Three Takeaways from Passenger Terminal Expo

I recently had the pleasure of attending this year’s Passenger Terminal Expo in Amsterdam. It’s a huge event, with hundreds of talks and thousands of visitors, and it provides a good overview of the larger trends and challenges in the airport industry. Here are my three takeaways:

big-data-airport1. Airports have a lot more passenger data—but not enough ideas about what to do with it

One of the biggest themes of this year’s expo is the impact of big data. “Data is the new currency,” Tanja Dik, Schiphol’s director of consumer products and services, declared. “If you don’t care for the data, you’re out of the business.” Plenty of talks outlined the techniques that airports are using to acquire passenger data—but frighteningly few explained how that data is being interpreted, and how those new insights are delivering tangible results in terms of additional revenue or an improved customer experience.

A presentation by Kathleen Boyd, Houston Airport System’s head of marketing, was a welcome exception. Drawing on credit card transactions and license plate captures, her team has been able to pinpoint where each passenger lives, right down to the level of individual city blocks. They combined these data points with insights drawn from the airport’s wifi network—which tracks which language passenger’s devices are set to—to develop highly detailed “psychogeographic profiles.” These profiles categorize travelers according to their average age, income, and household size. They also highlight each group’s unique features: attributes like whether a passenger is likely to live in a bilingual household, own an iPad, value physical fitness, or donate to political causes. Houston used these insights to identify the services and amenities that each pax type cares most about–such as healthy food, or free wifi–along with what kinds of retail outlets and communication channels are best able to meet each demographic’s specific needs.

The takeaway? The case of Houston shows how useful big data can be if you know how to apply it. But many airport authorities seem to be focusing more on the accumulation of data rather than on its analysis. If you don’t have a strategy for how to plug those new insights back into the terminal planning process, then those big data initiatives could end up being a huge waste of time and money.

SFO parking garage2. Airports are facing a big decline in parking

Parking fees are one of the largest sources of non-aeronautical income. According to the FAA, U.S. airports derive about 20% of their total operating revenue just from parking. Unfortunately, a paradigm shift in ground access patterns is about to put a big dent in that revenue stream. As ridesharing apps like Lyft, Uber, and Didi Chuxing increase in popularity—and as self-driving vehicles become a reality—fewer and fewer passengers will be parking their own cars at the airport. The shift may be gradual, but the writing is on the wall.

Several execs confided that their airports had seen a drop in parking income last year, despite healthy increases in overall pax figures. Whether they like it or not, airports need to start thinking about other types of non-aeronautical activities to compensate for that decline. Imposing access fees may recover part of that lost income, but it’s unlikely that a fee-based model alone will do the trick. At the same time, as the architect Curt Fentress pointed out in a recent interview, airports need to consider how to redevelop existing parking lots, garages, and car rental facilities to make them suitable for alternative, revenue-generating purposes. Don’t know where to start? Click here for a few ideas.

Airbräu-Biergarten im München Airport Center3. Airports are going local

Finally, there’s a big push at many airports to “go local”—that is, to incorporate local culture and local vendors into the airport experience. Airports are doing that for a variety of reasons. Research conducted by Munich Airport’s customer experience expert Thomas Hinterholzer reveals that feeling welcomed and connected to the local culture is a big driver of passenger satisfaction. That’s why Munich emphasizes Bavarian hospitality as a key development guideline, which passengers can experience first-hand in an outdoor beer garden, located in the airport forecourt. Similar developments are taking place in Amsterdam, where Schiphol airport has successfully test-piloted a food truck program called The Flying Trucks (!). The trucks bring in a steady supply of tasty treats, cooked on the spot by local chefs—a distinctive feature enjoyed by passengers, and by the thousands of people who work at the airport.

Local touches also help airports to establish a brand identity that isn’t tied to a particular airline, and that showcases the positive features that make their host city an exciting travel destination. Cincinnati’s Brian Cobb explained how his airport has done that by partnering with the city’s zoo, ballet, and natural history museum: curating an exciting array of performances and exhibitions that travelers enthusiastically document on social media. In a similar vein, Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport hosts exhibits sponsored by local governments and tourism bureaus as a way of introducing visitors to distinct aspects of Taiwan’s culture, such as Sanyi wood sculptures and the annual Tung blossom festival.

As I’ve discussed before, going local has a lot of benefits for airports, including additional revenue streams, improved customer satisfaction, and better relations with surrounding communities. It’s nice to see that taking shape at airports all over the world.

How is your airport thinking about local culture, big data, and the future of parking? Share your ideas in the comments below, or get in touch with me here.