Just in Time Transit: Virtual Queues to Eliminate the Real Thing

As designers of products and services for transport spaces look to innovate in the sector, I believe passengers will see concepts borrowed from related sectors like supply chain logistics and manufacturing. OnTimeArrival is a smartphone application that, using realtime information and predictive algorithms, helps passengers arrive “just in time” to the gate at the airport, borrowing from “lean manufacturing” practice.

I’d like to propose a slight humanizing tweak to the OnTimeArrival concept, recognizing the realities of the typical airport and passenger. My proposal is twofold:

First, to encourage the use of OnTimeArrival-like applications to manage when people arrive at the airport. The goal should be to have as few people at the airport as possible, freeing capacity to serve those who need to be there in order to catch their flights on-time.

Secondly, as Ronan Delaney argues, passengers hate queues at the airport–I agree. I disagree on why–people are used to waiting for things in life. Passengers hate queues at the airport because they don’t know where they truly stand (in line): the entire process is disjointed, and therefore unknowable. This is not only anxiety provoking, but also misses opportunities for new and differentiated levels of service.

What if we addressed this anxiety with a smartphone-mediated “virtual queue” of the journey from arrival to gate, so passengers could always be assured they were on target to catch their flight? Furthermore, through a combination of real-time airport metrics, incentives (e.g. discounts, free passes to lounges, etc.) and clear instruction, passengers’ entry into various control zones/touchpoints (unsecured, security checkpoint, terminal, concourse and finally gate) could be managed, having the passenger present only when necessary. Crowding might be reduced, customer experience improved with better communication, and passenger/airline brand engagement improved with differentiated offerings.

In 2012, Control Group worked with OTG Management to re-imagine the restaurant and retail experience at La Guardia, Minneapolis-St.Paul, and Toronto Airports. With free and accessible iPads, passengers can now sit by their gate and order food and sundries directly to their seats, while being able to surf the web, check E-mail and remain updated about flight status. What if service touchpoints like this were placed in even more locations throughout the airport, becoming places for passengers to wait before being told to proceed to the next control zone?

With this “virtual queue” strategy, variability and exceptions can be addressed by an algorithm that accounts for current passenger position in the queue and scheduled takeoff time, promoting those that are late for their flights and telling those that are still early to grab another (discounted?) drink and wait, freeing capacity to serve those who are in a rush.

A big source of frustration at the airport is a lack of control–expectations are placed on passengers to be at a certain place at a certain time, but success relies on many things beyond the passenger’s control. If an airline can share some of that cognitive load and responsibility, even symbolically, by managing the passenger’s trip through the process with a smartphone-mediated “virtual queue”, both the passenger and airline can benefit from the efficiencies.

 

LaGuardia Airport iPads in the Wall Street Journal

Congrats to our client OTG Management for a great article in today’s Wall Street Journal that profiles the redesigned gate experience recently rolled out  at LaGuardia airport.

I’ve written here before about how we worked with OTG to design a flexible, secure, and scalable iPad platform for traveler use in the airport. And I’ve shared some thoughts about the challenges in large scale commercial iPad device deployments. But what I love about the WSJ article — and about traveler adoption to the platform in general — is that it focuses on the delightful travel experience that the iPads make possible.

When OTG approached us to help them create the next generation airport traveler experience, we put user-experience at the forefront of every stage of the development process: from initial discussions and onsite observational research, through the iterative development process that ultimately lead to the solution in place now at at LGA. The goal was to remove the usual anxiety that accompanies the gate environment by providing entertainment and accessibility. And it sounds like we did a pretty good job. (Fun Fact: Our internal code name for the platform here at CG was Project Xanax.)

We are looking forward to continuing to enhance the experience with great new features! My favorite quote from the article is: “everybody’s happy until you get on the airplane.”

I guess we still have some work to do…

iPads at the Gate: A New Airport Experience

I couldn’t be more pleased to share news of a major project success for Control Group. If you’ve flown Delta from LaGuardia Airport in the last month or so, you may have used one of the hundreds of iPads available for free in the gate hold area while you waited for your flight. Control Group has been working closely with our client and partner OTG Management to develop this platform that will be rolled out to over 7,000 iPads across airports around the world.

Photo: OTG Management

For a while now, we’ve been asking ourselves here at CG, “how come my experience at the Apple Retail Store is so superior to almost everyplace else?”  Why haven’t airports, sports arenas, the DMV, or my favorite retail store caught up yet?  Why are they still doing it the way they did 20 years ago?

About a year ago OTG Management came to us with their vision for a new airport gate experience.  They wanted to provide travelers with an engaging and relaxing experience while they wait for their flight. In addition to world-class cuisine and comfortable, modern seating, OTG saw the iPad as a key component of their new airport experience.

So we worked with OTG to build an iPad-based platform that provides free access to the open web and third-party applications, real-time flight information, and a restaurant menu that allows travelers to order food for delivery from one of OTG’s award-winning restaurants – all from the comfort of their seats.

This is truly the future of air travel and Control Group is proud to be part of it.

The iOS app we built is powered by a custom back-end platform that integrates with a variety of services and APIs. The customer-facing iOS app has a great user experience that combines subtle details and animations with a UI that is accessible and usable by travelers of all ages, some of who may have never used an iPad before. We also streamlined the iOS device management process. As I’ve written about before, there are a myriad of challenges with managing iPads in large shared-use, commercial deployments. People love iPads and want to pick them up, browse the open web, post on Facebook, play games, and check their Gmail. Many companies are realizing how challenging it can be to use a consumer device like the iPad to provide a secure and curated customer experience.  Efforts to deploy and manage them in commercial environments frequently result in locked down hardware and software, providing an experience that is the antithesis of what makes the iPad so appealing in the first place.

So we approached security and device management challenges with Apple integrity and the iPad native experience front and center.  To do this, we looked straight to the source: we modeled the device management framework and the iPad user-experience on the Apple Retail Store deployment. We put in place subtle restrictions that help prevent vandalism of the branded iOS configuration, and developed infrastructure and processes that enable OTG to efficiently and remotely restore devices when required.

Not only did we build a platform for OTG to provide a better airport gate experience for travelers; we also built a secure, scalable, and manageable platform for them to scale and expand this experience across airports.  We are excited about this project and look forward to helping other clients re-envision their spaces for the digital age.

For more information on this project or on our work in iOS or interactive spaces, please feel free to contact me at charlie@controlgroup.com.