Airports across the country are gearing up for a hectic holiday travel season. AAA is predicting record travel this year, with an estimated 115.6 million Americans expected to travel 50 miles or more between December 21 and January 1. If accurate, this will be the largest travel volume since AAA began tracking the numbers in 2000.
Record-high travelers will surely present significant traffic and congestion issues at airports across the country. Couple this with a rapid rise in rideshare congestion, and it’s a total traffic mess. Many hubs from LAX to Boston’s Logan International Airport are creating new regulations to combat the traffic problem in advance of the busiest travel season, but they’ve certainly not avoided criticism.
As airports prepare to service millions of travelers this season, they need to understand how to approach the issue without completely losing sight of consumer preferences along the way.
Enter, the airport shuttle (that you can finally track)
It comes as no surprise that airports across the country are implementing big changes to regulate rideshare. At San Francisco International, companies like Uber and Lyft accounted for 75% of commercial ground transportation in 2018. That’s about 880,000 trips a month, which obviously makes for a traffic nightmare. While it’s necessary that airports set restrictions to combat the traffic problem, they can’t overlook the reasons why consumers tend to lean more toward rideshare in the first place.
Uber and Lyft offer unprecedented benefits to consumers, especially travelers. Being able to schedule a pick-up and track that ride before you’ve even made it to the gate is a luxury that obviously keeps riders coming back. But what if airports could offer comparable levels of trip ownership and customization?
If airports want to regulate rideshare, they need to offer alternative service that’s capable of competing with the personalized service Uber and Lyft provide. The airport shuttle has been the most popular replacement for rideshare service at the airport, and while it’s certainly more efficient from a traffic perspective, it doesn’t have the best reputation. Airport shuttles have long been known for their tendency to be delayed, outdated, and impossible to track down. However, airports like LAX are starting to recognize this stigma, which is why they’re modernizing the shuttles themselves, as well as the backend operations that inform the service all together.
Companies like Journey Holding are powering airports with technology solutions to finally update airport shuttles with features like GPS tracking, where travelers can request a pick-up on demand and then watch a van icon move along its route and get an estimated arrival time at a given stop — just like waiting for an Uber, but without the added congestion. While these features may seem like a longtime coming to consumers today, airports are legacy operations with often limited resources. This typically leaves them playing catch-up with tech innovation that’s happening at a rapid pace around them. In leveraging external resources like Journey Holding, airports are able to keep pace with those changes, as well as customer-expectations.
By collecting insights on the backend around things like peak travel times, or how full a given shuttle is, shuttle service can be adjusted based on real-time data. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of airport shuttles running empty along routes throughout the day. This isn’t just a waste of resources, it also creates unnecessary congestion. As airports continue to modernize and become just as data-driven as companies like Uber and Lyft, they will be able to avoid these scenarios. Of course, this helps them optimize routes and resources, but it also allows airport operators to identify areas that aren’t being served enough, or evaluate and respond to instances where travelers are experiencing a lack of reliable service. Ultimately, altering shuttle service so that it’s informed by data and made available on-demand on the platforms consumers use most — their phones — is making this sustainable and efficient transit alternative a competitive option.
Thinking beyond the airport
Air travel demand is expected to rise far beyond this holiday season. As traveler numbers increase, airports have to recognize the opportunity to leverage transportation technology as a means to combat the congestion issues that will inevitably follow. Beyond that, the benefit of making these changes extends outside of the airport itself.
When we think about addressing traffic and congestion, and reforming transportation to do so, it’s important to take an in-depth look at airports. Of course, these hubs are known for being busy traffic centers, but they’re also full of useful data around how people interact with important transit features that are also present in the cities they reside in — think curbs, sidewalks, parking lots, etc. This makes airports the ideal “testing ground” for transit innovation. Operating data-driven transit solutions on airport grounds is a great way to understand how those same solutions could ultimately function in major metros. This is a huge driver for companies like Journey Holding that are powering airports with the resources to gather and analyze transit data. Of course, these efforts streamline travel at the airport itself, but they also pave the way for future innovation to happen on city streets and highways beyond the airport.
The bottom line is, airport infrastructure is growing increasingly strained as traveler numbers rise. As we prepare for record-travel this holiday, it’s critical that airports react with an understanding of consumer preferences. We know the rideshare wave can’t be sustained at airport curbs, but breaking this culture isn’t as simple as placing bans and restrictions on the service. Airports and transit innovators alike need to take advantage of the opportunity to develop smart, sustainable, data-driven alternatives that can compete both on airport grounds and in the cities they reside in.
Justin Rees is CEO of Ford Mobility’s TransLoc, DoubleMap, and Ride Systems.