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.)