Technology is shaping the airport world – and nowhere more so than at Gatwick, the busiest single-runway airport in the world. Justyn Barnes reports.
Annual passenger numbers for the airport have grown from 31 million to 46 million since 2009, and with a constrained infrastructure, technology has been crucial in dealing with this increase. “Every day, 130,000 empowered, informed, demanding, tech-enabled consumers come through our doors,” Guy Stephenson, Gatwick’s chief commercial officer, told delegates at the Genesys Summit at World Travel Market London recently. “Whatever we do, in the end it has to deliver for our customers.”
He referred to YouGov research identifying significant change in passengers’ needs in recent times. In 2011, they didn’t want to queue, so technology was used to improve passenger processes and flow. By 2016, they wanted to feel in control, with more personalised experiences, which can be enabled by new technology. “Relaxed, happy customers need a great environment, fast and predictable processes, fingertip information and a human touch,” said Stephenson.
This has required him and his team to pay attention to the physical journey, digital journey and emotional journey. “The physical environment is key – we spend a lot of money on that to make people feel they are valued,” he explained. “The digital journey is about getting control into people’s hands and that allows us to make money as well. And then there is the emotional journey – we are in a competitive business and want people to choose to travel through Gatwick. If they’d had a good physical and digital journey, and they’ve been through our touchpoints with people who are responding in a friendly manner, they will be our advocates.”
Technology has transformed the passenger journey and service delivery at Gatwick, with huge investment in everything from baggage handling to front-of-house areas such as check-in, security and immigration.
“Our North Terminal now has the world’s largest automated bag drop and that has transformed the check-in experience from about half an hour to four or five minutes,” he said. There has also been a change in the security area, improving the customer experience and speeding up each channel from processing 150-200 trays per hour to 700 trays per hour.
"There is a huge amount of data swilling round there, and it needs to be coordinated"
“This means that consistently 98% of customers can get through in under five minutes, making the customer’s journey more predictable and thus giving them more control,” Stephenson noted.
The airport is also about to introduce passive Wi-Fi analytics, tagging people’s phones who are connected to the airport’s Wi-Fi (tags are anonymised, so there are no General Data Protection Regulation issues, Stephenson noted), allowing Gatwick staff to optimise customer flow.
“We can make better use of our infrastructure by being intelligent about it,” he added. He also talked about how real-time data was used to improve airfield performance: “The airfield is a complex, safety-oriented place. There is a huge amount of data swilling round there, and it needs to be coordinated so every participant in that chain is working effectively to deliver on-time performance safely for our customers, he said.
Gatwick’s commitment to customer service is further underlined by its recent implementation of a platform for customer service and feedback and the forthcoming CRM and e-commerce platform. Stephenson is also excited about a new app, which launched on December 7, and which Gatwick claims is the first passenger app with personalised flight information, live queue times, and shopping and airport offers. Meanwhile, Stephenson expects such technology as chatbots, drones (for tarmac inspection), biometrics (to get people through airports), and robots (to pick up and park cars – “that is going to happen next year,” he said) to play a big part in Gatwick’s future.
“Our ambition is to be the world’s most technologically advanced airport,” he said, “but in the end what matters is whether the customer is getting a great experience. The personal touch completes the emotional journey. People matter. Customer satisfaction is the end game.”
’Beyond 50 million passengers’
Asked at WTM London if spatial restraints could hinder passenger number growth at Gatwick, the airport’s chief commercial officer Guy Stephenson replied: “No – by no means. We can see a pathway to increasing beyond 50 million passengers. Airspace and runway technology will allow us to be more productive there. And inside the terminal, we want to offer a 24/7 service in every language – we won’t be able to do that with people, but can with chatbot technology.”