The changing relationship between aviation and passenger expectation

I hear over and over how air travel used to be more enjoyable. It was a treat to fly and people looked forward to it. It’s interesting to hear comments like this because what was provided at airports a half century ago, or even 25 years ago, in many cases would most likely receive harsh criticism today.

Many airport terminals have migrated overtime from basic depots through which travellers transitioned themselves to and from aircraft toward resembling iconic temples of refinement. The services offered were often only a snack and coffee or another beverage and possibly a newspaper.

The seating lacked comfort features and there was little or no opportunity to find a quiet corner in which to relax and close your eyes until the connecting flight was ready to board. Not much was provided in the way of passenger comfort. Security, on the other hand was less obtrusive and less stressful, but equally the threat wasn’t what it is today.

Back-in-the-day, passengers were more focused on the services airlines provided once they were airborne vs. what they were experiencing on the ground. The food on domestic short haul flights was decent and beverages were provided free of charge.

“What was provided at airports a half century ago, or even 25 years ago, in many cases would most likely receive harsh criticism today…”

The leg-room was sufficient and flight attendants were attentive to the needs of all the passengers and seemed to enjoy their jobs. There were no incidental fees for baggage, meals and beverages. Even pillows and blankets were offered. International passengers were provided an elevated experience with tablecloths and the food was excellent. An airline ticket price covered all.

Over time, the air traveller’s high expectations of what the airlines were providing began to change as the level of service on the flights diminished. Airlines were hit with high fuel and labour costs and more competition created lower airfares, all which contributed to both lower levels of service and individual fees for various optional services.

(There are exceptions to this of course. Several of the Asian and Middle Eastern carriers still provide excellent service).

While the degradation of service was occurring in the air, airports began to recognise the need to create non-aeronautical streams of revenue to sustain their financial coffers and help operate and maintain the ageing facilities and eventually build newer, more modern ones.

Competition was also an impetus behind at least the US airports wanting to develop newer facilities due to deregulation in 1978, pulling the plug on guaranteed air service and airports then having to compete with each other to maintain or successfully add new services.

New modern terminal facilities began popping up around the globe. This transition occurred mostly over the past two decades but has accelerated in the past 5 years or so, (particularly in the Middle East where there seems to be an unannounced competition between countries to build the biggest and most lavish facilities).

Elsewhere in the Far East, China is either building or has over 180+ airports planned for development to meet the travelling needs of its new middle-class and many of those facilities will be as lavish as those such as Hamad International Airport in Qatar and the new King Abdulaziz International Airport under development in Jedda, with a host of passenger conveniences and services to go along with them.

Airports today are still competing for increased air service and passenger growth, but they have come to recognise the need to tune into the experience passengers are seeking. This is important for several reasons and has impacts on several fronts.

Passengers recognise they have options, more so than ever before as to what airline and/or route they want to fly.

If a passenger needs to take a multi-leg flight to reach a destination, in addition to connection time considerations, do they want to have a layover at an airport where there is poor or few opportunities to shop, the restaurant selection is limited, rest or quiet areas are non-existent, the lounges are few or always crowded and security lines are always long and slow?

Or would they prefer to transfer through an airport where these things and others are adequately, or better yet, well addressed?

Hub airports, whether they will admit it or not, are tied in very tightly with their hub airline. Those relationships often dictate the service levels of the airport. As an example, Qatar Airways is very proud of its five-star rating but that rating has a dependency on the services provided to its passengers at its hub, Hamad International Airport, which also recently received a five-star rating.

Hub airports have the opportunity, even more so than the O&D airports, to influence the passenger. A recent article I read referred to the “just-in-time” passenger. The article suggested this passenger doesn’t want to avail him or herself of the various services of the airport, yet I don’t see that there is any way around it. The processes tied to the security checkpoint and the aircraft boarding are services that can’t be avoided. Airports can influence how the experience of these services is determined through facility fit outs.

Is the checkpoint large enough and configured to minimise queue times?

Does the aircraft park at a gate or does the passenger have to be transported via a bus to a remote stand?

Has the airport considered building into their terminals adequate space for lounges?

“Hub airports, whether they will admit it or not, are tied in very tightly with their hub airline…”

Yes, there will always be the passenger who waits until the very last moment to arrive at the airport but airports can still manage the experience of that passenger.

Airports are usually never the first industry to adapt to change. Technology available today and being used by airports to assist in the functionally of systems the passengers have come to demand were available for decades outside the airport environment. Many airports are still relying on decades old technology but many have moved forward and are deploying new service features thanks to the new and ever changing technology now on the market and wanting to keep abreast of the passenger service demands.

It’s these airports that are raising the bar for the traveller and thus raising the expectations of the passenger on the services airports should be providing across the globe. I’ve experienced this as an airport operator when passengers request/suggest/demand airports I have worked at to provide the same service features they encountered at other airports they’ve travelled through and don’t understand it if those services aren’t available.

Airports are usually never the first industry to adapt to change…

I’m certain many airport managers have encountered similar situations. Remember though, one airport has to be the first to start something new and it’s those airports that are stepping up to do just that which are leading the game in service level awards.

Airports are also focusing on what distinguishes them from the others. What can they provide to set them apart from the rest?

Asian airports, in particular, have made a concerted effort to not only meet the expectations of the travelling public but to raise and set the bar for the public’s expectation. Both Incheon and Changi are constantly seeking ways to improve the experience and I’m always impressed with how they think outside the box.

Changi recently created the “Living Lab Programme” to develop and demonstrate new technological solutions, in a live airport environment. The intent is to enhance the airport experience. CAG recognises the importance of increasing its pace of innovation to strengthen the airport’s competitiveness.

Several European airports are also focusing on the customer experience. London’s Heathrow airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport are involved in the Smart Security Programme which has a focus on the customer experience and how passengers can move through security with unnecessary stress. Amsterdam has a department which focuses on the passenger’s experience. I recall when I was involved in the operation and opening of the new Hamad International Airport in Qatar, I met two charming women from the Schiphol Airport who said they were referred to as the “Soul Ladies”.

They were responsible for continuous assessment of the airport from a passenger experience standpoint and identify opportunities for improvement. It’s these types of steps that have made Amsterdam an airport that passengers enjoy travelling through. It therefore often win awards for passenger experience.

As airports focus more and more on the passenger experience, technology provides the tools to allow the airports to attune their services and even modify the passenger’s habits. I realise privacy issues are important to consider but the ability for airports to track the passenger from the time they arrive at the airport through the passenger journey in the terminal and onto the aircraft is very real.

Airports have the ability to determine queue line wait times at the ticket counters, security and immigration counters, the direction the passenger moves through the terminal and even if he stops to look in the window of a shop. This information can be used to send advertisements/coupons on the passenger’s smart phone, add more security agents to staff more booths, tell an airline it needs to open more counters, let the passenger know the departure gate number has changed, etc.

It also provides the ability for airports to gain information about the passenger’s habits, purchasing and food preferences. So, for the argument that airport’s “own” a passenger, in many ways in today’s world of service delivery, if they don’t “own the passenger, they at least have the ability to influence the passenger journey experience and possibly the expectations as well.

I believe this is a good thing for both the passenger and the airport.

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