In this age of apps, you can arrange every detail of the the most complex trip on your smartphone or slate, from buying airline tickets and booking hotels to arranging for Uber or Lyft to fetch you from the airport. So you’d think we’d be farther down the road toward smart airports. In fact, some airports are proactive about posting real-time travel information, along with other information, especially about where you can spend your euros, dollars and pounds while you’re delayed for hours. Ah, commerce!
Some airport administrators are especially savvy about using data to make flying smoother for travelers. Vienna-based Dispatches contributor Nina Avramovic Trninic tells us that city’s international airport does an exceptional job tracking people and luggage. “When I was boarding in Copenhagen and was worried about my luggage – I had only 35 minutes between flights in Vienna – the Copenhagen flight attendant could not stop praising Vienna’s airport. Apparently they are the only ones in Europe (or one of the few) that have developed this unique system, allowing you to (make) a plane including your checked-in luggage if you have a minimum of 30 minutes between planes.
“Once a bus came to pick up only me in order to board a flight to Linz,” Nina said.
But which airport keeps you best informed? Our winner is Heathrow Airport in London. But none is all that great. Though most have figured out how to integrate real-time flight data and much more into their websites, apps and social media.
• When the situation demands it, Heathrow devotes a big patch of (rather tired looking) landing page real estate to travel warnings while still posting flight info. Last November, when the U.K. and northern Europe were fogged in, Heathrow officials not only took to Twitter, but dedicated the top of their website landing page to warn passengers about fog-related schedule disruptions.
That could be because it’s the busiest airport in Europe, with about 75 million passengers per year.
Heathrow gets bonus points for having an app for every wireless operating system (yes!) including Windows smartphones.
The app has:
- Live flight updates on demand
- Long Stay parking booking
- Airport security info
- Interactive terminal maps
- Shop and restaurant listings
- Weather and city guides
- Airport journey planner
- Flight timetables for every airline.
Heathrow has a Twitter feed, though it doesn’t appear they have a dedicated social media person, with hours between posts. Overall, we give Heathrow an A.
• Gatwick is London’s No. 2, ranked by traffic. Like Schiphol in Amsterdam, Gatwick is run as a company, not a national or local airport authority. Unlike Schiphol, Gatwick’s website is very, very good. Again, back in November, it had a yellow sticky-note style “Fog disruption” warning prominently displayed on the landing page (at right).
Overall, the design is very clean and current … cutting edge, compared to the competition, especially the category icons and graphics. (Check out the live flight page, which even tells you when bags are delivered.)
Gatwick has a better handle on how to use Twitter than Heathrow, with multiple tweets about the fog, and even a warning about flying into Sharm al Sheikh after the Russian airliner crash last weekend. You can get the Gatwick app here.
Gatwick gets kudos for cool simply because it has, of all things, a Tumblr page! Also, they have translation buttons for French, Spanish and German on their website. They earn a well-deserved A.
• Charles de Gaulle Airport has a confounding website that includes Paris’ other airport, Orly, for some reason, under “Airports of Paris.” That said, it’s the only landing page with a live Twitter feed, a feed that appears to be updated frequently with traffic information.
The website is a fresh design, with nifty left-side sliding content tabs. The design looks sooo much more 2016 compared to the late-90s designs some of the other airports, with the latest in motion graphics … which must eat up a ton of cloud storage.
But how useful is it news-wise? Not terribly, unless you want to know about the new Mango opening at Charles de Gaulle.
Their app is a cut above, with:
• Fight schedules for arrivals and departures, checking-in areas, boarding gates, airline information, live updates on changes to flights, alerts on “unexpected events.”
• Airport maps including geo-location assistance showing you how to get in and out.
• Search for points of interest by terminal, theme, brand, etc.
All in all, an A-minus that could be an A with minor tweaks.
• Vienna Airport’s website looks like it was created by the same UX designer who did Heathrow’s. That’s to say it’s pretty dated and utilitarian. But it’s not unhelpful. The landing page has a live arrivals feed which shows flight status including “approaching.” The departures feed has current status.
The news feed looks like it’s updated regularly. For example, today there’s a post about Vienna receiving a four-star rating from Skytrax, the aviation market research institute. With a 4-Star Airport rating, Vienna Airport is at the same quality level as nine other European airports – Amsterdam Schiphol, Barcelona El Prat, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Helsinki, London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Zurich. Who knew! (Vienna Airport is owned by a publicly traded company, Flughafen Wien AG.)
The Vienna Airport app is feature packed, especially with push notifications:
Store a flight as far in advance as you want by
scanning the QR/barcode on your boarding pass
selecting from the current departure/arrival list (24 hours)
entering the flight number and date
Verification of desired flight approx. 24 hours ahead of time
Information of departure/ arrival time, terminal, airline and gate
Push notification of desired flight (information 24 h and 6 h ahead, go to gate, boarding, boarding closed)
Push notification of desired arrival (expected arrival time, approach, landing, on stand)
Push notification of special flight events (gate change, delay, cancellation)
Information about the parking facilities and the availability
Shop & Restaurant-Finder
Direct link to mobile website and relevant information about Vienna Airport
It has info and schedules for bus, train, CAT to and from the airport
It’s a good thing the app is above average, because Vienna officials haven’t posted any information on the airport Twitter account since 2013. Seriously. We’re deducting a letter grade just for that. Oh, wait … we’re giving it back because Vienna is reputed to have among the best wifi connections of all European airports, and it’s free. Also, you can book your airport parking in advance via the website, or on your smartphone.
All in all, a solid B for Vienna.
• Brussels Airport, (which is technically “Brussel-Zaventem),” has easily the best UX quotient of all the landing pages. There’s a crawl when the airport is having issues. Recently, it read, “Passenger drop-off area partly closed; prepare for traffic delays.” Oh, my gosh … thank you for that!
Every content bucket has a helpful graphic, though it’s a bit busy. Our main complaint? No news tab, at all.
Brussels has an app that allows you to track specific flights, check waiting times at security (which no other airport seems to have), and check last-minute gate changes and where your luggage went. (Surprise!)
Now, about that Twitter account … joke. It’s all vague happy news about “Let us know if we can help you.” Yes, you can … warn me about flight delays and traffic jams getting to the airport! What is it about Europe and social mediaphobia?
We give ’em a B- for failing to use social media property.
• A mega-hub, Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam is owned by a company – sort of. The Dutch government holds 76 percent of shares in Schiphol Group, which owns Schiphol and other airports, while the remainder are held by Amsterdam (22 percent) and Rotterdam, with 2 percent. Which factors into how it’s run in an incredibly competitive environment.
Maybe that’s why Schiphol is letting the public see its new beta site … and even comment. No surprise knowing the Dutch obsession for innovation, the new website has the potential to be the best of the bunch – the cleanest graphics, best UX and use of color and best organization. We don’t see a news/alert tab, but we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Schiphol’s current website isn’t as news-focused as Heathrow. But it does have a news tab, with information about weather and flight delays. And that’s good, because the airport has a massive renovation/expansion project that runs through this year.
Schiphol has an app available for iOS and Android, and it’s pretty slick:
- It has personal travel information and real-time flight information (with push and other notification options), also from your destination abroad
- A personal travel planner
- Contacts informed about your flight via SMS and/or e-mail
- Parking reservations
- Schiphol Travel Taxi reservation
- Login via Social Media (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn)
- You can publish your flight on the social media channels
- There are comprehensive details about Schiphol facilities and travel information
- Information on news/events at the airport
The Schiphol App can be downloaded from the Apple App Store, or at Schiphol itself via the airport’s free WiFi-network.
Schiphol has a Twitter account, and posts in both English and Dutch. Again, no one seems to be in a hurry to get out important travel info via social media, with hours between posts. So, Schiphol gets a B-.
• Frankfurt Airport … oy! Way down the list, Frankfurt is all about self-promotion, promoting shopping and other offerings as “news.” When we started this project last year, the landing page was a mess. It’s been updated to a much cleaner contemporary design with infinite scroll. But the website is still wacky.
For example, the news tab used to be tiny. Click it, and you got a “story” from Sept. 16 about Frankfurt being named “Germany’s Best Airport in 2015.” Which has to be a joke, because Munich is better than Frankfurt in every possible way. Now, there IS no news tab. God forfend there is ever some sort of weather emergency that causes massive flight delays.
Worse, some of the information headers have odd tag lines. The airport map reads “Always on the straight and narrow.” What? What does that even mean? There are useful tabs as part of the map graphic that show you where things are around what has to be one of the most ill-designed airports on the plant.
Frankfurt has an app, but it appears to only be a marketing device, not a way to get you useful information. SMFH. Frankfurt’s Twitter account is pretty good, with multiple weather updates today in English and German. Also, there’s big news about an upcoming hackathon to help improve travel though this massive airhub. We’re all for that.
Frankfurt (barely) gets a C.
• Munich Airport, compared to Frankfurt, is better, but not a lot better. The landing page has flight information, and the news tab is easy to find. Once you get to the news page, there’s not much news.
The app is fine. It includes:
- Arrival and departure information
- Detailed flight search function
- Push notification on status changes for your flight
- myM, which lets you aggregate data about shopping, flights and airlines
- Parking space recall function
- Key phone numbers
The twitter account is just soooo sad we’re not going to even show you a screen shot.
Munich gets a C based just on its app.
We’ll have more as we visit more airports across the continent. Until then, happy trails!
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.