AI and big data converge to improve your airport customer experience

What if they built a cognitive system that knew when you were coming through the gate and made sure the airport was ready to provide you a smoother experience?
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Did you know airports are just as worried about competing for your business as everyone else? Next time you walk through an airport terminal, think about all the systems and processes swirling around you, or could potentially swirl around you, intended to improve your experience there. If you were the CIO or IT director of the facility, what would be the focus of your efforts?


Imagine all the tech possibilities with Chicago O'Hare.

Photo: Joe McKendrick

The airport customer experience happens at two levels - either delivered by the airline or by the airport itself. With evolving technology based upon artificial intelligence and data from the Internet of Things, airports are poised to dramatically increase their delivery of more satisfying customer experiences. At least, let's hope.

I had the opportunity to sit down and with Mark Gamble, senior director of product marketing for analytics at OpenText at the vendor's confab earlier this year, to discuss the possibilities. Gamble, who has been focused on employing technology to make customer experiences more engaging, is working with a large Asian airport, helping it to leverage cognitive analytics to deliver a more satisfying experience to transiting passengers.

"The concept what they want to solve is very simple," Gamble explains. "We've all suffered the inefficiencies in airports - the escalator is broken, so you have to lug your bag to the top. Then you get to the restroom, and it's messy. All these things contribute to lower customer satisfaction."

In this case, the airport he worked with -- like most others across the world -- suffered from inefficiencies associated with the usual maladies -- security line backups, foot-traffic bottlenecks, malfunctioning escalators and messy or overflowing washrooms. Believe it or not, things like this ultimately cost airports millions of dollars every year in lost passenger revenue. That's because if an airport gains a reputation as providing substandard experiences, passengers -- and eventually the airlines that serve them -- begin to try to avoid it.

"What if we built a cognitive system that knew that a plane was coming in early, and knew the connections people needed to make, and knew to put those connection gates as close as possible, and knew to dispatch the gate crews, bathroom maintenance crews, to make sure that the flow of traffic was never blocked?" Gamble asks.

The Asian airport addressed the problem by employing cognitive analytics -- part of OpenText's Magellan platform -- to analyze data captured from around the facility and make real-time or near real-time decisions to alleviate or even prevent issues. The system analyzes foot-traffic data captured from hallway/doorway sensors and security cameras, and combines it with weather data and real-time flight arrival data from the control tower, to help manage gates better by automatically opening those closest to connecting gates, dispatching gate crews, and alerting facilities staff when and which washrooms to clean. All decisions are acted upon instantly and without human intervention.

The key to achieving this, Gamble says, "is by listening to, and intelligently reacting to data." The solution weaves together data streaming through algorithms built on the machine-learning capabilities of Apache Spark.

This holiday season -- and the rest of the year for that matter -- many of us will be trudging through congested airports, incurring the stress of long lines, missed connections and rushed meals. It's reassuring to know that IT and data specialists are working to make this a more positive experience.

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