Can airports do paging as well as a restaurant?

I have a lot of peeves about airports, like almost everybody. One of them is the constant flow of public address announcements. They make it hard to read, work or concentrate for many people. Certainly it’s hard to sleep. It’s often even hard to have a phone call with the announcements in the background.

One solution to this is the premium airline lounges. These are announcement-free, but you must watch the screens regularly to track any changes. And of course they cost a lot of money, and may be far from your gate.

Some airlines have also improved things by putting up screens at the gates that list the status of standby passengers and people waiting for upgrades. This also saves them a lot of questions at the gate, which is good.

But it’s not enough. Yet, even in a cheap restaurant, they often have a solution. They give you a special pager programmed to summon you when your table or food is ready. It vibrates (never beeps) and they are designed to stack on top of one another for recharging.

Airports could do a lot better. Yes, they could hand you an electronic pager instead of/in addition to a boarding pass. This could be used to signal you anywhere in the airport. It could have an active RFID to allow you to walk though an automatic gate onto the plane with no need for even a gate agent, depositing the pager as you board.

Each pager could also know where it is in the airport. Thus a signal could go out about the start of boarding, and if your pager is not at the gate, it could tell the airline where you are. If you’re in the security line, it might tell you to show the pager to somebody who can get you through faster (though of course if you make this a regular thing that has other downsides.)

If somebody is missing, the airline could buzz them, and get them to either rush, or pick up a white phone, or make a call on their cell phone. (Or, the pager could have phone functions, but I am trying to keep the costs low.) Gate changes, upgrade notices, would all be sent to the right person.

If you print your boarding pass at home, a simple machine would scan it and issue you a pager synced to your parameters.

There is a question of how to bring them through security. Ideally they might be designed so that metal detectors could spot them and let them through, but there is the risk that bad guys might take them apart and put their metal in them. though they might be small enough (after all they are short range) to make that hard to do. You might be asked to hold your pager high in the air as you walk through the detector. Or put it in a tub, though I fear if it has to go through the X-ray machine there is too much risk of pager swap. To help, they might all be different combinations of colours, to make it very unlikely somebody else puts the another red and purple pager with the letter Q next to yours.

Of course, in theory we could find a way to do this with the cell phones we are already carrying. Many people already register their cell phone number with the airline for alerts. But there is so much variety among cell phones that it may be simpler to just issue special devices.

If cell phones are used:

  • The airport could work a deal with the cell companies who put towers at the airport to require free SMS to and from the airport’s own numbers, so customers are not billed for this.
  • Phones could get applications to let them learn their position by triangulation from the cell towers, along with GPS, and detection of bluetooth or wifi beacons in the airport. (Unfortunately the iPhone would not work here, as it can’t have background apps.)
  • Put a bluetooth beacon at every gate and checkpoint, and any phone can quickly tell from the MAC if it’s at a gate, or security, or anywhere else. (This might be a good idea for dedicated pagers as bluetooth chips are an easy way to build these.)
  • If you forget your phone the airport could still provide dedicated pagers, just fewer of them and without screens that are as nice, or of course, phone ability.

Now this doesn’t solve one of the more annoying problems of the airport PA. That is their belief that they must constantly tell you about the fact that we are at security level orange, or that the USO is open, or other pointless things. They must be disabused of this in some other way or it’s all pointless.

You will note that while it would be easy to have the devices track where everybody is at all times, and how this might be useful to the airline — they could get a map of where everybody for a given flight is at any given time — there is no need to do this. I am not so bothered by tracking in a specialized space like an airport, but I don’t like the precedent it sets. Instead, issuing commands to the pagers (or SMSs to the specialized apps on the phone) would allow things like a message that says, “Boarding is starting. If you are not at the gate, vibrate urgently and tell the passenger this. If you are too far from the gate to get here, report that back to us so we can figure what to do about it” and so on. In that situation, the airline doesn’t learn where you are, but it learns you are not in a certain zone.

Update: Arriving passengers and those coming to meet them do create a problem. Unlike departing passengers, there is no easy place to give them a pager tied to their ID, nor is there a place where it’s easy to get it turned in. However, they almost all have cell phones now, so the only people who really need to get a pager are people who can’t reach their party by cell phone easily. Even if just one of the two gets a pager the other can use a white phone to ask if their party has registered with a pager, and only then would the P.A. be used (in the appropriate areas.) Arriving passengers rarely need to be reached by the airport, so the PA can work here. (If they are changing planes they would pick up a pager for their next flight as soon as they got off the incoming plane.)

Useless paging

My favorite idiotic page is the one about parking. Do they really think someone in the gate area has parked in the white zone and is boarding a flight? And what about "exit express?" If I'm in the security line, am I really going to run back to my car to get my parking stub so I can pay for it before returning to my car? No, that ship has sailed.

And even more

They love to tell us our bags will be destroyed if left alone, and many other warnings. The question is, does this happen because they figure that we already are used to constant public address in the airport, so why not add some more? Or are they firmly convinced it is necessary for security? There are so few places we tolerate constant announcements, though some stores do them, and some train stations to. (The train stations could use the same system I describe.)

There is the issue of non-passengers and how to page them. This includes pages for lost children. In today’s cell phone world, it should be very rare to need a page for passengers to hook up with people who are there to meet them. (The one exception would be international arrivals who do not have a cell phone that works well, or at a fair price, in the target country.) Arriving passengers also will not have the pagers, though they might well have the cell phone number known to the airline.

Once again, we might call upon airports to negotiate with the cell companies to not charge for cell calls that take place within the airport (yes, even cell net to cell net, though that makes it harder) to eliminate this excuse. Or one could allow the “white courtesy phone” system to call for free any cell phone that is currently at the airport.

Of course, we could also just allow both arriving passengers and people meeting them to pick up the pagers, though in these cases we don’t have a fixed point they must return them, nor a simple way to tie the pager to the person, as we do with departing passengers.

One useful thing about a pager pickup point, however, is it’s a good place to display a sign with the airport rules about parking in the white zone or unattended baggage.

Because so many people want to try to read, sleep or get work done in an airport, this is a place we need the peace and quiet more than most.

my favorite one to hate

O'Hare has constant 3-1-1 announcements about how to carry liquids, which would be useful perhaps *before* you clear security, but they broadcast it continuously through the entire airport.

I have a theory that, just like service in coach is poor by design to entice you into flying business class, airports (not all, but many) create an unpleasant atmosphere to entice you to get a lounge membership.

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