Gate Check: Why It’s Time to Design Airports For People

Within the travel industry, airports strive to create a memorable (and positive) passenger experience to generate higher revenue and stronger customer loyalty. Some have found more success than others (though usually in small increments), but until airports start taking a fundamentally different – and holistic – approach to consumer experience, driving real bottom line change will remain elusive.


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Engineering a successful experience requires a deep understanding of airline travellers: their behavioural motivations, dissatisfactions, and preferences. Their interests. Their attitudes. These can be revealed through carefully crafted cross-sectional and longitudinal passenger surveys and interviews.

However, airport executives must dig deeper than the data and technology/marketing buzzwords and answer the questions that truly matter: What are people doing? What do people want? Why would people care? In other words, airports need to study traveller data through the human lens; they need to think like people.

Airports should be empathetic towards passenger needs and remain informed by what passengers say they want from their airport experience. Successful implementation may require a change in an airport’s culture to focus on customer service and to develop programs that resonate with each traveller. Ultimately, contented passengers vote with their wallets, which leads to increases in non-aeronautical revenues.

Many airport elements could serve as the focal point of a passenger experience enhancement strategy. It’s therefore important to ensure that yours is focused, impactful, and empathetic to the needs of your passengers as individuals. Identify your passenger hotspots and develop processes to address them. Here are a few tactics that could be part of a comprehensive strategy:

Integrate strong branding into the concession programme: 

Develop a brand strategy that delivers a sense of place and market differentiation. Airports should implement concession programs that, in concert with terminal design and attributes, celebrates the region’s distinct culture: its history, hospitality, cultural offerings, art traditions, sense of place, or any number of man-made or natural attributes. Develop a branding strategy through both a concession lens and a digital marketing and tourism lens. The Belize Tourism Board recently revamped its brand strategy and implemented changes that led to subsequent annual increases in arriving passengers’ purchases of concessions have ranged between 6-16 per cent. By combining commercial planning and design agency skills, airports can create a compelling and unifying concession brand.  

Leverage your unique surroundings: 

If an airport’s analyses indicate that passengers are unable to distinguish the airport from others throughout the world, integrate the uniqueness of the airport’s specific region into the passenger experience program. We have found that passengers are trending away from mass-market products and want items and services that reflect the personality, culture, and identity of the region they visit. The México Consejo de Promoción Turistíca did a study on improving the passenger experience to boost tourism messaging at Mexico City International Airport with an emphasis on celebrating Mexico’s rich history and vibrant landscape to create a unique sense of place at the airport. It is important to create an on-airport experience that combines uniqueness, anticipation, and immersiveness. Identify the appropriate mix of businesses that can offer well-known local and regional brands and products, integrated with national and international brands to create a unique airport concession program.

View the airport as a natural extension of local hospitality: 

Airports are often overlooked as a cultural indicator of a city; tourists and natives embrace or neglect them accordingly. Besides the physical elements, visitors can also experience a slice of the region’s culture without leaving the building and extend their travel experience by consuming more of what they enjoyed throughout their trip. For example, leadership at Nashville International Airport recently created a program — the Nashville Airports Experience — calling on all staff to refocus on people: extending a warm welcome, revamping service, and genuinely being friendly. As a city, Nashville is known for friendly people and the promise of good music, good food, and great memories. The Nashville Experience reflected that by prioritizing the notion that passengers remember and (hopefully) love their time at the airport.

Draw on international best practices and passenger experience trends: 

Airports hire customer experience managers and issue press releases for everything from the installation of rocking chairs in corridors, to the creation of pet relief areas. Shoppers today seek more enriching experiences rather than purchasing possessions. The emphasis that restaurants place on design, motif, and quality food – along with the growth of e-commerce and the closing of brick and mortar retail – supports this notion. A reasonable way to meet this need is to blend local concepts and amenities that provide unique experiences with concepts and services that enhance passenger comfort and experiences. 

Airport passenger experience initiatives require a cohesive strategy to uncover what is most relevant and important to your passengers as individuals. Complete analyses to identify where passenger issues may lie with the airport experience. Are security and customs efficient? Is information available how and where passengers want it? Is the airport easy to navigate? Is your airport’s regional culture on display in areas passengers frequent? Airports that can conduct research to understand the needs of individual passenger journeys, and establish informed offerings that are empathetic to them will see improved ratings and greater spends.

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