Sensors and Data Mining Help Airports Fix Passenger Wait Time Anxiety

Informed travelers are happier and less stressed, resulting in an improved travel experience. The Internet of Things can make this happen.
Published: October 2, 2019

Nobody likes to wait in line, yet in some places—like in airports—it is completely unavoidable. But what if there were a way to make those inevitable queues move faster and keep the experience more pleasant for those in line? It all comes down to understanding why queuing is so painful and then doing something about it.

The Torture of Waiting
Throughout the last twenty years, the airport environment has grown much more pressurized. With more security checks worldwide following 9/11, growth in passenger and flight numbers each year, and limited space to expand existing infrastructure, modern airports frequently have to contend with long lines of tired, frustrated people. This puts increasing pressure on management to ensure personnel are correctly deployed, gauge the flow and number of people through processes, and deal with unforeseen events, like delays or severe weather conditions. Just one delayed or late-arriving flight can cause all planning to go awry.

Most international airports have implemented automation to help reduce lines, including self-check-in options and self-service bag drops, among others; but that doesn’t eliminate the need to stand in line. If everything is running smoothly and at top efficiency, things will move reasonably quickly, but when things go wrong, it’s a recipe for extremely agitated passengers.

It’s simple: standing in line with no clear understanding of what’s going on can make travelers frustrated, angry and stressed, and for good reasons. Plenty of research has been conducted on the psychology of lines, and much of that research agrees: most queue-based frustration is caused by a combination of boredom and a lack of information.

In the case of boredom, having nothing to occupy your mind can make the duration feel much longer than it is. People have been shown to overestimate the length of time they spend in line by around 36 percent, which means that boredom changes the way they perceive time. As for a lack of accurate information, when people don’t know how long they can be expected to queue, their frustration immediately increases. They resort to guessing and hoping things will move quickly enough, while caught in a web of uncertainty.

Fortunately, the research has shown that providing accurate information helps travelers feel more in control, thanks to clear expectations. Highlighting just how crucial it is, the 2019 Airport Delight Report found that as many as 77 percent of passengers want wait time information. One of the major stumbling blocks to providing accurate wait-time data is how to gather and process relevant information accurately.

By relying on human monitoring to accurately gauge where bottlenecks could happen, or where employees are needed to help speed things up, airports are working reactively. Bottlenecks are only dealt with once they are already a problem, rather than before they can occur. Manual monitoring is also notoriously unreliable for accurately estimating wait times. New technology, however, is taking the guesswork out of airport operations.

From Queue Time to Flow Insight
Traditionally, airports have tackled the need for process information by focusing on a single area, implementing technology to measure wait times where bottlenecks and other hold-ups are most frequent. While this approach is certainly helpful, it has its limitations. Tackling one pinch point only can lead to a build-up of congestion elsewhere. To optimize and improve individual areas of operations, it is essential to understand how all areas and processes interconnect and influence each other. With an airport-wide understanding of how people move and dwell, it is easier to focus on the right challenges and to more effectively improve all processes.

There are several technologies available to help both deliver queue and flow insights, as well as improve capacity planning to reduce queues. These range from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors to camera-based solutions. The question is: which technology is the most effective?

3D camera solutions provide an unparalleled level of accuracy for people-counting and dwell-time statistics, offering a detailed picture of queues per processing point. However, they are not best suited to measuring how people move through multiple processes, as they struggle with gaps in coverage and are easily influenced by changing environmental conditions like lighting and physical obstacles. Wi-Fi and BLE sensor solutions, meanwhile, are ideal for measuring passenger queues and flow, at both individual and multiple processing points. They are, however, less than ideal for people-counting.

Making the Right Choice
While each technology has its unique benefits, neither alone can meet all needs, and a technology designed for a particular area may not work correctly for another. A better solution is to combine them.

Internet of Things (IoT) systems that apply data gathered from multiple sensor types to unified analytics software are the most effective in minimizing congestion and smoothing passenger throughput. These hybrid solutions effectively eliminate blind spots around the terminal, and, if queue times end up exceeding a defined threshold, teams can be alerted immediately. More importantly, combining multi-sensor monitoring with historical data allows for forecast generation, enabling the prediction of bottlenecks before they can occur.

Creating a low-stress experience for passengers will always play in airports’ favor. Shorter queues and more efficient processing really can make for a more pleasant travel experience. Technology offers a variety of solutions that are both economically viable and scalable. It’s simply a matter of identifying the desired outcomes—in this case, resource optimization and waiting times to ease passenger s’ minds—and providing the ideal combination that maximizes the advantages of independent technologies.

Adopting the Tech
In 2018, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) adopted Veovo‘s Passenger Predictability solution to manage lines and display wait times at TSA security checkpoint and taxi stands at JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Stewart Airports. The goal was two-fold: first, to provide accurate information to manage passenger expectations; second, to enable the airports to develop strategies and to target resources to reduce wait times.

“With real-time data posted on each of the airports’ websites and screens at the terminals, wait times are readily available to help reduce passenger stress and enable travelers to plan based on the queue times they will encounter,” says Rick Cotton, the Port Authority’s executive director. “Moreover, the information makes it easier for staff to monitor checkpoint wait times and call for additional resources to congested areas.”

A couple of years earlier, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) had turned to the same solution, to help reduce frustration and complaints resulting from people’s inaccurate perception of time. “Much of our interest in the public display of wait times was to dispel perception from reality,” says Brian Cobb, CVG’s VP of customer experience. “To paraphrase the old adage, ask five people what their actual wait time was, and you’ll get five different answers. Following deployment, complaints are now rare, as the passenger immediately understands the present situation and adapts.” Not only has CVG reduced complaints, but it has successfully used the collected data to recommend TSA staffing adjustments, resulting in a one-third reduction in processing times.

At Amsterdam Schiphol, the solution isn’t simply used for providing wait times in processing points—it is also playing a significant part in the airport’s digital transformation, as it soon will deliver airport-wide passenger movement analytics from entrance to flight. “It helps us manage performance with data-driven certainty,” explains Michiel de Haas, Amsterdam Schiphol’s capacity manager. “With real-time visibility of passenger flow, we can keep pinch-point processing quick, but also make holistic decisions on how to create more efficient and more meaningful customer experiences throughout the airport.”

Auckland Airport, in New Zealand, has taken the benefits of the technology a step further by collaborating with road authorities. This cooperation between the airport and road traffic authorities has given Auckland even more detailed insights into potential congestion or other delays, both on the road and in the airport. As a result, besides wait times at pinch points, travelers also receive travel time information on the road. Numerous other international airports are following suit and have almost universally experienced a reduction in queue times and complaints. They have recognized that informed travelers are happier and less stressed, which leads to an improved travel experience.

Christian Bugislaus Carstens is the marketing manager at Veovo, a company that helps airports globally run more efficiently. He is a creative content marketing professional with an extensive background in all modern forms of marketing and brand-building activities. He has in-depth knowledge, experience and profound interest in writing content, digital marketing, copywriting and editing, graphic design, advertising and social media. He lives in Aalborg, Denmark, where he is a dad to a teenage boy. Christian is an AaB Soccer Club Superfan, a film enthusiast and a guru in a kitchen. When not working, he enjoys working out in the gym, socializing with friends and planning for the next adventure with his family.