By Tom Smith
Airport apps. They sound sexy and cool. An airport with its own app appears so cutting edge.
But is an app the right strategy for your airport?
At two-plus years into the world of airport apps the trend is still fuzzy and business plans remain to be proven.
An airport faces three decisions when exploring the world of airport apps and mobile wayfinding.
- Decision one – develop a mobile version of the airport’s website.
- Decision two – develop your own branded airport app.
- Decision three – defer to a third-party app.
As part of an on-going Airport Cooperative Research Program paper on airport social media trends, a survey has found that of the 280 airports surveyed only 21 percent currently have a mobile website. The advantage of making an airport website smartphone-friendly is both the cost and the ability to control the information without a lot of technical know-how.
(Time out for definitions: A mobile website is a website that has been adapted for easy viewing on a smart phone or other mobile device. An app is a software application or program that needs to be downloaded and installed on your device.)
For example, Dallas-Fort Worth and Montréal chose to develop mobile sites before diving into airport apps. Montreal’s strategy is to grow the site and continually add new functionality and links. The airport now gets 100,000 to 125,000 visits per month on their mobile website.
The first mobile website that DFW rolled out was primarily text-based, like many mobile websites. It has since been re-designed extensively using icons and colorful graphics.
In their presentations, Montreal and DFW both said they are now exploring the next step – building their own app sites.
The key advantage of an airport-owned app site is that an airport has greater control of the site and can extend its brand. From a user perspective, an app has greater flexibility and functionality than a website, especially with its geo-location features.
A major problem with an airport-owned app is that few people may know it exists. A local traveler may be familiar with it and may have seen the local ads. However, a connecting traveler may miss the notices within the airport and never use it.
Minneapolis-St. Paul thought it had the best solution in 2010 when it paid to have its own app developed that would be part of the goHow network. The deal held out the possibility of sharing a revenue stream from advertisers.
In the end, the MSP site has generated about 24,000 users per year and not any revenue. The goHow network has been limited to less than a handful of full airport partners. In a deal that was implemented earlier this month, the network has been re-branded as FlySmart as new corporate partners become involved.
Third party airport apps run the gamut from those firms that simply harvest information from an airport’s website to those that develop a relationship with the airport. These firms provide free apps on most platforms and attempt to make their money through advertising and coupon deals.
There are more than a handful of these firms now distributing their apps. Two years ago when ACI-NA had its first airport app panel at the Marketing and Communications Conference in San Diego, one app maker predicted that within a year there would be a be shake-out and he speculated that Apple, Microsoft and Expedia were considering launching their own airport apps or buying one of the existing firms. It has now been two years and everything remains the status quo.
GateGuru, which has the highest profile, noted in its presentation in Sacramento that it now works with airports to update their databases as frequently as monthly. It has a program to provide coupon or discounts to various concessions within an airport.
While a third-party app may put an airport on the map at no cost, the airport has no control over its image and loses any branding opportunity. However, the third-party app is going to exist in the market place whether the airport cooperates or not so it is probably in the airport’s best interest to work with those third-party apps with a national reputation and a large user-base.
So what is the best strategy? Talk with your peers to see what is working best for them. An O&D airport could probably get by with a mobile website; however, it may make more sense for any airport with a substantial amount of connecting flights to thoroughly explore all the airport app options.