Heathrow Express – the smarter way

Justin Stenner, Head of Technology at Heathrow Express, explains how the airport transfer service is using different digitalisation platforms to enhance passenger satisfaction before, during and after their journeys.

As with any forward-thinking organisation today, good digitalisation not only enhances customer experience and enjoyment, but can also help improve a company’s workflow and efficiency. Furthermore, it can cut costs, time and effort as well as increase security. While I do not work on safety-critical projects, I do work on Heathrow Express’ customer-facing technology, such as the on-board Wi-Fi, ticketing, its website and apps, in addition to ensuring all our back-office systems are as easy to use as possible.

4G in the tunnels

The year 2017 will kick-off with the launch of 4G in our tunnels. Heathrow Express (HEx) prides itself with having free Wi-Fi for all customers throughout its fast 15-minute service. However, being the only customer trains using the ever-increasingly busy train tunnels around Heathrow, we have limited four hour periods to enable the engineers of all the mobile operators into the tunnels to install their infrastructure and fibre optic cables. By the end of January 2017 HEx will share the single common Internet infrastructure of the airport.

In fact HEx has had good Wi-Fi connections on the trains for some time, but the connections in the tunnels did not match the speeds outside them. As a cutting-edge company, we were an early adopter of 4G to power the in-tunnel Wi-Fi, but had chosen the WiMax system, which, rather like the Betamax fight with VHS, eventually lost out to 4GLTE, hence the upgrade to the newer faster standard.

Obviously 4G is of great benefit for customers as they can watch films, play games, and generally enjoy high speed Internet connections. However, good Internet conn ections also benefit our Heathrow Express on-train colleagues – especially for ticket validation and sales. In order for HEx staff to get through the entire train within 15 minutes, their systems need to be quick and, although their handheld devices don’t need to be online all the time, their performance is optimised when there is a continuous, speedy connection.

Heathrow Express’ smart screens provide onward journey travel information in different languages


Smart screens

In a world first, Heathrow Express has loaded their smart screens – which are situated in the baggage re-claim area at Heathrow and show live price and journey time comparisons between taxis and the airport’s train service to central London – with Cantonese, Arabic and five other different languages including English.

We want to extend a warm welcome to visitors from across the globe, for whom English is not their first language, by providing them with useful information in their native language to help make the fastest and cheapest choice of onward travel.

Heathrow Express analysed passenger arrival statistics into the airport, as well as their own customer data, to ensure they are using the top languages spoken by HEx passengers.

iHEx – an iPhone app for staff

Our technology team devised a web application for HEx colleagues in the control room, which has proven extremely popular over the last 12 months.

The HEx app aims to immediately update different Heathrow Express teams – including drivers, duty service managers and head-office staff – regarding any changes to service or potential disruptions so that passengers can be informed as soon as possible of any issues affecting their journey.

The application adapts messages by using a template for social media and emails as well as for information used by front line teams. As we have sales teams based airside, it’s essential that when they sell a ticket for immediate use, they can be confident the passenger will have an uninterrupted and smooth journey. In the event of disruptions the sales force can provide passengers with details of the next available train.

We recently equipped all 90 drivers with smartphones to use for digital distribution of briefing material. This saves paper and makes distribution quicker, which greatly improves internal communications. They’ve also been set-up to use ‘Yammer’ – a corporate social networking platform – sometimes dubbed ‘facebook for business’. This provides colleagues with the ability to communicate quickly and easily enabling, for example, drivers to swap shifts via the app if need be. This helps drive the organic growth of effective internal communication within the business. Our strategy is to provide our colleagues with the most useful communication tools and let them use it in a way that works best for them.

Multilingual website and new customer-facing app

To mirror the smart screens in the baggage terminals, Heathrow Express’ new website will be developed with a number of different languages. With over 17 million passengers using Heathrow every year, many of whom do not have English as a first language, this development is not merely nice to have, but is a business imperative.

It will help us reach out to new customers by making our site usable and, importantly, discoverable by search engines when our overseas customers look for onward travel from their airport. By the end of Q2 of 2017, HEx will also have redeveloped its customer app, which will do away with long ticket barcodes.

New partners

HEx is continually working with airlines and other business partners to capture customers as early as possible in their flight and travel booking process. We believe that customers like to have planned how they are going to travel from Heathrow before they land.

Our electric trains provide the fastest mode of travel from the UK’s hub airport to central London. It also provides a perfect means of helping to reduce traffic congestion around the airport. We are therefore looking at ways to partner with taxi firms to provide a point-to-point through ticket to customers’ final destinations in central London.

Right now, Aer Lingus has HEx loaded into its website booking process and in 2016 we were integrated into the BA service email that is sent to customers seven days prior to their flight.

In the meantime we are in dialogue with a number of other airlines who plan to offer HEx tickets as part of the flight booking process.

Justin Stenner has been Head of Technology at Heathrow Express for four years and has ensured the train company’s back-office and customer-facing digital technology has stayed competitive and ahead of the curve. Justin’s background in digital technology has seen him work across sectors including financial services, insurance, travel and transport. He has successfully transformed technology in all his places of work by finding innovative new solutions for systems ranging from point-of-sale to delivering on-board high-speed Wi-Fi.

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