6 Ways Tech Will Enable the Post-COVID Airport Customer Experience
Updated: Apr 14
Gene Sutch knows not everyone who took a travel hiatus during the pandemic is ready to get back to flying.
“But we’re here for customers when you are ready, and we’ve made it better than ever,” he says.
Gene is Director of Revenue Strategy & Analysis at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). His territory includes Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C. area.
Once an airline customer arrives on the grounds of the airport, and before they board a plane, Gene and a team of a few thousand airport employees “own” a big chunk of the customer’s experience.
I recently met up with Gene and Lise D’Andrea, president of CXE, Inc. over a couple of Zoom coffee dates. Lise’s company, CXE, works with more than 100 airports on service measurement, training, and recognition programs for airport security, retail, and concessions employees.
“Tech is the catalyst for convenience, comfort, satisfaction, and profits. Airport innovations will evolve faster because they have to.” - Lise D'Andrea
What Can Traveling Customers Expect at the Airport Now?
I asked Gene and Lise about airport customer expectations as a post-COVID recovery period begins to show itself to the travel industry, and about how the airports are preparing to meet new customer expectations.
“Tech is the catalyst for convenience, comfort, satisfaction, and profits,” Lise said. “Airport innovations will evolve faster because they have to.”
Here are six ways Gene and Lise said airport customers everywhere will see tech supporting their experiences when they return to the airport.
1. Robotic cleaning.
“Passengers expect safety and cleanliness at every touchpoint,” Lise said.
Hundreds of hand sanitizing stations and plexiglass shields have been installed at airports everywhere, including the MWAA airports, Gene said. Custodial staff have stepped up to ensure restroom cleanliness with enhanced cleaning protocols.
Now, robots will be helping out, too. At Toronto Pearson and Pittsburgh International Airport, autonomous floor scrubbers powered by artificial intelligence and ultraviolet technology are rolling through airport common areas to supplement the airports’ cleaning protocols.
2. Voice-enabled, touch-free virtual information desks.
Haven’t we all needed directions through an unfamiliar airport from time to time? Volunteers and employees at airport information desks can be a life- and time-saver.
Reagan National Airport has “Traveler’s Aid” booths that now include a voice-enabled, touchless kiosk that can answer visitors' questions about how to get around the airport. The kiosk can also send voice-to-text directions to the customer’s mobile phone.
“We can also see what types of questions customers ask, and at which Traveler's Aid location the questions are being asked. Let’s say it’s directions to car rentals or rideshare app pickup points. This may tell us how we might need to change our signage to better help customers find their way,” Gene said.
3. Contactless airport vending and concessions.
Contactless experiences were a frontrunner preference for customers at the beginning of the pandemic. It looks like that is here to stay for airport customers.
If you forgot to pack a face mask, you can pick one up at a self-service, contactless vending machine at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. Similar contactless self-service vending machines have been installed at other airports around the world.
In addition, Lise noted, contactless preorder and payment will continue to grow at airport retail concessions as airport retail stores slowly begin to reopen.
“Our focus is on the health and safety of our airport customers. Really, that will never end. And there is always something you can improve.” - Gene Sutch
4. Smartphone apps that help customers find a charging station.
Most airport apps tell users where to find parking, how to get around concourses, where to find food, and how to locate an airport lounge. Some customers may find their home airports have kicked their apps up a notch while they’ve been away.
Schipol Airport’s app informs customers of long cue times for security lines and offers up suggestions on where to spend your layover time while passing through Amsterdam.
The DC Airports app now includes information on where to find a charging station for your mobile device, as well as step-by-step directions and time estimates on how long it will take you to walk to your gate, to an airport retail shop, or to your parking spot. Gene said they are working on adding parking reservations and parking payment functionalities to the app.
5. More ways for customers to give feedback.
Lise noted that post-COVID, airport customers will expect to be able to give feedback in multiple ways, on their terms. That means going beyond the standard happy face kiosks most of us have seen at airports but aren’t necessarily keen to touch now.
Gene and his team have been collecting feedback from an electronic survey that is offered to airport customers from the airport’s wi-fi splash landing page. As the customer accepts the terms and conditions for using the airport wi-fi, they are given an opportunity to give feedback about their airport experience, right then.
“We’re getting more feedback from that survey than ever. In fact, 300-400% more feedback since the link was added to the wi-fi page at the start of COVID,” Gene said.
6. Technology at airport security checkpoints.
Above everything, safety is always the number one experience airports want to deliver to their customers. Coming back after a COVID travel hiatus, customers are likely to see more safety technology at the security checkpoints, like biometric screens and credential authentication technology (CAT).
Biometric screens help security personnel verify passengers’ identities. CAT helps identify fraudulent identification documents. Reagan National, Dulles International, Yeager Airport in Charleston, WV, Boston Logan, and the Greater Rochester International Airport in Rochester, NY all recently started using CAT.
Immersed in Tech at the Airport
From touchless sinks and towel dispensers in restrooms to digital health passports, customers will continue to be immersed in growing tech amenities at the airport. Lise mentioned airports’ physical spaces will also likely change to accommodate the changes.
“Concessions are reopening. Customer confidence is coming back,” Gene said. “Our focus is on the health and safety of our airport customers. Really, that will never end as we strive to improve the customer experience. And there is always something you can improve.”