Wednesday 13 December 2017

It's Terminal 1, the rise of the machines, as robots hit airports

Finnair sauna at Helsinki Airport
Finnair sauna at Helsinki Airport
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

In true Terminator style, the machines are taking over - we just haven't noticed it yet. But unlike in the Armageddon flick, robots are serving travellers - and they've got cuddly names like Gladys, Ray and Leo.

One of the handiest is Leo, a baggage bot on wheels, which has already been tested with real-life passengers at Geneva Airport. Passengers touch Leo's screen display to scan their boarding passes, print out luggage tags, find out where their gate is, and then Leo transports their bags (less than 70lbs) to the baggage handling area.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport always gets favourable ratings, but I've found it hellish enough at times, with long walks between connecting flights. That's where the EU-funded Spencer comes in.

He won't carry your bags, but he's been put through human trials where passengers scan their boarding cards and Spencer will take them to their gate - a major plus, if put into action on a wider scale, at an airport where up to 70pc of passengers are taking connecting flights. In the move towards artificial intelligence, Spencer is clever (or creepy - take your pick) in that he's socially aware and can analyse whether people around him are individuals or groups, so he won't cut across a chatting family group in his rush to a gate.

Closer to home, Glasgow Airport introduced its own bot - named GLAdys, after the airport's code. Unveiled over Christmas, GLAdys sang festive tunes and told Christmas stories to young travellers. Passengers are also be able to pose for pictures with the robot, which is equipped with its own selfie camera which can email the snap or put it on social media.

While many of the European robots are in their early stages, and mass production is some way off, Taiwan's EVA Air has just deployed two robotic customer service agents in the country's Songshan and Taoyuan international airports.

Pepper scans boarding passes, gives passengers weather updates for their destination, and informs them of duty-free offers. Pepper can also play games, shake hands, dance and pose for selfies. A word of warning if you're heading to Taiwan - the robots only understand Chinese, with English to be added by the end of March. And watch this space - LG unveiled its own bot at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, so expect the market to grow.

New Year. New You. If you haven't already fallen off the diet treadmill, business travel doesn't make it any easier to shed the pounds.

If the never-ending trek to that last gate at Dublin Airport's Pier D just isn't doing it for you, there's been a recent push worldwide to bring gyms to your terminal.

A US startup has just opened a gym, complete with cardio machines, weights and full showers, beyond security in Baltimore Washington International Airport.

Day passes are $40, converting to €37, which is about the same price as a two-week membership at an upmarket gym here at home. But while the price is steep, the admission fee includes a loan of fitness gear and running shoes. If you're sporting your own gear, they'll vacuum-seal the sweaty items before you head to the gate.

The company is looking to open in airports which will be more familiar to Irish business travellers, including the New York-serving La Guardia and Newark, Boston, Miami and Denver. If you're on a budget, San Francisco Airport has a yoga room, complete with mats and paraphernalia, and it's free of charge.

Closer to home, Munich has the fit & fly spa, situated between Terminal 1 and 2 at the Hilton hotel. It's got a full gym and pool, plus a spa with massages available. If you've got a few hours between flights, a two-hour pass costs €20.

Helsinki Airport's a key hub for traffic from Ireland to the Far East, given the shorter flying time, and the Finns have their own take on airport lounges - theirs come complete with their beloved saunas, pictured.

And the good news is that, if you're travelling on business, it might be free.

Access to the Finnair lounge and sauna is free for Business Class customers and Finnair Silver, Gold and Platinum members as well to Oneworld Emerald and Sapphie members booked on a Finnair departure. If you don't qualify, you might just get your boss, as well as yourself, into a sauna sweat as the admission charge is €48.

A survey of UK business travel buyers has found almost one-in-three will have more money to spend this year, but their biggest focus is on cutting costs - and trying to maintain quality.

It's bad news for the big traditional airlines, with a further decline (38pc) in the number of companies opting for business class flights, and a significant number of companies opting to use low-cost airlines.

One-third of buyers will have more to spend on accommodation in 2017, but again there's more emphasis on bang for the buck. The vast majority (87pc) are increasing their use of mid-range hotel suppliers while 60pc are looking to cut costs even further, focusing on budget hotels.

Airbnb is on the rise as a rival to traditional hotels, even in the business market. While still only less than a quarter of businesses have used the online rooms portal, 17pc spent more money with Airbnb hosts last year.

Published in advance of next month's Business Travel Show in London next month, the report showed that Brexit - and currency swings - have emerged as a major concern for executive travellers, and Britain's relationship with Europe was named the fourth-biggest issue facing businesses in 2017.

mevans@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Business

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