Skift Take

It's helpful, sure, but how long will it take for users to actually care?

American Airlines‘ Phil Easter, Director of Mobile Apps jokingly referenced beacons as “bacon” during a special press conference at the SITA IT Summit to announce that American Airlines would deploy the world’s largest implementation of iBeacons at Dallas/Fort Worth‘s Terminal D.

The reference to the pork product may have been a joke, intended to make what is for many an unfamiliar and perhaps worrying technology trend easier to relate to, but there is a rasher of truth to it.

It’s become clear that beacon technology, iBeacons as one example, could greatly benefit the transport and travel sectors, even before getting into potential additional advantages for marketers and retailers.

SITA explains the technical features of iBeacon in particular and how it would be used by American at DFW: “iBeacon is a technology Apple introduced with iOS 7 that uses Bluetooth Low Energy and geofencing to trigger the display of location-relevant information on devices at the right time and in the right situation. With beacons, airlines can easily provide passengers with indoor directions, walk times to gates, lounge access and alerts about boarding. Knowing where a passenger is before sending information enables more effective communication.”

Explaining why American specifically chose to go the route of Apple’s iBeacon technology, Easter said: “The fact that Apple built it [iBeacon technology] into the iOS 8 makes it easier for Developers.” He also indicated that 85% of customers of American who are using smartphone apps use iOS, and added: “It’s like bacon … real simple” when referring to the process of integration for iBeacons.

American will also be the first airline to use the SITA Common-use Beacon Registry, launched today. The airline will begin trials with Beta Users at DFW, in anticipation of a full deployment in the next quarter of 2014 and subsequent deployment at American’s hubs in the US throughout next year.

SITA believes that beacon technology will ultimately allow passengers to get up-to-date and relevant information on their mobile devices at airports all around the world.

Jim Peters, Chief Technology Officer, SITA, speaking at the Air Transport IT Summit, said: “As we worked with airlines across the world including American Airlines at DFW and San Francisco International (SFO), and others at London Heathrow Airport (LHR), Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) and Copenhagen Airport (CPH), we saw very quickly that an industry approach was needed. We have launched the SITA Common-use Beacon Registry to give the industry a single point of contact for common-use beacons deployed at any airport around the world. With it, airports can control and share the meta data – the exact location including information on gates, terminals, etc. – with airlines and other partners and allow passengers to receive accurate and relevant information.”

Because SITA systems are used at more than 525 airports globally, the company is ideally positioned to work with airlines and airports on more effectively roll outs of this new technology. The pilot program at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) will be the world’s biggest airport deployment of beacons to date, but smaller programs of other beacon applications have taken part successfully in other airports including at Heathrow Airport where Virgin Atlantic carried out trials completed earlier this year, as Skift has reported. Over the summer, American Airlines plans to roll the program out to beta users on select routes and airports in North America.

As Easter says: “Beacons provide a fantastic opportunity to improve the passenger experience, but to do so they must be consistently deployed at all airports. At American Airlines we are working with SITA to use beacon location detection to enhance our mobile app and give our passengers travelling through the airports accurate way-finding information. Using SITA’s Registry will enable us to provide the same great user experience to our passengers using our app in airports not just in North America, but across our global route network.”

SITA indicates: “The SITA Common-use Beacon Registry defines standard data sets and beacon types to be positioned at gates, retail areas or checkpoints. This will allow airlines and airports to share beacons to get location information and provide personalized services to passengers. An API is available for app developers who want to use these beacons for developing travel-related apps. Airlines and airports sharing equipment is a proven and efficient working model. It is already used for kiosks, check-in desks and boarding gates at the world’s airports. The SITA Common-use Beacon Registry will solve the problem of multiple airlines wanting to install separate beacons across airports. It will manage the complexity of the rollout and ensure that airports can manage the radio-emitting devices in such a way that they do not disrupt each other’s signals or existing Wi-Fi infrastructure.”

Peters added: “Any airline or airport that is thinking about iBeacon technology needs to think common-use and check out the Registry. We’ve built a service to remove the complexity of deployment, and it is already being used successfully in Asia, Europe and America. Beacon owners, such as airlines, airports or ground handlers, can use the registry to manage their beacon infrastructure and track where they are placed. At the same time the API allows app developers to use these beacons to create new travel-related apps.”

In all, American Airlines will deploy 100 beacons which are just about the size of six silver dollars stacked on top of each other. They cost around $10 each when purchased in bulk, and can remain in service for up to 5 years.

Beyond the passenger experience enhancements, Easter sees significant benefits to airline operations. As an example, he suggests that airlines can use beacons to identify exactly where a passenger is at a terminal before or after security, to know with certainty whether luggage must be removed for the aircraft for no-shows. Easter emphasized that American does not intend to use this technology to track other customer activities and that any data gathered is only given voluntarily through use of relevant applications.

Skift asked Easter whether there is a likelihood of other oneworld partners deploying similar programs at their hubs, and while he could not say whether there is a uniform alliance-based deployment plan, oneworld partners will be watching the American Airlines deployment with interest.

This ambitious project will be one to watch. It’s success or failure will influence the next steps airlines and airports take with similar initiatives. The trial deployment will also prove the appetite passengers and the public at large have for the bacon–um–beacon.

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Tags: american airlines, sita

Photo credit: Example of a Beacon device in an airport. SITA

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