Travelers work their way through the security line at Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.
Cincinnati’s regional airport will become the first in the U.S. to monitor travelers' smartphones and other Wi-Fi equipped gadgets to quickly identify congested areas and display wait times for the security checkpoint.
The idea is that tracking traffic flows and analyzing data quickly will help airports and the Transportation Security Administration reduce or eliminate problem spots. Cincinnati's airport, which has seen a steep and steady slide in passenger traffic since 2008, will also try to use the data to increase retail sales in the terminal. There might be advantages for travelers, too, such as more accurate wait times posted at customs lines or check-in desks.
"When you proactively have that information, the passengers are actually much calmer and they find the queuing experience less daunting," says Martin Bowman, director of global airports for Lockheed Martin. The company’s BlipTrack system is already deployed in 20 airports, including Amsterdam, Dubai, Geneva, Oslo, and Toronto. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is set to become the first in the U.S. to use the technology, with testing this month before the system makes a debut in July with data displays showing the wait times for the security lines.
The system, which is similar in concept to Apple's iBeacon location technology, detects the presence of a gadget via its embedded Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals. Even though it doesn't gather data to identify a device's owner or other personal information, some European airports notify travelers that the technology is in use. Cincinnati airport officials don't plan to notify travelers, however, saying the system poses no privacy issues.
About half of airport passengers carry a Wi-Fi-enabled device such as a smartphone or laptop, Bowman said, and that number is only expected to rise. Over time, BlipTrack's wireless signal tracking will allow the airport to more closely analyze passengers' movements and collect data on how people use retail and restaurant options. "How long is the line at Starbucks," says airport spokeswoman Melissa Wideman by way of example. "How much time are people spending in our shops?"
It's all well and good to remove uncertainty from the wait at the security checkpoint, but it's not clear airport-congestion data can ease the sorts of budget constraints driving airport decision making. The Cincinnati airport, which is located near Covington, Ky., drew 5.7 million passengers last year, fewer than half the 13.6 million passengers that came through in 2008, before Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest. Even the best data cannot make up for the revenue lost by that kind of traffic drop.
However, says Bowman, it can make some of the economic choices easier. "Some of the emotions are removed from the conversation," he said. Travelers can get used to providing this data, whether they want to or not: Bowman predicts about 50 U.S. airports will be interested in the technology.
If you’re lucky, you may also get to the gate quicker — with more time to stop for a coffee on the way, which helps the airport.