Carroll McCormick explains how airports and mobile phone apps developers are joining forces.
Probably even before airports began puzzling over the usefulness of airport apps – applications that can be downloaded to iPhones and other devices for travellers to find what they need at airports – airport apps developers were hard at work.
Working mostly without the help of the airport, they searched their websites and other sources and assembled databases of terminal maps, stores and concessions on hundreds of airports.
Through the Apple Store (Apple sells the iPhone) they have been selling their apps for a few ‘dollars’ – or giving them away with the expectation of some future revenue possibilities.
Some casual polling by API suggests that many airports have been caught flatfooted as entrepreneurs map out their airports for their passengers. Some staff members that I contacted were unable to name any airport apps, were unaware that they were already featured in their databases and were struggling to understand the technical jargon and the possible value to them.
Recently, however, a few airport apps and flight information apps suppliers have made efforts to reach out to airports and discuss how they might collaborate to make better apps and more money. It may also be that the arrival on the apps scene of a heavy hitter – in the form of a partnership between the United States-based aviation consulting firm, SH&E, and SapientNitro, a marketing agency within the global marketing and technology company, Sapient – has spiked vendors’ competitive juices.
On May 5, SH&E and SapientNitro announced the launch of a marketing and communications platform, called IONOS, at the Denver International Airport. IONOS is a central gathering place for airport-sourced information, including flights, parking status, security wait times and concessions.
This information can then be fed to any of three media: airport website, digital wayfinding signage or an airport app called GoHow Airport. Denver chose GoHow and a new website built by the SH&E/SapientNitro duo.
The GoHow claim to smart phone supremacy – according to SH&E/SapientNitro – is that its content, including data feeds, concessions, parking and other information comes from, and is controlled and updated by, the airport itself.
In theory – and hopefully in practice too – this will be an improvement over apps for which airports supply few or no updates, or which use third-party data feeds.
IONOS also pushes marketing content to GoHow, including advertising that can be targeted and affordable for even small concessions.
“A small concession, for example, could buy space from six to eight o’clock in the morning, Monday to Friday,” says Christina Cassotis, SH&E Vice President and Leader, Airport Services. “Ads can be segmented to city pair, terminal, time of day, event. We can program an ad to appear every time there is a 90-minute flight delay.”
By the end of May, two other large airports were expected to join Denver in hosting IONOS. And, SH&E/SapientNitro are in discussions with 50 other airports around the world about IONOS.
As a class, the number of different apps – from games to surfboarding conditions – has proliferated into the six figures, thanks to Apple allowing developers to create and submit apps to its Apple Store for sale or free download on to its iPhones.
The impetus to develop airport apps came because airport websites, although great resources for stationary travellers with computers, were never designed for easy use on mobile devices. A better way to obtain airport information, whether concessions, maps, departure and arrival times and more, was with apps – these would be stripped of all website non-essentials and formatted for mobile phone screens.
Airport Maps is a good, early example of what can be regarded as a true airport app – that is, one that shows users what is in terminals. It has a database of 54 US and seven Canadian airports, qualifying it as an industry-wide app (airport-unique apps have only one airport in their databases, and their appeal to travellers is a matter of debate).
Its key features include airport overview and detailed terminal maps, dining, shopping and lounging options. It is customisable to display only the categories users want to see.
Airport Maps is what is called a native application – all of the data is stored on the mobile device and all of its features can be used without any data connection (some apps only work fully when the phones are connected). “The way I designed the app, it needs no data from the internet to use it. I suspected that a lot of people would use the app in the air,” explains Michael Wolff, a programmer who took a sabbatical from his regular work to build Airport Maps as a solo project. Since going on sale in the Apple Store last July, more than 20,000 people have paid US$2.99 to download it on to their mobile phones.
It is compatible with the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android platforms (not all apps are compatible with all smart phone platforms). As for Blackberry, Wolff says: “There are a couple of problems there. There are too many Blackberry devices. With iPhone and Android you have consistency with screen size and the interface. The second problem is that a huge percentage of Blackberries out there are in corporate departments and their IT lock them down so their users cannot install apps.”
For Wolff, updating the database is a manual effort – airports, which largely had no active participation in helping populate the database also, as a rule, do not help keep the app up to date.
GateGuru, an app developed by New York-based Mobility Apps LLC, works around this updating problem by letting users send updates, photos and even concession ratings to the company, which then incorporates them in the app – this goes on in the background when users are connected.
Since Mobility Apps launched GateGuru last December, its 110,000 users and GateGuru have submitted 1,200 updates to the app. As of this May, the app has 86 US airports, 12 Canadian airports and one in Europe: Heathrow.
US-based Red Cirrus, LLC, which owns iFly.com, a content-based travel website focused on airport and flight information, also has two airport apps: the $3.99 iFly Airport Guide (which has detailed terminal information) and the $6.99 iFly Pro Airport Guide (which includes real-time flight status and tracking). There are about 700 airports in its database.
Airports, with rare exceptions, were mostly uninvolved in the development of Airport Maps, GateGuru and iFly. “Trying to work directly with airports to collaborate on data is very difficult. Each facility has its own rules in working with outside vendors/partners, slowing down the process,” iFly CEO Tony Hanseder told API. It is interesting, then, that travellers have surely made – at no cost or effort to airports – tens of millions of searches of their airports by now.
This attitude is gradually changing: GateGuru CEO Dan Gellert reports that airports are getting more involved in the updating of his apps’ database. “We have an informal arrangement with the Houston Airport to update our amenities, which takes a couple of minutes a month. We are doing this with seven to ten of the 20 largest airports. Sometimes we work with a master concessionaire.
“Yesterday Cincinnati sent me an email, with an FYI that on May 1 Concourse A will be shutting down and would I make sure to update my database. It took a two-sentence email to make sure that information was [temporarily] removed from our database. We closed the concourse in GateGuru. Another airport reached out to us about its renaming parts of its terminal.”
By early June, GateGuru expects to begin reaping the rewards of having grown a large user base.
“Now that we have 110,000 users, we are a more attractive proposition to advertisers. We are launching our ad platform in [June]. We are working with ten airport retailers, master concessionaires, chains and specialist retailers. They comprise over 800 stores, which offers the possibility of real-time targeting of passengers,” Gellert says. “We have been working hard on our features and functionalities. In a couple of months or so our app will not be that much different than GoHow, and at no cost to airports.”
Arlington, Virginia-based Airside Mobile, has an app called Airside Express, which allows travellers to download, store and retrieve mobile boarding passes. It has leveraged its expertise to develop a platform and airport app called Airside FlightPass. Due out this June, it will, explains Airside Mobile CEO and co-founder Adam Tsao, “integrate various airport, airline, public data and vendor systems and makes the information available to passengers through all of the major smart phone systems.” It will be free to users and the baseline configuration will be free to airports.
To support its transaction-related services, Airside Mobile is working with a leading master concessionaire and one of the largest executive car services in the world.
The first Airside FlightPass function to be made available will be a mobile kiosk. Passengers will use it to check-in and manage their mobile boarding pass on five airlines: Alaska, America, Continental, Delta and United.
In July, Airside FlightPass will roll out its first 30 US airports and their concessions. The goal is to reach 100 US airports, possibly some Canadian airports and services such as parking, the Registered Traveller programme, mobile restaurants, hotels, premium ground services and destination-based services.
“As you travel, the system automatically recognises what you need and then anticipates what you need,” Tsao explains. “For instance, a traveller may be running late to the airport. Based on departure time, parking management info and the phone’s GPS, our proprietary system will be able to push an offer for a reserved close-in parking space. If his flight is at four o’clock and it’s a four-hour flight with no food service, we can push a dining suggestion, let the passenger look at the menu, order and pay from the phone and, in some cases, have it available for pick up at the gate.”
It is an open question which apps will be left standing as currently-available and future entrants compete under their different business models. IONOS and the GoHow feature alone, for example, will cost an airport up to $100,000, although there is promise of strong returns in the form of increased non-aeronautical sales and revenue sharing. Will apps with no real-time features become less relevant?
Apps developers that previously have typically worked without input from airports are also beginning to reach out to them. Mobiata, for example, which has the travel apps FlightDeck, HotelPal and TripDeck, has struck up an ongoing conversation with the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. “The benefit of working with the airport directly is to find out what the issues are; what problems people are running into. These conversations can lead to really interesting apps that a developer may not realise,” says Mobiata’s President Ben Kazez. He wants to hear from any airports interested in shaping his company’s airport strategy.
“We have started conversations with Mobiata for developing tools for our airport and our employees … looking for ways to create mutually-beneficial partnerships,” says Scott Wintner, Detroit’s Public Affairs Manager.
It is interesting to note that although until recently Wintner did not know how to contact the company that built GateGuru, he had supplied updates and photos to the app as a user. “I went into the North Terminal and took pictures of all the concessions and submitted them to GateGuru. Now you can see them all in the app.”
He adds: “I am not hard to find. Go to our website, find our public affairs officer… if apps developers are interested in feedback, all they have to do is ask.”
Carroll McCormick explains how airports and mobile phone apps developers are joining forces.