Uber for air travel: improving the airport arrivals experience

Luke Christou reports on how Uber is expanding its operations at airports with a broader Uber Reserve offering, hoping to offer travellers improved connectivity, efficiency, and safety – whilst reducing their stress.

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Following the launch of Uber Reserve last year, which enabled passengers to book a journey up to 30 days in advance, ride-hailing giant Uber has continued to expand beyond the on-demand taxi service it’s best known for. 

To improve the efficiency and safety of airport arrivals, Uber is now piloting an enhanced version of its pre-booking feature, named Uber Reserve at Airports, at a select number of US destinations, allowing passengers to book a ride anywhere from two hours to 30 days before their flight.

The feature – available to those using Uber Black, a premium service that connects riders with top-rated drivers in luxury vehicles – uses digital flight information provider OAG’s Flight Info API to monitor departure and arrival data and automatically adjust reservations according to the passenger’s expected arrival time. This ensures that a driver is waiting curbside whether the flight is early, on time, or delayed.

The feature is currently being piloted at more than 20 airports across the United States, including some of its busiest destinations, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, and Denver International Airport. Uber plans to roll out the product to more US airports in the coming months and intends to begin testing at international airports in 2022.

Since the pilot launch, Uber says it has seen a positive increase in the number of seamless airport dropoff and pickup experiences, based on regular feedback from riders and drivers.

Improving the airport arrivals experience

Arriving at your destination can be one of the most stressful parts of air travel. In fact, a past study by airport lounge access provider Priority Pass found that passing through security and collecting luggage are the two biggest causes of anxiety for air passengers – more so than packing bags, checking in, or making connecting flights.

The rush to meet a pre-booked taxi only adds to stress for those arriving at their destination. However, Reserve at Airports offers passengers a complementary 60 minute wait time, allowing passengers to take their time passing through arrivals.

“The key benefit of Uber Reserve at Airports is that it removes complexity from the day of travel, which we know is typically stressful,” Kate McMillan, head of business development for US & Canada Airports at Uber, explains. “It’s booked – with the push of a button – entirely in advance and will automatically update a ride if a customer’s flight details change.”

The feature will help to streamline the arrivals experience, getting passengers from gate to destination in less time and easing the congestion in arrival areas. As passengers begin to return to the airport environment following the disruption caused by Covid-19, this will be more important than ever, with the pandemic having increased passenger anxiety around travel.

Demand for air travel is showing positive signs of recovery, with 60% of consumers stating they were willing to take to the skies again in 2021, according to Inmarsat’s Passenger Confidence Tracker. Yet, with passengers concerned about catching and spreading the virus to fellow passengers, there will be less tolerance for lengthy queues and crowded taxi ranks than there was pre-pandemic.

Uber hopes it can help reduce stress for travellers with its expanded Uber Reserve at Airports service

Working with airports to improve the passenger experience

Reserve at Airports is just one of a handful of new features that Uber is currently testing for those travelling to and from airports.

The ride-hailing giant is also piloting a new pickup feature, known as Ready When You Are, at a small number of US and Canadian destinations. Similar to Reserve at Airports, the feature enables customers to order a ride as they disembark and set a later – albeit much shorter – pickup time of 10 or 20 minutes.

“This feature helps to eliminate the guesswork of when they request an Uber and ensure that customers have adequate time to gather luggage and situate small children, and make their way through the terminal without feeling rushed,” McMillan says.

“It can also help improve landside operations for the airport, because drivers receive more accurate pickup timing and can remain in the staging area until the customer is truly ready at the curb.”

Likewise, it has also improved its machine learning capabilities to match arriving passengers with drivers more quickly. The technology is able to predict demand and dispatch drivers ahead of time to reduce the time passengers spend waiting at curbside.

But Uber’s focus isn’t solely on the beginning and end of the passenger journey. It is also exploring ways to expand its Uber Eats food ordering service to the airport environment. For instance, in-airport mobile ordering is being tested at Toronto Pearson International, which allows customers to place orders at terminal restaurants and collect it without waiting in line.

As well as reducing wait times and congestion, this will also drive additional revenue for airport concessionaires that have suffered through the pandemic.

With Uber’s mobility revenues up 62% year-on-year in Q3 2021, the company views airport trips as an opportunity for further potential revenue growth given these journeys are typically longer and offer higher fares. 

As passenger numbers bounce back – with industry leaders predicting a return to pre-pandemic levels in the second half of 2022 – tools like Reserve at Airports will prove mutually beneficial: for Uber, a supply of passengers eager to get from A to B; for airports, a way to improve the efficiency and safety of arrivals, and encourage passengers to travel again.

“There’s so much opportunity to leverage technology to remove even more stress from the day of air travel, and with a ride being the beginning and end of the journey, Uber is uniquely positioned to do just that,” McMillan explains.