Beacons Take Flight at JFK Airport

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
Beacons at JFK

One of the nation's busiest airport terminals uses beacons to gather data about passengers, lines and wait points, and displays that data on 13 large screens.

One of the more frustrating aspects of travel is moving through an airport to get to the right gate. Long lines at check in, at security checkpoints and while waiting for ground transportation can create time pressures, anxiety and other problems. Unfortunately, most airports have no effective way to manage lines and travelers' expectations—short of a manager noticing that a line is extraordinarily long and deploying personnel to try to fix the problem.

At John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, officials at Terminal 4 (Delta Airlines, United Air Lines, Virgin Airlines, Jet Blue, and other domestic and international carriers) are taking direct aim at this problem. Beginning in August, the terminal began using Bluetooth beacons to gather data about passengers, lines and wait points, and to make that data available on 13 large display screens.

The screens have been placed at TSA Security and Customs and Border Protection checkpoints, as well as at the indoor taxi queue. The system operates in real time and updates data continuously.

With nearly 20 million travelers passing through the terminal each year, wait times are no small matter. In the past, the use of stopwatches and manual tracking methods didn't add up to efficiency and customer satisfaction.

"People do not like to wait in lines, but there is no way to avoid them here," notes Daryl Jameson, vice president at JFK International Air Terminal (JFKIAT), the company that operates Terminal 4 and built out the technology. "This system provides valuable information that helps everyone manage expectations, especially when lines get long."

System Detects Bluetooth and WiFi Mobile Devices

The technology consists of BlipTrack beacons and software from Denmark-based BLIP Systems. Installed by Lockheed Martin, the system detects Bluetooth and WiFi mobile devices that are set in "discoverable" mode and pulls the MAC (media access control) address, which is recorded, encrypted and time-stamped.

The system re-identifies the device from multiple beacons as a passenger moves through the terminal. This makes it possible to calculate travel times, dwell times and movement patterns— all while keeping the passenger's data completely anonymous.

In addition to providing wait information, the system can aid travelers. In the event that a person is pressed for time, the system "can bring it to the attention of an official who may move them to the front of the line," Jameson says.

Terminal 4 is now looking at expanding the use of the beacons to merchants, so that they can send out promotions, offers and discounts to travelers. "This is really about establishing ourselves as an innovative and leading-edge airport terminal that is in sync with the needs of today's travelers," he explains.

The biggest challenge, Jameson says, was simply positioning the beacons and antennas so that they would deliver optimal reads and canvas the terminal in an optimal way. At present, Terminal 4 is using about 30 beacons, though that number may increase in the months ahead.

In addition to the display screens, staff can view the data and generate reports from a Web portal. This helps officials oversee staffing more effectively.

"This system helps us manage and eliminate problem spots within the facility and share valuable processing time with our travelers," Jameson reports.

Photo courtesy of the JFK International Air Terminal.

This article was originally published on 2015-11-23
Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).
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