Last March, officials at the Houston Airport System received welcome news. Skytrax, perhaps the world's most respected source when it comes to ranking airlines and airports, upgraded its ranking of George Bush Intercontinental from three stars to four on its five-star scale.
"One of the most notable upgrades has been to the critical area of terminal cleanliness," a Skytrax press release stated. "Skytrax has witnessed improvement in cleanliness at most customer touch points, and a progressive rollout of smart washroom monitoring has played a significant part in this turnaround in standards."
A year ago, the Houston Airport System became an early U.S. adopter of smart rest-room technology when it equipped all the restrooms at Hobby Airport and the 24 restrooms in Bush Intercontinental's Terminal A with the Trax smart restroom platform developed by Atlanta-based Infax.
Trax uses sensors to keep count of how many people have entered a restroom. Then, when a selected threshold is met — 300 visitors in the case of the Houston airports — the system sends alerts via email or text message to janitors and custodial supervisors, who monitor those alerts via tablet.
The Trax system also equips restrooms with a tablet on which users can quickly indicate upon exit whether they were satisfied with the facility's condition and explain any problems. Further, the system has an analytics component that informs custodial staff as to when a specific portion of an airport will see a heavy influx of arriving flyers, enabling them to time restroom cleanings accordingly.
Kelly Woodward, the interim general manager at Bush Intercontinental, said Trax "really has helped with scheduling and creating efficiencies and knowing the job is getting done. And people are happy with the cleanliness."
Houston was an early adopter, but it's not the only U.S. airport to have begun deploying smart washroom technology. The Trax system has also been installed at Atlanta, New York LaGuardia, Los Angeles and, just last month, Detroit. Philadelphia is currently piloting the system.
A TaskWatch alerts staff when restrooms need cleaning. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport
Wearables for cleaning staff
Meanwhile, this year Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport deployed the wearable cloud infrastructure of the locally based company Hipaax in all 52 of its restrooms. The system uses sensors to send out notifications to janitorial staff via smart watches.
At Cincinnati, facility managers have set the notification threshold for each bathroom at 150 users, said Brian Cobb, the airport's chief innovation officer, though they plan to adjust that figure on a restroom-by-restroom basis as they gather data over time.
Cobb said another key function of what Hipaax calls its TaskWatch system is that janitors are able to complete checklists to be transmitted through the cloud for other janitors to see, rather than using the old-school, paper checklist.
In addition, notification via wearables makes it simple for the most conveniently located janitor to respond to a washroom in need of cleaning.
Airports in Cincinnati and Houston are employing smart washroom technology in part to drive efficiency. But they're also seeking to improve customer satisfaction levels. According to a 2017 Airport Councils International report, the cleanliness of washrooms is the most important satisfaction metric that relates to an airport's infrastructure.
Less important infrastructure issues include the comfort of waiting areas, the airport's ambience, the cleanliness of its terminals and even the availability of restrooms. (Besides infrastructure, the report considers other issues, including an airport's retail offerings, security, check-in and wayfinding.)
The same report found that airport customers found restroom cleanliness lagging in comparison with terminal cleanliness.
Cobb said, "In the airport environment, if the restroom is dirty and you have challenges at a security checkpoint, it is just kind of a free-fall experience for the negative."
He said the TaskWatch system has helped improve the acceptability rate of Cincinnati Airport's restrooms in independent, third-party audits from 87% to 94%.
The system has also provided the airport with useful and sometimes surprising knowledge, Cobb said.
For example, data gleaned through TaskWatch shows that women tend to use restrooms located near the gates where they arrive, while men are more likely to walk past those restrooms and instead use restrooms near baggage claim. As such, the airport is able to deploy janitorial staff accordingly.
Similarly, Woodward said the customer feedback component of the Trax system has helped solve specific problems at Bush Intercontinental. For example, she said, consistent reports made by customers on the tablet of malodor in one particular restroom helped the janitorial staff figure out that the restroom's fans weren't strong enough.
As a result, she said, complaints about smell in that restroom have gone down.