The changing relationship between aviation and passenger expectation

Posted: 30 January 2017 | | 6 comments

Michael McElvaney, CEO at AeroOps, considers the widening gap between passenger expectations and the services available from airports and airlines…

How holistic passenger management improves experience

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.

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

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.

About the author

Michael McElvaneyMichael has over 35 years in executive level positions at US and International airports. Michael started his consulting business “AeroOps, LLC.” in 2015 to bring an end-user perspective to the planning, design and operational readiness of new and redeveloped airport terminal facilities. Most recently he developed the Stakeholder Management Plan and the Operational Concept for Houston’s Intercontinental Airport’s new International Terminal and is now leading the Operational Readiness program for that project.

Previously, Michael was the VP of Operations for Qatar Airways which operates the new airport in Doha, Qatar. In that role, he simultaneously led the daily operations of both Doha International Airport (DIA) and the newly launched World Class Hamad International Airport (HIA). He also served in the capacity of Chairperson of the Governance Committee overseeing the operational readiness, successful transition and opening of HIA.

Michael previously served as the Deputy Airport Director at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) where he led the Activation (ORAT) Committee for the readiness and successful opening of the new Terminal 2. He was the Director of Operations at the Birmingham International Airport (BHM); Manager of Operations and Maintenance at the Gainesville Regional Airport (GNV); Assistant Director of Operations at the Tampa International Airport. He also led the Aviation Business Development program for Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., Aviation engineering and energy firm. Michael can be found speaking at various international airport conferences.

6 responses to “The changing relationship between aviation and passenger expectation”

  1. Brian Roche says:

    Excellent piece of clear thinking Mike.

    Good summary of the technical, operational and passenger issues facing today’s airports and travellers. Expectation management of the customer (opportunities to relax, refresh, eat, use various technologies – WiFi, 4G etc.) vs. the reality of high security and passenger experience with the flow rates needed to manage a modern airport.

  2. Crystal Q says:

    I loved reading this Michael. I did my dissertation on Airports as part of the Tourism component and all your references continue to back up the theories. Airports are no longer a sheds, it is part of a city’s tourism to some extent. It is after all a representation of the destination (transit or not). AMS Schiphol is also an inspirational airport and I always enjoy travelling through that airport.

    Thank you for sharing this article. I’m sure many Airport Management teams will find it an interesting read – I certainly did.

    • Michael McElvaney says:

      Thank you Crystal
      The point you mention in your dissertation regarding airports are tied to the local municipality (in certain cases “country”) is spot on. I always made reference to the point that airports provide the first and last impression to travelers flying in and out of a city. It’s very difficult to change those impressions so it’s very important for the airport to put its right foot forward and work to ensure the experience is a positive one.

  3. The influence of the new model (low cost) carriers has been malign here.
    If you fly easyJet through Luton, it seems that you are expected to stand in one or two queues for 30-40 minutes. Some of that time you are actually waiting on a staircase. Since this is with a load of passengers with their ‘cabin’ baggage, it seems to me actually unsafe – not just unpleasant or uncomfortable.
    Standing in long queues for over 30 minutes does seem to be a feature of these carriers operations. As I get older, I am increasingly unable to do this.

  4. Carlos says:

    Very good text. It is a difficult task to balance security and passenger facilities. I think the most important is to use the technology to help making processes easier. I did my dissertation for Airport Management MBA based on how new technologies are changing the airport layout and influencing the passenger experience. During my research I have seen many ideas implemented, like automatic luggage drop systems, e-check in or totens, electronic gates, face recognition and so on. The thing is that the airport administration has to couple with airlines and figure out the best way to manage the investments to keep the business profitable, and maintain the security levels required to face the threats that major airports are facing nowadays. I agree that the airport has a great impact on the first impression you have about the city or country you are arriving, but as an aviation security manager, I always tend to be better impressed if I see a strong security processes than good facilities. The key point is to find the balance between security and facilities.

  5. Inderjit Singh says:

    Michael…your observations & ideas in this write-up are as true and applicable today as they were two years ago…as former airport Director (CEO) of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA), ranked the world’s best airport in 65 MPPA, I have experienced all this and more.

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