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Beacon Illustration

Illustration credit: Martín Azambuja

APEX Insight: As this year’s Passenger Terminal Expo wraps up, we look into how airports are using beacons to facilitate and personalize airline travel. From luggage tracking to personalized duty-free deals, beacon technology is weaving its way into the passenger experience.

If the airport could talk to you, what would you want it to say? In the year 2016, this is not a rhetorical question. Imagine making your way to the gate, only to be alerted to a special deal from the airport shop you’re passing at that very moment. It’s as if the airport itself knows exactly where you are and what you may want next – beacon technology makes this possible.

Becoming Beaconized

Miami International Airport became the first fully “beaconized” airport in the world in October 2014. Last month, it released the MIA Official 2.0 app, which serves as a personalized travel assistant, guiding travelers through the bustling Miami International Airport while notifying them of targeted deals and offers. To create MIA Official 2.0, the IT experts at SITA teamed up with Bluvision, which provided over 550 sensor beacons and Bluetooth-to-Wi-Fi gateways (BluFis) to facilitate the real-time wayfinding implicit in every passenger’s airport experience.

airport beacons

The MIA Official 2.0 app serves as a personalized travel assistant. Image via: SITA

Earlier this month, Qatar’s Hamad International Airport launched its new iBeacon-enabled mobile app, which serves as a real-time digital assistant to help busy travelers with everything from locating departure gates to discovering the best duty-free deals.

Lufthansa plans to use Apple’s iBeacon technology to promote and sell access to its business-class lounges. During a test at Munich Airport, travelers who were in the vicinity of the lounge and had installed the Lufthansa app on their phone received a push notification offering entry for 25 euros – but only if there was space, so as not to overcrowd the lounge for frequent flyers and members.

“Mobile devices have become essential travel tools and passengers are looking to airlines and airports to provide new baggage tracking services.” – Paolo Sgroppo, Bologna International Airport, operations director

Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport (BLQ) is testing BLE (bluetooth low energy) beacon technology for luggage tracking. Paolo Sgroppo, BLQ’s operations director, who gave a presentation about the program at the Passenger Terminal Expo earlier this week, says, “mobile devices have become essential travel tools and passengers are looking to airlines and airports to provide new baggage tracking services.” BLQ is getting ahead of the game – as of June 2018, it will be mandatory for airlines to keep an accurate baggage end-to-end inventory, according to IATA Resolution 753 . BLQ’s BLE beacon system is in the early-days of testing, says Sgroppo. “Next comes a large scale test involving BLQ employees and other select groups. After that, we’ll be ready to open the system to all passengers.”

Cool in Theory vs. Useful in Practice

While it’s always exciting to see new applications of wireless technology, the BLE tech itself has been around for years. So why is this technology only now beginning to weave its way into the airline passenger experience? The fact that beacons have to go through an app in order to reach an audience could be one of the reasons for the technology’s relatively sluggish uptake – travelers may not feel like installing a new app for every airport they pass through. There’s also the panopticon factor: users may not be comfortable with the feeling of being singled out by an ad campaign (though all applications of beacon technology mentioned in this article require opt-in from their target audiences). Or perhaps beacon technology just isn’t an essential component of the airline passenger experience – yet.

According to APEX CEO Joe Leader, who presented on the connected traveler earlier this week at EyeForTravel’s San Francisco Summit, beacon technology will become a necessity in airports within the next decade. “Just as we find it unimaginable to not have a GPS for our cars, in the near future we will find it unimaginable to lack GPS for ourselves. We’ll be able to tell our smartphones to navigate us to the gate, our luggage or the closest store that sells a specific item we need. Beacons will even provide real-time human traffic jam information.” We’ll have to wait and see whether the gap between what’s cool in theory and what’s useful in practice narrows in the upcoming years.

Jordan juggles deadlines across various time zones as he writes about travel, culture, entertainment, and technology.