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How to measure passenger flow? Part 1 – Device Tracking

We have previously examined why you should measure the flow of passengers through their airports. Now we turn our attention to how you can and should do it.

There are a number of ways to measure the flow of passengers through your airport. In this series of blogs we will look at the different measures and how they work. In this first blog we will look at the different types of device tracking technologies.

Device Tracking

Device tracking via Bluetooth, GSM and/or WiFi tracking can be used to measure passenger flow. It works in the following way:

  • Several strategically placed receivers can cover a large area and track the positions of any discoverable device, recording and sending any data back to a single address.
  • Each receiver acts like any regular Bluetooth, WiFi or GSM device in that it searches for every device within range.
  • As a passenger enters the airport (or area for flow to be measured), the first receiver would track him for the length of the first 20 meters, the second for the next 20 meters, and so on for the length of the area.
  • Raw data from multiple or various sensors is collected and transferred to a central server, which stores all aggregated data.

The system then provides reporting and analytic information on the flow of passengers through the area being measured.

Smartphones and tablets have integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth so users are able to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, hands-free headsets and so on. Only when Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth is switched on and the device is discoverable, are sensors are able to track the broadcasted unique ID (MAC address), making it possible to measure passenger flow through pre-defined routes

Disadvantages of Bluetooth/WiFi:

One of the main disadvantages of using Bluetooth are the lower capture rates when compared to facial recognition as it requires Bluetooth or WiFi to be switched on and for the passengers to be carrying devices. It is also likely to have demographic biases as older passengers are less likely to be carrying such devices and also less likely to have Bluetooth or WiFi switched on than younger passengers.

There have also been recent privacy concerns over WiFI technology. While the collection of anonymous data through MAC addresses is legal in the UK, the practice has been described as a “grey area”[i]. Whilst in the US, Google lost an appeal [ii]of its long-running “Wi-Spy” case, in which its Street View cars slurped up data from open Wi-Fi networks.

The UK and the EU have strict laws about mining personal data using cookies, which involves effectively installing a small monitoring device on people’s phones or computers, but the process of tracking MAC codes leaves no trace on individuals’ handsets.

Websites or companies wanting to use cookies to tracks users’ habits have to ask for permission. By monitoring MAC addresses, which just keeps a log of each time a Wi-Fi enabled device connects to another device, they can work around this requirement; however, this may change in the future.

Finally, there is an issue of delineation. Device trackers can only place a location within +/- 10m. This may not seem like much, but if the difference is between a standard lane and priority lane then it has a massive impact on your passenger flow management.

This is an excerpt from our white paper – Why you should measure passenger flow through your airport


[i] City of London calls halt to smartphone tracking bins – BBC, 12th August 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23665490
[ii] Wi-Fi Sniffing Probably Qualifies as Wiretapping, Appeals Court Tells Google – All Things D, September 10th 2013, http://pulse.me/s/q793C

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