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Solutions: NEC displays upgrade travelling experience at Heathrow

A recent upgrade of displays at Heathrow has ensured that the airport provides an efficient information service to its passengers, with displays that are profitable and attractive. Tom Bradbury reports.

Millions of passengers pass through Heathrow Airport every year on their way to more than 180 destinations across the globe. With two runways and four terminals (2, 3, 4 and 5) serving 80 airlines, Heathrow is Europe’s largest hub airport, and also the world’s sixth-largest airport based on passenger numbers.

With an average of around 200,000 passengers arriving and departing every day, the airport must ensure every customer is kept informed about their flights. With the displays in Terminals 3, 4 and 5 approaching end of life, issues with quality were becoming more frequent. Customer satisfaction was also suffering.

As Bhupinder Kahlon, infrastructure architect for the IT service delivery team at Heathrow Airport Holdings, explains: “Public flight information displays are a key element of the passenger experience. If customer satisfaction with these displays dips below a certain threshold, we have to pay compensation to the airlines.”

In addition to the public flight information displays, Heathrow identified the need to refresh their small form factor digital media displays. “The digital advertising displays help to bring in revenue from advertisers. If the quality isn’t up to scratch, then they won’t advertise,” he continues.

In order to improve the operational efficiency of Europe’s busiest airport, which is run at 98% capacity, Heathrow also needed to provide a new centralised facility that allowed multiple stakeholders to visualise and share operational data. This would be used in conjunction with mobile information displays deployed in-terminal, to more efficiently manage disruptions at the airport.

Three more terminals

Following a successful deployment in 2014 of over 1,000 flight information displays and 150 digital advertising displays in Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 (which opened in June 2014), the airport again partnered with NEC to upgrade more than 1,500 public flight information displays and a further 300 digital advertising displays across Terminals 3, 4 and 5.

Following a comprehensive tender process, NEC was selected as the preferred display partner, outperforming all technical and environmental criteria. “As part of our commitment to reducing environmental impacts, we wanted to install displays with a lower carbon and energy footprint,” says Kahlon.

Heathrow sourced a range of NEC display sizes, including 32in, 40in, 55in and 70in displays to fulfil the need for both the public flight information and digital advertising displays. The NEC large-format displays have an NEC OPS slot-in embedded Windows PC. Each OPS PC was pre-loaded with Heathrow’s image and inserted inside the display in NEC’s own configuration centre before being shipped to Heathrow’s installation partner, Computacenter.

“Imaging the devices in advance helps to streamline the deployment process and ensures the displays are functioning correctly before they are delivered to site. The displays have to be deployed during a very short overnight window to minimise disruption to airport operations,” explains Kahlon.

“Providing long-term reliability, low energy usage and consistent image quality are at the heart of our display system product development,” states Richard Wilks, NEC’s aviation business development manager. With their 700-nit backlight engines and automated thermal management system, the displays “deliver uninterrupted information display in ultimate clarity even in the high ambient lighting conditions of an airport environment”, he says.

The new flight information displays help Heathrow provide a consistent passenger experience across its terminals. As Kahlon confirms: “The clarity of the information and the quality of the displays is now the same, which means passengers are always informed about their journey as well as the shopping opportunities at the airport.”

In modernising its public flight information and digital advertising displays, customer satisfaction ratings have increased, which means it no longer has to pay compensation to the airlines. The new displays consume less power, which will help reduce operational expenditure, and have a longer life expectancy. Being energy efficient and reliable greatly improves cost control and reduces the risk of passenger disruption.

“The new displays are viewed by more than 74 million people every year at Heathrow. By working with NEC, we were able to maximise and futureproof our investment in the new displays, and minimise the risks to airport operations,” says Kahlon.

Chris Crauford, head of digital media at Heathrow Airport, concurs: “The recent refresh of all our small-format digital media displays has not only helped protect a crucial part of our media income but grow it too. The quality and sharpness makes the content jump out at you, and this is precisely what brands are looking for.”

Coming together

Opened in 2014, Heathrow’s Airport Operations Centre (APOC) supports frontline operational teams, with the goal of bringing together the operational planning, monitoring and oversight of an airport in one place. The APOC features over 60 NEC ultra-narrow bezel 55in videowall modules, colour calibrated and connected to form a single videowall spanning three walls of the centre. Personnel from airlines, NATS, Border Force, the Metropolitan Police and the Highways Agency view data on their NEC EA Series desktop displays and then can share key data onto the videowall, in order to make informed decisions.

To supplement the operational readiness that APOC provides, NEC worked with Heathrow’s in-house innovation team, and manufacturer Parity Aviation, to design new mobile display units (MDUs) that have now been deployed throughout Terminal 5. These units provide live up-to-date information to passengers during peak times – announcing any disruption to service, at any time and any place within the terminal. The MDUs have a permanent look but are easily moveable, and connect to the airport’s central management system by WiFi. The MDUs’ multi-purpose display is battery powered, allowing up to 35 hours’ operation between charges.

Stephen Garner, passenger services manager for departures in Terminal 5, says: “The new MDUs are perfect for providing quick up-to-date information and support to a large number of passengers, particularly when time is of the essence and situations change rapidly.”

Overall, the investment in new display systems for flight information, digital advertising, operational data visualisation and mobile passenger communication has had significant benefits for passengers and Heathrow operational staff alike, as well as reducing Heathrow’s operational costs.

“For tens of millions of people each year, Heathrow is their first impression of the UK, which is why it is so important it’s a positive one,” Wilks concludes.