Virgin Atlantic tests Apple's iBeacon at Heathrow

After trying out Google Glass and smartwatches, airline trials location-sensing tech.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Fresh from testing out Google Glass, airline Virgin Atlantic is now piloting Apple's iBeacon location-aware technology in one of the largest trials of the technology to date.

iBeacon, which arrived in iOS 7, uses a Bluetooth low-energy signal to locate to create an indoor version of GPS that can be used to build location-aware services — the classic example being one that offers customers a special offer as they walk past a store.

Using the iBeacon devices created by Estimote, Virgin Atlantic customers with an electronic boarding pass loaded in their iPhone's Passbook app will be able to receive messages from the beacons related to their location in London's Heathrow airport.

For example, an Upper Class passenger heading towards the private security channel would find their phone automatically pulling up their mobile boarding pass on their phone ready for inspection. In the main area of the airport, passengers using the service will receive special offers, such as commission-free currency exchange.

"The beacons are very good at providing us with information on who you are and where you are so one of the things we are looking to do is, on arrival to the clubhouse, we can greet you by name and because we know who you are we know what your favourite cocktail is and we can have one waiting at the bar as you walk on in," said Virgin's head of ebusiness development James Shanahan.

"Our customer base would be early adopters for this, so it's a good fit for us to be working with Apple and with the technology for their benefit. We haven't had anything negative yet."

The iBeacon experiments have been running for a couple of months, and Virgin is adding new elements every couple of weeks with the aim of building out a model of customers' entire journey though the airport using the beacons.

Earlier this year, the airline tested out Google Glass and Sony smartwatches for staff greeting Upper Class passengers on arrival at the airport.

"We carefully assess new technologies that are out there and — as you can see from this and the Google Glass experiments — it's very much about ensuring there is a customer benefit to deploying these technologies. There needs to be a solid rationale."

Retail giant Tesco has also been testing out iBeacon in one of its stores near to London.

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