Smart Shuttle Technology Hits the Pavement at LAX

Greg Gerber
Published in: 


Project: Enhanced service & marketing features on consolidated hotel shuttles

Location: Los Angeles Int'l Airport

Operator: Shuttle Smart

Software Provider: Omnivex

Primary Benefits: Displays in shuttle buses and hotel lobbies provide real-time tracking of vehicles to help passengers plan trips to/from airport. Updated airport/flight info and marketing messages about local points of interest and airport options bolster customer service.

Planned Enhancements: Video content for shuttle displays; kiosks that help pedestrians plot their routes within the terminal; digital signs that run advertising and information targeted to particular areas within the terminal.

About five years ago, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) hired a private company to operate the consolidated hotel shuttle service it implemented to reduce traffic congestion, help the environment and improve service to the traveling public.

Shuttle Smart helped the airport replace 57 hotel-specific diesel vehicles with 35 buses that service two or three hotels in a single trip, which reduced daily airport trips by 55%. In addition, the new buses run on clean-burning compressed natural gas or propane. That, in turn, reduced mileage put on roads by more than 1 million miles and it prevented 6 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being pumped into the air annually, chronicles Shuttle Smart CEO Brian Clark.

New technology, however, is allowing the private operator to enhance the customer service it offers LAX passengers. Now when travelers board the hotel buses at the airport, they're greeted on a 32-inch monitor with announcements such as local weather, which stop is next and how long it will take to arrive. As the bus heads toward the hotels, its location is shown on a moving map as the screen displays hotel information, advertisements for local restaurants and convention details.

On trips to LAX, the system displays national weather, airport security alerts, updates about flight delays, information about terminal locations and advertisements for airport shops and restaurants.

"If people are leaving Los Angeles, they really don't care what the weather is in the L.A. area, unless severe weather could cause flight delays," says Clark. "However, they are interested in what the weather is like at their destinations or in major airport hubs."

Other new features reside in the hotel lobbies, where passengers can check touch-screen displays to see the locations of the company's shuttle buses. "Passengers can look at the screen and see the bus icon moving and its exact location," Clark explains. "That gives them an idea as to how much time they have to check out, get coffee or run to the curb."

The kiosks use global positioning system (GPS) technology developed by Omnivex to provide updates about bus locations. Omnivex Moxie software uses enhancements offered through Windows 7 to determine the location, speed and direction each bus is heading. Omnivex GPSLink software then denotes their routes and indicates points of interest at various stops.

Behind the scenes, the applications work together to inform passengers based on current conditions. They also earned Omnivex a Blue Sky Award from Microsoft Canada for being a top innovator and runner-up honors at Microsoft's World Partner Conference.

Hardware for the system was specifically designed to run on bus applications, using screens engineered to handle the associated vibrations and occasional bumps by luggage or briefcases.

The overall system's interactive capabilities educate passengers about local options and help them plan their trips, notes Clark. Delivering advertising messages to the 2.5 million people who use the buses each year has proved to be a lucrative business venture, he adds.

Next Stop

Shuttle Smart is currently working on developing video technology to provide more information about its green fleet and the hotels' commitment to using clean energy. Crews are also trying to tweak the algorithms to enable passengers to see when the next bus is expected to arrive or depart.

Another future development will allow shuttles to operate between hotels and popular business districts or tourist attractions. For just $5, people will be able to climb aboard and visit Manhattan Beach or a major shopping center while listening to recorded tour information that tells them where to look for various landmarks.

Similar shuttles could be implemented at other airports, Clark notes, but their effectiveness would hinge on support from the airport and outside businesses.

"Five years ago, Los Angeles Airport told hotels they had to reduce trips to the airport by 35%. If not, the hotels would be penalized," he relates. "Because everyone was running on 10-minute frequencies, the level of service could be reduced without passengers seeing much impact outside of a few extra minutes."

Airports with hotel shuttles running on 30-minute frequencies, he acknowledges, would experience a more significant impact on customer service. "Most passengers are OK with leaving at the top and bottom of each hour," he relates. "But, if they have to wait much longer than that, they get a little irritated."

Omnivex president Jeff Collard also sees additional applications for the concept and systems at LAX. "When you look at an airport, location-based services are a big opportunity because things are constantly changing," explains Collard. "People on the move need to know where something is and how to connect to it."

Omnivex technology, he notes, could eventually enhance airport operations using GPS data to update messages on signs around the airport.

"We had integrated GPS data into digital signage applications in the past, but the technology was hard to work with. The location-based services built into Windows 7 and Bing Maps makes the solution much more flexible," he says.

Omnivex Moxie takes real-time information and converts it into graphic displays that travelers can easily understand. Collard foresees an airport kiosk where a mother traveling with small children can push a button with her gate number to see a route from where she is currently located. The system will also note the location of family restrooms and restaurants along the way, and help her determine if they have time to walk or she needs to call an in-airport shuttle.

An intelligent display system could also help airports support concessionaires by providing marketing messages and information specifically targeted to passengers in the immediate area.

The system would allow airports to run their own ad campaigns on high-definition televisions installed throughout the facility or within their shuttles or light rail systems, notes Collard. Using location sensors, the monitors would display messages based on what's near the screen.

Trains bringing passengers to Concourse A, for instance, would display information about products and services in that particular area. Trains leaving Concourse A for the terminal would display baggage information and rental car advertisements.

By tying message boards with gate information, the system could display content based on where the flight is going and what is happening there. Headed to Orlando? In between flight status information, the system could display advertising for tourist attractions or show which companies have cars available to rent in Orlando. Heading to China? The screens can automatically adjust to display messages in English and Chinese.

"Digital signage should not be a simple video loop," insists Collard. "It is relevant information based on what is happening in the immediate area right now."

According to Collard, smart signs are a strategic way for airports to keep pace with the considerable changes that have occurred within the industry in the last 20 years.

"Airports are looking at better ways to communicate to their passengers, employees and visitors without adding significant cost to their day-to-day operations," he says. "Intelligent digital signage provides the engine that can drive that."

Learning From History

Just as the idea for consolidated shuttle service began to develop at LAX, 9/11 knocked it off the radar as the airport's focus shifted to urgent security matters. In 2004, though, renewed enthusiasm for greener airport operations made it reappear, and 13 hotels climbed aboard the consolidated shuttle bandwagon.

"The hotel managers knew that service would be impacted slightly because the passengers would no longer be able to go door-to-door," Clark recalls. "But, they were willing to take that stand and be corporate leaders for a cleaner environment around the Los Angeles airport. It made a really significant impact in air quality not only around the airport compound, but in surrounding communities as well."

The 13 hotels participating in the consolidated shuttle include some of the immediate area's largest, including Radisson, Sheraton, Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn. The company is currently discussing service with smaller hotels in the nearby Culver City and El Segundo areas.

While some might expect that hotels would jockey for the first-stop position on a shuttle's route, Clark reports that history has shown that pickup/drop-off order doesn't affect a hotel's bookings. Participating hotels report that they haven't seen an increase or decrease in occupancy based on their route location.

"Airport hotels get very few walk-in passengers," he says. "Most people won't get onto an airplane without knowing where they'll be spending the night. They may not have a rental car, but most airline passengers lock in their hotel rooms in advance."

Passenger Transport

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