Atlantic Cities

Wanted: An App That Calculates Wait Times Straight to Your Airport Gate

Wanted: An App That Calculates Wait Times Straight to Your Airport Gate
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Prior to Sept. 11, the airport-arrival rule of thumb in just about any city was pretty simple: Aim to arrive an hour early for domestic flights, two hours early for international.

Since then, the process of traveling to your gate – nevermind out of town – has been more generally governed by chaos. You may spend 45 minutes in the security line at Miami International just waiting for the opportunity to strip off your shoes (ahhhem). Or you could kill two monotonous hours sitting at your gate for the error of vastly overestimating airport dysfunction. Everything about the modern airport is unpredictable, from the long-term parking lot situation, to the rental car shuttle to the check-in line.

And so channeling all of our pent-up airport anger, we are in love with this idea: an app that would tell you when to leave for the airport, from any location, taking into account current travel time to get there, speed through the parking lot and airport shuttle, and real-time delays inside the terminal at the security checkpoint.

Robert Rodden, Susan Paulus and Daniel Allen are trying to develop such a tool, which would thoroughly improve the dreaded airport experience (and cut down on our griping about it).

"From here to the airport is based on Google Maps," Rodden says. "We’re basically building Google Maps all the way to your gate."

The technologically and politically challenging parts come in where Google Maps leaves off. The group envisions installing an array of Bluetooth sensing devices both around the airport – in the parking lots, along the road network – and inside of it. The first set of sensors would track the movement of cars, which is not a new idea in road traffic.

"But no one’s developed systems for measuring pedestrians," says Paulus, who currently works for a traffic and transportation engineering consulting firm in Milwaukee.

Sensors actually inside the airport – and at the dreaded security bottleneck – would collect data from smart phones downloaded with the app to calculate delay times for passengers on foot. This process would be similar to crowdsourcing.

"But crowdsourcing in its purest form is kind of an actively engaged thing," Rodden says. The TSA, for example, has its own app, MyTSA, that invites passengers to input their perceived wait times at security checkpoints. "That really hasn’t caught on. At O’Hare, the data is at least a day old, up to a week old. What we’re trying to do is passively, as you’re passing through, grab the same information."

When Rodden first conceived of the idea a few years ago, it seemed technologically implausible. Individual sensors on the market, most of them military-grade at the time, were going for tens of thousands of dollars. But now that the technology has plummeted in cost, the biggest challenge may well come from the touchy task of actually getting these things into airports.

Airport facilities and airlines, Rodden figures, would love to have this data. Among other things, it could also be used to optimize airport operations, alerting officials of long delays or the need for more security lanes. "Airport owners are always looking for a means to hold the TSA accountable for in-airport delays," Rodden says. "Right now they don’t really have a metric to do that."

But you can imagine, for the very same reason, that the TSA might not be on board with this idea. Rodden, Paulus and Allen still need to sort all of this out. Their idea got a boost earlier this year when the concept won a new-ideas pitch competition at the annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington. Now the group is applying to start-up accelerators in the hopes of developing the technology full-time.

It could have other uses, for example tracking waiting queues at amusement parks. But its greatest potential would clearly come around the universally maddening experience at airports. Imagine, for instance, having an app ping you at your home address telling you exactly when you need to leave for the airport, by car, by taxi or transit. The tool would even include data on any flight delays, directly from your airline.

The three are also considering the possibility of developing the system in partnership with airlines or airports that already run their own apps. We’ll happily take it however it comes, if it ever gets off the ground.

Top image: wang song/Shutterstock

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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