44)


None of this comes without challenges though. Tracking is not something that we take lightly, even if it's for our convenience. First, ask anyone around you and there's a probability they'll be much more creeped out by the idea of being physically tracked than via an online cookie. And then, whilst a MAC address isn't enough to find much about the owner of the device, the same smartphone signing up into the airport wifi network with an email address could be the start of profiling.

European airports apparently warn passengers of the existence of such a technology—though I must admit having never personally seen any notice (I travel to GVA every six weeks and will be at FRA shortly, I'll take a closer look).

Intrusive or not, the convenience effect could be undeniable. Knowing in advance and in real-time the state of waiting times is an undeniable plus. Having airports re-think their sometimes absurd layouts is what I hope for the most though.