Guest Post: How to avoid your airport CX being a carousel of calamities

Guest Post: How to avoid your airport CX being a carousel of calamities

Codie James, delivery director of Sullivan & Stanley, talks everything from airport rankings to staffing requirements

Where airport travel used to conjure excitement, for most the experience now adds up to bouts of queuing and time-killing with one eye on the departure board.

For some, it’s a shopping opportunity and retailers have created amazing airport outlets (check out Haneda Airport Garden in Tokyo that opened last year) but nowadays, who wants to get to the airport early to spend more time there?

The post-Covid travel boom means airports are busier than ever – a fact brought home when London Heathrow regained its place as the top ‘international airport megahub’ in the OAG Megahubs Index 2023 and is ranked the fourth busiest airport in the world.

That’s great for Heathrow in the near-term but not necessarily for the customer experience (CX) and longer-term business prospects. The airport is where the journey begins and the entire ecosystem, including car hire, linking transport infrastructure and airlines, should want to present their best face. Fliers have a voice via review sites and social media and don’t mince words - Kuwait Airport was ranked the worst airport in the world in one recent survey by AirHelp with one passenger calling it a “total disgrace”. In cities like London, they can also vote with their feet and choose other airports to fly from where possible.

There’s been huge investment into technology and automating processes for speeding up movement through airports. Self-serve bag drop-off, improved security scanning and biometrics at passport control all help. But unless there is a corresponding consideration of an investment in the human element, there’ll be as many hits as misses in shaping a positive traveller experience.

As tech innovation is introduced, airport operators are at risk of losing a sense of customer-centricity. But both can be harnessed in the service of a better overall CX and ‘service flow.’

Flow requires a service design strategy that immerses passengers in a seamless experience and requires orchestration of all the elements that contribute to this – both customer-facing front of house and ‘backstage’ (e.g. baggage handling). The starting point needs to be identifying pinch points, bottlenecks and places that are stressful for travellers within the terminal layout with tracking technology and then teams can start assessing the best potential solutions.

Service flow has been refined and improved in other areas – a close analogy being the London Underground, which opened 80-plus years ahead of Heathrow and averages 4 million journeys daily. Lessons from Transport for London include developing and placing signage with clear instructions and universal icons in places where passenger decision is required. Getting this wrong causes crowding as people halt to ‘think’ at inappropriate locations.

Technology that helps with flow – touchscreen check-ins and self-serve luggage drop-offs –  must be clear and simple. These keep the decision-making process streamlined without overwhelming users with excess options and information.

We now have the ability to build on human-centred service design processes and make the technology itself ‘truly human’ via AI, neuro-tech, the metaverse and other emerging technologies. The potential for the airport experience is huge and early adopters will no doubt reap significant business benefits.

It’s important to know where staff add value to the CX and this means being attentive to your employee experience (EX) and looking at what you offer and how you incentivise. Take the steps that help employees to be engaged and feel their work has purpose.

This might be at odds with tough staff targets to process a defined number of passengers in a certain time span but no-one wins if this results in stressed interactions between customers and staff – you’ll get poor reviews on one side and burn out and churn on the other. Some of the cost savings made from technology can be reinvested in the fundamentals of providing good service.

A lot of airport staffing requirements are contracted out to third party suppliers and this can be a headache for delivering a consistent customer experience. The answer may lie with procurement and contract managers drafting contracts that include measurement of customer service and satisfaction, so that improvements become a priority KPI for service expectations.

Finally, there is the question of vision and leadership. Until relatively recently, airports have tended to recruit senior executives from within their own ranks and diversity in background is sparse. This means they lack the necessary outside perspective to introduce change. There is every argument for recruiting those that bring different sector experiences, innovations and insights to bear on specific challenges.

We believe customers desire efficient airports, friendly and helpful staff, enjoyable experiences and excellent value for money. These desires are not mutually exclusive but delivery requires knowing how to map the customer experience, the principles of service design and an understanding of behavioural science.

Airports can benefit from a wholesale shift in mindset from one where they see themselves as an infrastructure/assets business leveraged by airlines and retailers to an organisation that owns as much of the end-to-end customer relationship as possible. Only then will they be able to gain the altitude to meet ever higher customer expectations.