Wi-Fi: Driving the Consumerised Airport

From the passenger’s perspective, terminal Wi-Fi has been accelerated from a mere amenity to a standard service in today’s airport. (All images via AWG)

We are in the middle of a changing trend within airports where Wi-Fi – which was seen as a valued add-on – is now regarded as a potential revenue driver.  With a distinct disparity between both large and regional airports, and the continued emergence of ‘data hogs’, Steve Burke, AWG’s Director of Marketing asks, can airport administrators find a middle ground that doesn’t alienate passengers?

From the passenger’s perspective, terminal Wi-Fi has been accelerated from a mere amenity to a standard service in today’s airport. (All images via AWG)

Step past the airport security checkpoint and find your way into an exclusive world of wonderment and convenience.  Walking along the terminal promenade of restaurants and shopping options, the sensory overload overwhelms you as you glance back and forth between your watch and the different shops.
Sounds like a magical world, doesn’t it?  Well, it should – it was created specifically in mind for the traveller and consumer looking to enjoy a serene experience around a frankly, less-than-serene terminal.
Airport gateways have evolved at one of the fastest rates in recent memory.  With additional options popping up closer to each gate of departure, perhaps it is the one convenience that is the least visible to passengers that might be spearheading the fastest airport amenity evolution.  If you’ve ever tried to connect your tablet or laptop to the in-terminal wireless network, you would know that airport Wi-Fi has become one of the leading and fastest developing amenities available to travellers.
Venue web connectivity, however, is not a new concept.  While those stand-up office centres have seemingly been an airport eyesore for a number of years now, the idea that a slice of the home office being extended to the airport terminal has been a dream for both travellers and airport administrators alike.
 
Where we’ve been
Though it may have started from those big, clunky stand-up machines, the drive for web connectivity among travellers began its largest push nearly a decade ago.  It was during this era when some of the world’s largest mobile companies began planting their wireless flags in airports from coast to coast.  If you can remember back to how you travelled in and around 2004, in the US, a T-Mobile or AT&T welcome screen would have officially greeted you to the wireless service.  It was probably not the only element that was part of the welcoming process.  Perhaps a timer clock, advertisement and/or hourly fee were all additional components that would go alongside the welcoming screen.  For all of these companies, airport wireless was a relatively new landscape and, therefore, traveller expectations were also varied to what was expected as part of this new airport amenity.
For those initial terminal web services providers, the landscape (and in many cases, infrastructure) was unchartered and represented an expansion of services to a new audience.  As part of the initial deployment, the expectations were significantly different among travellers and administrators alike.  For administrators, there was very little data to suggest whether web services in the terminals would be a revenue driver.  After all, business travellers previously saw airport terminals as dead zones, where little work could be accomplished.  Due to these circumstances, terminal Wi-Fi deployment also had to involve an educational element, while addressing many of the needs of the business passenger.
Consider the change in expectations at the time.  Web pages loaded at a slower rate and the prominence in mobile devices was… not exactly prominent.  Working remotely likely meant a bulky laptop with some form of a wireless card.  Many wireless signals were strong enough to address the basic needs of most travellers, but in more recent times the growth of social media sites, such as YouTube or Facebook, is hogging available bandwidth and squeezing out the business professionals.
 
Expectations pushing for faster change, more options
So, taking a high-level view, where does today’s interest in Wi-Fi sit among the larger terminal services and concessions landscape?  From the passenger’s perspective, terminal Wi-Fi has been accelerated from a mere amenity to a standard service.  If you consider an airport today without Wi-Fi in its terminal, would you regard it as a passenger-friendly facility?  What if it only offered Wi-Fi at a price?
For travellers, the shift in mindsets has quickly taken place between amenities and services through outside factors.  Stepping into a Starbucks no longer means a subscription with a third-party for Wi-Fi connectivity.  The same goes for a visit to a fast food restaurant or even a shopping mall – Wi-Fi’s prominence has grown and it is more the norm than the exception.

Passenger expectations for receiving Wi-Fi have changed because the average traveller is no longer dependent on a single device.

Passenger expectations for receiving Wi-Fi on their multiple devices have already changed – the average traveller is no longer dependent on a single device.  If anything, they are armed with more than two or three devices that each incorporate a different need – whether it is quickly accessing mail, downloading apps or playing the latest music via YouTube or Pandora.  With multiple devices, all of which are smaller and more portable, travellers want the division between themselves and the information they seek to be minimal, while still demanding a fast connectivity and high bandwidth.
 
Hybrid model popularity, options drive value
Speaking of bandwidth, let’s take a step back and consider the hybrid model that has increased in popularity since those early days of a one-size-fits-all model.  In a ‘hybrid’ model, users are presented with two options that each focus on the specific needs of the traveller.  For those looking to just quickly sign on, the complimentary option is merely a quick, sponsored ad between the user and unlimited web use for a specified time.  If additional time is required another sponsored ad will separate the user from an extended session.
For the power-user types – individuals looking to experience a higher bandwidth and an uninterrupted session – the ‘premium’ option is meant to suit their needs. While this option commands a small fee, the feedback has been tremendous among those individuals looking to have an experience that is tailored and has the feel of an office extension.
For airport Wi-Fi to be successful, it has to address the balance between being a profitable asset for airports, as well as coming across as a value add-on and amenity for travellers.

Now, let’s reconsider the types of users who would choose a complimentary versus a premium option.  Most people will go for the complimentary service as it only involves a small commitment of time to watch the sponsored ad.  And as more passengers are taking this option, most airports have lost one of their more trusty (as of late) revenue models.  Complimentary users are outnumbering premium users by three-to-one, but use more data by a 20-to-one margin.  Just think of that – your power users are not the ones that will significantly enhance your bottom-line.
 
Future brings hope for passengers and administrators
Based on those trends, what does the future hold for this ever-evolving airport concession?  We have seen in the last few months alone that interest has soared for a complimentary option for travellers.  In particular, some airports have even restricted the number of sites that passengers can visit due to the sheer volume of interest in the complimentary option no matter what this may look like.  It’s a scary thought that “free at any cost” Wi-Fi availability is used to achieve a goal of traveller satisfaction – the ticking of a box – when it looks to only address a portion of the passenger’s true needs.
For airport Wi-Fi to be successful, it has to address the balance between being a profitable asset for airports, as well as coming across as a value add-on and amenity for travellers.  If you think of how addressing individual Wi-Fi needs is like chasing around a moving target, airport administrators will have to remain flexible and forward-thinking when it comes to the terminal’s technological requirements.  Having an innovative and valued partner also helps!
Terminals have continued to evolve, while presenting a tremendous opportunity for travellers to partake in new experiences that they could only dream of merely years ago.  As Wi-Fi continues its natural progression from amenity to standardisation, so too will the interest in seeing how each airport can come across as being ahead of the trends, while still meeting the needs of tomorrow’s passenger.