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Gatwick Airport’s Community App keeps everyone better informed

Gatwick’s head of IT commercial, Abhilash Chacko, explains the airport’s latest internal communications innovation

Most airport-focused applications are designed to make the travel experience easier for passengers, helping them to get through security, direct them to the right gates and ensure they catch their flights.

But Gatwick has taken a different approach by launching an app for internal staff at the airport, such as shop assistants, baggage handlers and train station employees.

Gatwick’s head of IT commercial, Abhilash Chacko, launched the app last November following a successful trial after the airport’s IT customer forum gave it the thumbs-up.

The Community App gives staff working in and around the airport, even those who do not work directly for Gatwick, easier access to information about airport matters, such as flights, passenger density, local weather and transport status.

“The aim is to make everybody a better passenger host, regardless of who they work for,” says Chacko.

He says the need for the app stems from some passengers entering “panic mode” and expecting to get flight information from anyone who appears to work at the airport. They may approach an employee in a non-passenger-facing department who has no more information than they do.

The app allows all types of staff involved with the airport, including train station, hotel, retail or even contractors, to search for flight details via flight number, destination or airline, so they can give passengers information such as check-in zone and gate number.

“Passengers sometimes get more information from Twitter and Facebook feeds than from staff on the ground,” says Chacko.

“This is an attempt to bridge that communication gap and make everyone look smarter and more up to date.”

Creating a community

The Community App, which is available on Apple and Android devices, can also act as an information hub to inform staff at the airport about environment status that may affect their businesses.

“This is not limited to the 2,000 employees working for Gatwick Airport, this is also for up to 20,000 people working in the airport, employed by various organisations,” says Chacko

“The entire workforce can work in tandem with the airport, in tune with the airport.”

The app will be available to restaurants, retailers, ground handlers, construction workers or anyone who has a contract with Gatwick and will be on the premises – all of whom can register using their business email as their ID.  

Chacko points out that knowing where passengers are coming into the airport or whether there is any travel disruption can allow businesses to organise their time as efficiently as possible, such as scheduling staff breaks for times when there are fewer passengers or ensuring more staff are working during peak hours.

Other information available through the app includes which staff entrances are open, and the notifications that a user receives are fully customisable.

Each notification has different stages of alert – green, amber and red – and some are sorted into North or South Terminal, allowing users easier filtering options.

Looking at notifications for the previous three hours, as well as a projection for passenger numbers in the next hour, can enable airport businesses to plan accordingly, and may help them to spot patterns in passenger flow.

“You can set the alerts in a way that is appropriate to your work requirements and the app will notify you,” says Chacko.  

“By default, when you install it, all notifications are set to alert you only if they turn to red.”

The digital economy

Chacko says it was important for Gatwick to innovate in this way because there is a need for this kind of service in the airport.

Gatwick worked with a firm called Airport Labs to develop the app, and will endorse its use in other airports should they wish to follow suit.

The app delivers notifications to users after taking data from a number of resources around the airport as well as from third parties, and Airport Labs has delivered a cloud-based service using Gatwick as its launch pad.

Chacko sees the project as a way to “test the market of the digital economy” as well as “help everybody to be aware of the airport environment”.

“I would say 70-80% of airports are now ready to share data in one form or another,” he says. “It may be via email, it may be via SMS, it may be via a proper enterprise service bus.

“Even if they don’t have the full infrastructure in place for large-scale data exchange, they can still share the relevant information for this particular app.”

Helping customers innovate

Gatwick runs its IT customer forum every two months to enable its customers to be involved in upcoming innovations at the airport based on real needs, says Chacko.

“An airport campus is a complex environment, and it is difficult for other businesses to move into an airport and start their own operations because of the complexities associated with that,” he says.

Chacko’s IT team will provide a number of on-demand services to businesses around the airport to help them get the ball rolling when they set up shop. These include networks, telephone, webcam services, real-time data and flight information display.

“Customers have got a choice – we don’t mandate it, it’s a choice,” says Chacko. “They can look at the service provision themselves, they can bring their own IT team or their own contractor to deploy it, or they just take it from us.”

At each customer forum, the airport lets its internal customers vote on what services it should work on to provide the most benefit to the community, and the Community App was one of these.

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“Instead of customers thinking about a new service, exploring a new technology, we do that on their behalf,” says Chacko.

“We come up with the idea and take it through a five-stage process: idea generation, screening and filtering, technology trials, commercialisation, and then go live. Things may drop off because there might not be enough interest from the community or it’s not feasible technology-wise.”

Gatwick’s airport community is heavily involved in the IT process, and even the Community App contains a provision to give feedback.

Staff can report the questions passengers are frequently asking or suggest new features for the app based on user needs.

Gatwick hopes future featues of the app will include information about faults around the airport, such as an out-of-order lift, and real-time retail offers when stock is being cleared.

Eventually, theplan is for the Community App to cover other airports too, so that if a pilot or cabin crew travel between airports, they can switch the app based on their location.

“For the community, of the community, by the community – that’s the type of concept we are trying to practise when we think about new features for the Community App or innovation for customers,” says Chacko.

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