Behind the scenes of the company that creates the indoor airport map
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“Welcome to Chicago! It takes about 9 minutes to get to Gate B3,” read a text message I recently received from United Airlines.
I was flying from Bozeman, Montana, to New York, and had an hour layover in the Windy City. Upon landing at O’Hare, the notification came through just as I reconnected to the cell tower. It even included a customized hyperlink to step-by-step walking directions to get to my connecting gate.
This latest technology is part of United’s new ConnectionSaver tool, which also helps the airline identify whether it should hold flights for connecting travelers. The tool is powered, in part, by the airline’s partnership with LocusLabs, an indoor mapping company that specializes in airports and large retail centers.
But LocusLabs does more to streamline the day-of-travel experience than just helping you make your connection.
The Oakland-based company, owned by parent Acuity Brands, launched in 2014 and has since mapped 120 of the world’s largest airports. It licenses its maps to more than 45 airports and airlines, including American, Delta, United and others in the U.S., and Emirates, Lufthansa and more globally.
Odds are that if you’ve pulled up an airport map, you’ve interacted with LocusLabs’ technology. I recently sat down with the team at LocusLabs to learn more about their product, how they map airports and what that means for the travel experience.
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How LocusLabs is transforming the travel experience
LocusLabs’ maps make it easier to navigate some of the world’s largest airports.
They’re easy to read and include every point of interest you’ll encounter along the travel journey, including check-in counters, security lanes, concessions, restrooms, lounges and gate areas. But that’s not all — the company told TPG that its goal is to map everything on offer, including charging areas, water bottle refill stations and even defibrillators.
“If it’s there, we’re displaying it,” Matt Thomas, a LocusLabs program manager, said to TPG. Over the past year, that meant adding in countless hand sanitizing stations, personal protective equipment vending machines and on-site COVID-19 test locations at airports worldwide.
“LocusLabs’s airport partners rely on our mapping technology to help their passengers not only navigate the airport but find points of interest, too. Whether they’re looking for an item, a store, or a specific location in the terminal, real-time wayfinding can lead them where they want to go,” Thomas continued.
In addition to showing all relevant points of interest, the maps can be updated in real-time — meaning that if a store changes its operating hours in response to the pandemic, it can be instantly reflected across all maps within minutes.
“LocusLabs was founded on a commitment to delivering practical day-of-travel data, and the pandemic magnified the need for precision,” said Lucas Verret, a LocusLabs product manager. “Access to accurate, real-time data is crucial for passengers, airport staff, and airline employees… Giving travelers the ability to find a specific, last-minute item… close to their boarding gate reassures them they can solve a problem—or explore the airport—without worrying about missing their flight.”
It’s not just about the details within existing airports. Even for brand-new facilities, LocusLabs told TPG that its goal is to have the new terminals and concourses fully mapped by the grand opening. The team was there on day one in the new Washington Reagan National terminal, as well as new concourses in Nashville, New Orleans and Salt Lake City.
Another nifty feature is that the maps integrate live security wait times.
Once you’ve arrived at the airport, the map can show you turn-by-turn directions to your gate, including an ETA that factors in security times. All you need to do is select which security lane you’ll use: general, TSA Precheck, Clear or preferred/elite, and time will be adjusted accordingly.
Many airports require navigating stairs and escalators. LocusLabs built an accessible routing feature for flyers who use wheelchairs, as well as families traveling with strollers. Instead of showing you the fastest way to get to the gate, your journey will be re-routed to exclusively use elevators and ramps.
It starts with a baby stroller equipped with cameras
To map an airport, LocusLabs sends CJ Lucero around the world with its proprietary Map Toddler, the company’s reality capture system.
This device, about the size of a projector, fits on top of a modified stroller and is rolled around the airport to create a rough map of any given terminal. Dubbed the “Map Toddler,” it was designed to be small enough that Lucero could bring it on planes as his carry-on luggage.
It captures data through seven sensors — three cameras, two light-detecting scanners, one motion sensor and GPS — which is used by the data processing team to actually build the final map.
The Map Toddler has a roughly two-hour battery life, though Lucero travels with plenty of spares. It took Lucero just about two full days — and well over 20,000 steps — to map all of JFK’s six terminals.
Delta, LaGuardia airport share success stories
During the pandemic, Delta unveiled COVID-tested flights to Italy and the Netherlands. Flyers need to get a series of COVID-19 tests both before and after departure, one of which is administered at the airport right before takeoff.
Thanks to LocusLabs’ real-time updates, Delta quickly added the COVID-19 test site to the airport map, and those booked on the flight were quickly directed to the center, all without leaving the Fly Delta mobile app.
“Our vision for the Fly Delta App is rooted in eliminating stresses from the customer journey. Our partnership with LocusLabs gives us the technology and insights we need to guide customers throughout their day of travel. In addition to offering interactive maps at key airports, we are listening to customers to find new ways to reduce pain points using the Fly Delta App – like estimating wait times to pass through security or quick access to need-to-know information at the airport and more,” Jonathan Mayfield, manager of the Fly Delta mobile app, said in a statement to TPG.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees JFK, Newark and LaGuardia, is one of LocusLabs’ newest customers, but agency officials say they’re already impressed. When Spirit Airlines split its operations to two terminals at New York LaGuardia on April 28, the airport map was updated at 3 a.m. local time with the change.
By keeping the map updated in real-time, the Port Authority was able to minimize disruption for passengers. Those who checked the were seamlessly directed to the appropriate terminal.
“The Port Authority and its partners are committed to cutting-edge technology, not just in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but as a long-term investment in enhancing the passenger journey,” Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton said in a statement to TPG. “From terminal navigation, to biometric technology and touchless self-service, to eGates and improvements in the airports’ mobile apps, we want to assure that our airports utilize the constantly growing capabilities of 21st-century technology to improve the travel experience for our customers.”
So, next time you travel, be sure to take a peek at the airport map. Whether you’re looking for a burger or a last-minute gift, you’ll find it — at least if the map was created by LocusLabs.
Featured photo of the new Salt Lake City airport by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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