Orlando airport a beacon for mobile customer experience

Mobile engage passengers

In most large airports, visitors typically wander around, trying to find their departure gate while hoping to grab something to eat—if the security lines aren’t too long, of course. It’s often a stressful experience, with travelers racing against a ticking clock.

Orlando International Airport (MCO) is trying to transform those anxious hours into a more relaxing, positive experience by serving its customers in their five-second windows on mobile devices via an app. Since Orlando is a top family vacation destination, many travelers are “leisure travelers” who lack the experience of, say, business travelers. They often get lost at the large airport, so it makes sense to offer navigation services to them.

“Having an app that included navigation was a great customer service enhancement,” says Brian K. Engle, MCO’s customer service director.

Anecdotal evidence suggests MCO is achieving its goal, and the airport plans to expand its mobile customer service this year. In a 2016 app update, for example, passengers will be able to mark the location of their parked car upon arrival, so they can easily find it when they return.

Bluetooth beacons alight mobile navigation

In late 2014, MCO purchased about 1,200 Bluetooth beacons from Aruba Networks. Beacons are hardware transmitters that broadcast to mobile devices within proximity. Combined with the airport’s mobile app, beacons enable any of MCO’s 38 million annual visitors to find their way to some 1,600 points of interest, such as terminals, gates, restaurants, shops, baggage carousels and elevators.

Just like traditional GPS-enabled map apps, travelers see their current location on a map as a pulsing blue dot. If they go astray while following turn-by-turn directions, the app will recalculate their path.

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The airport has a history of using technology to enhance customer service, says John Newsome, IT director for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which manages the Orlando airport. MCO was the first airport to provide travelers with indoor navigation services throughout all terminals via a mobile app running on both Android and iOS.

In 2004, MCO became one of two U.S. airports to offer free Wi-Fi in all terminals, Newsome says. Initially, MCO had hoped to use its existing network of Wi-Fi access points for passenger navigation. But in tests, the technology didn’t provide acceptable location accuracy, so MCO switched to the more precise beacons.

IT leads the way into uncharted territory

MCO’s IT department proposed the mobile customer service project, which received support from stakeholders in other departments such as customer service and marketing, as well as from C-level leaders, Newsome says. The airport invested approximately $500,000 in its beacon-mobile app project.

In some ways, it was a leap of faith. Only about 9 percent of airports have beacons today, The Economist reported last July, so MCO is largely in uncharted territory. There were no specific user adoption expectations nor ROI target metrics that could conclusively “attribute a meal purchased in a restaurant to the mobile app,” Newsome says.

In fact, no airport has presented metrics that confirm the business case for installing beacons, says Robert Walcutt Grueser, an airport technology, project management, and cost control consultant. “We don’t know yet if a significant number of passengers will use mobile beacon apps. The anecdotal evidence isn’t conclusive.”

MCO’s app has had about 27,000 downloads so far, an amount Newsome says isn’t as large as he’d like. But he adds that it can be a challenge to get travelers to take the time to download a new app while on the go.

Downloads have been primarily driven by some wall signage behind ticket counters, banner ads on the MCO website, and QR codes around the airport, says Jerry Harris, assistant director of MCO’s Marketing & Air Service Department. The airport is exploring additional ways to advertise the mobile app in 2016, such as enabling airport businesses to send targeted merchandise and food offers to passengers.

Subtle signs of success

In the meantime, Newsome says he has anecdotal evidence from positive comment cards and app store feedback that suggests MCO’s efforts to engage customers on mobile are working. For example, the MCO app had an average user rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars on Google’s Android app downloads store as of early January. One user wrote, “every airport needs an app like this.”

“We want to inform passengers and help them on their way,” Newsome says. “If they spend a week or two here and don’t feel they were treated well when they left, we haven’t done our job.”

“We don’t know yet if a significant number of passengers will use mobile beacon apps. The anecdotal evidence isn’t conclusive.” –Robert Walcutt Grueser, consultant

Along with serving up a better customer experience, MCO hopes to benefit financially from its mobile app and beacon deployment, a hope that recent data supports. Travelers who are most satisfied during their time in a large airport spend $29 on average, while dissatisfied visitors to big airports spend just $10, according to a J.D. Powers & Associates survey conducted in North America between July and October 2015.

Monesh Jain, chief idea engineer for software developer NorthOut, is one traveler who sees the benefits of mobile customer service at airports.

“You’re in unknown territory, trying to find something or chilling out waiting for a boarding announcement,” Jain says. “All you need is a personal assistant that can help match your interests with what’s out there.”


James A. Martin is an award-winning, San Francisco-based journalist. He started covering mobile technology sometime after the Apple Newton bellyflopped but before the PalmPilot went viral. You can reach him at jim@jamesamartin.com.

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