May 22, 2012 at 3:07 PM ET
Avatars will soon be arriving at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports.
Not the blue beings made famous in James Cameron’s 2009 film, but holographic, computer-generated “people” that will look, talk and even dress just like the airports’ live customer service agents.
Beginning in July, “AVA” — an airport virtual assistant projected onto a person-shaped piece of glass — will greet visitors with basic welcome information at LaGuardia’s Central Terminal Building, Newark Liberty’s Terminal B and at JFK’s Terminal 5.
“The script will be customized for each airport, but the avatars will be wearing the same red coats that our customer service agents wear and will provide general information that customers typically ask for, such as the location of the bathrooms, the buses and the car rentals,” said Steve Coleman, spokesman for The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the three airports.
Already on duty at London’s Luton Airport (where the holographic male and female avatars are dubbed "Holly" and "Graham") and at the airport in Dubai, the avatars in the New York airports join those being used for slightly different purposes at Dulles and soon in Boston Logan airport.
“People pay attention to them. They’re so lifelike and you can’t help but look at them,” Patrick Bienvenu, a principal with avatar-creator AirportOne, told msnbc.com.
Bienvenu also said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has expressed “a very strong interest” in using the avatars at airports, as has XpressSpa, which currently has 42 full-service spas operating in US airports.
“Right now, when our licensed technicians aren’t busy, they may stand out in front of the spa talking to passengers and explaining the services on the menu,” said Moreton Binn, XpressSpa CEO. “If the AVA avatar was out there drawing attention and offering information, those technicians could be inside providing the services.”
Binn said XpressSpa will soon test the avatars at JFK and Dallas airports, and possibly at the San Francisco and Minneapolis airports as well.
“AVA won’t be able to describe everything,” said Binn. “But more about the mysteries of what we do can be explained inside.”
Coleman said the Port Authority aviation staff first saw the avatars at a trade show and decided it would be worth trying as a pilot program to supplement customer service at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports, which together serve more than 106 million passengers a year.
“We purchased three avatars for $60,000 each. If the pilot program is successful, we’ll expand the avatars to other terminals at each airport,” said Coleman.
The avatars are part of a wide range of customer service improvements the Port Authority announced Monday for the three New York area airports in response to a customer survey conducted of more than 10,000 air passengers.
Improvements to be rolled out in the next 90 days include an increase in the number of (live) customer service agents on duty during peak travel times, an expanded effort to crack down on taxi hustling, the installation of additional power poles for charging electronic devices and cleaner restroom facilities.
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