By Ortis Deley | Published on 15 February 2019
Confession Time! I’m a tech-head. I fully believe technology has the potential to make everything that little bit better. By this, I mean smoother, easier, a little more plain sailing. So when, through my work with Great Northern as one of their Line Residents, I was told about their investment in technology startups as part of the Billion Journey Project, I was intrigued.
The BJP, a Go-Ahead Group initiative (which Great Northern’s parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway, is part of), looks externally for solutions to prominent travel issues and has a funding accelerator to invest in ones with real potential to transform customers’ journeys. One of the latest investments is in a company called AirPortr – which has the aim of taking the strain out of one of life’s most stressful journeys - getting to and through the airport.
Now, I’m fortunate. I get to travel a fair bit with the work I do, but those journeys – especially with lots of luggage in tow – can be tiresome. For work, myself and the production team will be laden down with a carousel’s worth of heavy camera kit; whilst on family holidays I’ll be the carthorse carrying all the kit that comes with having kids. It’s never streamlined and the journey to the airport often involves genius-level Tetris packing skills to get it all in the boot of our car, or an expensive taxi ride at the crack of dawn just to make check in. Then the queues begin… I despise airport queues. Can a man just get to his plane in peace, please!!
Enter AirPortr, a service which collects luggage direct from your home and delivers it straight to the airport. You won’t see it again until it’s been safely delivered to the luggage carousel at your destination. Next best thing to flying first class, right?! I’d imagine, as I’ve yet to fly first class.
Via the online booking site, you enter your flight and luggage details, provide an address and select a time slot for collection. On the day a driver turns up - the identity of whom you’ll have in advance via email notification - scans your boarding pass and passport, asks you to answer security and airline policy questions about size/number of bags and carry-on items.
Then they scan seals onto your bags and whisk your luggage to the airport, leaving you to make your way, luggage-free, all the way to your departure gate. No battle with the boot, no long stay carpark to find and no lengthy check in queues; you can make your way to the airport hands-free (on the train of course). It’s a luggage liberation!
Like most good inventions, AirPortr came about via a need to improve an existing personal experience. The founder and creator of AirPortr, Randel Darby (pictured below), used to work in private equity investment. A position that afforded him an insight into how to acquire funding. Somewhat uninspired by the job itself and more so by those bringing the ideas, he always knew he too would one day have a grand scheme, a big idea. He was just waiting for the right one. On a journey through an airport, he found it.
“My guilty pleasure is aviation and airports – I just find them fascinating”, he says. On this particular journey through an airport he asked himself, “That person is travelling faster than me, how are they doing that?” He noticed this person was bagless. His next question was, ‘How do I separate the bag from the customer?’
Randel wondered if it was possible to somehow skip all the queues and go straight through and meet the baggage at the other end. After brainstorming, he decided to approach the airlines. Randel’s proposal to check bags at doorstep was the first time the concept had ever been presented to them. Randel and his team were told it was something that had been thought of but was widely believed to be decades away from achieving as there were too many gaps to bridge. The technology wasn’t available, and the regulator would nip it in the bud.
Maybe it was a lack of any experience in the sector or bullish belief in his idea (I suspect a good dose of both), but Randel was undeterred and decided to engage the Civil Aviation Authority. The regulator was surprisingly very keen to talk - innovation was welcomed and workshops followed. It took three months to work up a design that was compliant with policy, then the regulator contacted British Airways and advised them to run a trial. A lot of companies look internally to find solutions and Randel readily admits that this meant his approach meant he had no issue building a service that didn't require integration into existing airline departure control systems. He built one that runs alongside them.
“Our whole product approach here, was to come up with something that really turned something functional into a great experience”. Randel also mentions that the timing was right. New, cheaper mobile technologies make this service a lot easier to bring to the customers' doorstep than it would have been say, 10 years ago.
Last year AirPortr delivered 85,000 bags and has grown from working with just one airline to six, including EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic and BA. This month, trials are underway to separate the bag from the customer at the other end of journey too, so possessions will be delivered direct from home to the traveler's end destination – such as a hotel. In the not-too-distant future AirPortr will look at self-scanning software and using selfies as biometric tokens to streamline the process even further. An entire schlep to your destination without lugging a single suitcase? Sign me up.
The Billion Journey Project saw what AirPortr were doing and suggested train journeys could benefit from the same approach. Through direct customer research, Randel's team found that around 50% of their customers were, after booking the service, ditching cars in favour of trains to get to the airport - with Great Northern offering connections to several airports with its Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express route links. The research showed that as people were alleviated of their bags, public transport represented an easier, cheaper, and faster way to get to the airport.
Great Northern is aware that large numbers of people are still travelling to their destination by car, but AirPortr represents a brilliant opportunity to drive customers to get on public transport once they are free of their bags. It helps enhance the experience on trains by freeing up space and allowing more people to travel comfortably. It’s greener, too, and in London certainly, anything that helps reduce air pollution can only be a good thing.