Airports

To Speed Up Security Lines, Airports Start Tracking Your Smartphone


To Speed Up Security Lines, Airports Start Tracking Your Smartphone

Photograph by Andrew Bret Wallis

Cincinnati’s regional airport will become the first in the U.S. to monitor travelers’ smartphones and other Wi-Fi-equipped gadgets to identify congested areas swiftly 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 suffered 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.

The BlipTrack technology in Oslo AirportCourtesy Lockheed MartinThe BlipTrack technology in Oslo Airport

“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 (LMT). The company’s BlipTrack system is already deployed in 20 airports, including those in 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 (AAPL)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 says, and that number is only expected to rise. Over time, BlipTrack’s wireless signal tracking will allow the airport to analyze passengers’ movements more closely 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 that airport-congestion data can ease the sort of budget constraints that drive airport decision making. The Cincinnati airport, which is 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 (DAL) merged with Northwest. Even the best data cannot make up for the revenue lost by that kind of traffic drop.

It can, however, make some of the economic choices easier, Bowman says. “Some of the emotions are removed from the conversation.” Travelers can get used to providing these 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 more quickly—with more time to stop for a coffee on the way, which helps the airport.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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