Observations from the airport

4 simple innovation ideas for Europe’s emerging airports

Luton Airport train station (image via Wikipedia)

A good entry point for exploring startup ideas is to look at what people are complaining about. Social networks are often a good place to begin.

Whilst it’s worth bearing in mind that social media can amplify opinions to such a degree that distortion kicks in, platforms such as Twitter are particularly fertile grounds for discovering gripes.

At the time of writing it’s the busiest time of the year for European travel, and despite post-Brexit currency woes the UK’s airports are still full with sun-seeking families, exuberant stag & hen parties, stoic business travelers and black t-shirted DJs.

The summer season opens up a new world of possibility and opportunity, with open air venues across the continent limbering up in June before a few months of intense activity until they wind down in late September.

Destinations that were until very recently almost completely unknown have become summer hotspots, their airports funnelling thousands of expectant revellers from across Europe and beyond. For UK citizens, many of these emerging destinations are served by budget airlines operating from airports in cities’ outer orbits.

Browsing Facebook last week, a number of status updates from various DJs appeared in my feed. What grabbed my attention above the usual photo mix of festival crowds, gratuitous selfies and late-night phone footage was the ire directed at one particular UK airport; Luton.

This wasn’t surprising — I traveled to Lisbon from Luton recently and the experience was less than pleasant. There were the slow and laborious transfers from train station to terminal; a lack of signposting for everything from taxis and buses to car rental and check-in; and the brutalist, unwelcoming main terminal building with very little character and few places to sit.

In fairness, building works were underway when I visited. Here’s hoping improvements will be made, but there are nonetheless many areas for improvement, and thus opportunity.

Here are a few simple airport innovation ideas for incumbent operators, audacious startups or even frustrated DJs.

Pre-pay restaurants

After a couple hours of travel to the airport following an early start, sustenance is a priority. It’s also a serious revenue stream for airports and its concession restaurants.

The service at the restaurant we visited was passable — it was Saturday morning and brunch business was booming, so naturally the staff were going to be a little stretched. The main frustration came from a short-notice gate call combined with delays on being brought the bill, paying, and departing. The upshot was a rushed meal, leftover food, a rush to the gate, and a poor experience.

Why not select and pay for your pre-flight meal on the way to the airport? A simple app with payment gateway, the day’s menu, and option to eat-in or takeaway would remove a lot of friction for customers and staff alike.

Independent, healthy food options

Green juice and vegan food is no longer the preserve of hippies and hipsters. People are more discerning than ever about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it affects their health.

Most airports still offer a restaurant range that veers from junk food to gastropub, with the healthier options tending to be provided by international chains who are often part-owned by said junk food purveyors.


Grain Store have recently opened at Gatwick — this felt like a breath of fresh air but it’s not enough. Could airports tap into the pop-up trend run so successfully by the likes of Street Feast — enabling independent traders to sell good quality, healthy food?

End to end rental car bookings

BMW’s DriveNow initiative is a good innovation in this field in larger cities, and there are of course the likes of Uber, Lyft and Hailo operating in the private driver market. However, for a lot of more remote summer destinations a self-drive hire car is a must. The big players do a reasonable job but the process still seems to be unnecessarily manual, frustrating and slow.

An end to end mobile solution to book a hire car at the airport would remove a lot of headaches, especially for a tired young family arriving off a delayed evening flight to be greeted by a huge queue for car pickup at the understaffed Hertz, Europecar or Avis stand.

Silvercar are doing this well in the US with their fleet of Audi A4’s— a European equivalent could make a big impact.

Recyclables

Let’s be honest, air travel isn’t the most environmentally-friendly way of getting around. It’s therefore bordering on the ridiculous that many airports and their partners are still providing cups that are not recyclable, nor anywhere near enough recycling bins. It may not offset the damage done from the runways, but there’s no excuse for allowing this much unnecessary waste.

Airports should be embracing green initiatives more than anyone — there are plenty of cost-effective solutions to serve drinks to customers in a sustainable way. FrugalPac is one.

Air travel is one of the true phenomenons of the modern age. It feels strange that many airports may be getting left behind in the service stakes, with the destination becoming increasingly more enjoyable than the journey.


Do you know about startups already covering these areas? Or airports doing a great job of customer service? Let me know in the comments below.

My Local – London

This article first appeared in book 1 of The Manifesto; ‘Local’ is a series of home town tips from music industry folk.


Brunch. Mess Cafe on Amhurst Road near Hackney Central. Great Saturday morning brunch for a fiver.

Coffee. The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, next door to York Hall. I have Spanish lessons here early on Tuesday mornings and the coffee is crucial for verb conjugations.

Lunch. The understated Chinese restaurant on Red Lion Street. The Singapore Laksa is the must-have.

Restaurant. Buen Ayre on Broadway Market is still the undisputed champion. The full parrilla is outrageous — blood sausage, fried cheese, peppers, sweetbreads, plus a couple of inch-thick steaks for good measure, all washed down with a few glasses of Malbec. The closest I can get in London to La Cabrera restaurant in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

Meeting. If the sun’s out, Gray’s Inn Fields, a small sanctuary sandwiched between Holborn and Theobold’s Road.

Books. I’m working my way through Michael Lewis’ catalogue at the moment, also I read a little Alain de Botton when my brain can handle it, plus midway through ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis.

Pizza. Ciao Bella on Lamb’s Conduit Street is my pizza place of choice — the calzone is guaranteed to induce a food coma though, so go prepared.

Cocktail. Pisco Sour — my girlfriend loves them and I’ve been converted, so much so that the next long haul holiday has to got to be to Peru.

Beer. A pint of Windsor & Eton at the Gunmakers in Clerkenwell; light ale with a bit of citrus.

Local. Kuzu on Well Street in Hackney. Traditional Turkish ocakbasi, £7 for a bonanza of lamb beyti, salad, rice and bread — it’s become a ritual on Sunday evenings after a weekend away. It’s so good that my friend who is a food critic goes there by choice instead of the various posh establishments she can eat at for free.

Mobile Office. Top deck of the 38 bus.

Relax. Savasana.

Wander. Victoria Park. I still think it’s the best park in London.