Improving passenger experience…today!

Changes to airport infrastructure can be slow and complex, often to the detriment of the passenger experience.

How can airports identify flexible assets and gain small wins to surprise and delight their passengers, without waiting for the next big investment?

Airports and airlines are hitting new passenger number records more and more frequently, pushing airport infrastructure and services to maximum capacity. According to NATS, 2018 had the busiest air traffic in history.

This puts airport operations under more pressure than it is designed to deal with, and no extra capacity when things go wrong. It becomes a vicious cycle – grumpy passengers = grumpy staff = bad passenger experience.

Airports have recognized they need to improve capacity long-term, with many planning investment programmes from 5 to 30 years. This is all good and well, but airports can’t rely on billion-pound, long-term developments to be their only customer experience improvements.


Part of this is a behavioural challenge – in the moment of travel, today’s passengers aren’t concerned with the passengers of tomorrow, or even their own future experiences.

Passengers are excited about starting their holiday or catching their business flight to depart as quickly and easily as possible.

They see airport construction as creating difficulties in their immediate journey, rather than recognising it as something that will benefit them ‘one day’.

In behavioural economics this is known as hyperbolic discounting: passengers would prefer a good experience today, rather than a worse experience today for future benefits. However, there is opportunity for airports within this as it affirms a ‘short wins’ approach to improving experience.

Airports, particularly those serving short-haul destinations, tend to have higher highs and lower lows – extreme flux between busy and non-busy periods. This operational complexity makes it difficult to deliver a consistent passenger experience.

Major infrastructure like airports and stations must be planned years in advance. In aviation 20-year development plans are not uncommon. However, the danger is that such long-term developments are in risk of already being outdated by the time they are built.

How can long-term plans ingrain flexibility for future passenger and operational needs? This is where understanding fixed vs flexible assets, and how to leverage flexible assets over time, could be the difference between an average, good and great experience.

This poses the question:

What can airports do today, not in 5, 10 or 20 years, that will make immediate improvements to the passenger experience?

Understanding operational and passenger pain points are just as critical as understanding where things are going well. Taking a design thinking approach can help you map the end-to-end experience, and map how back of house and passenger experience are integrated.

Operationally, airports have many stakeholders. Immigration, biosecurity and a multitude of processes regulated by stakeholders have little flexibility in procedure and infrastructure. However, the flexibility comes from what’s around these processes, such as improving commercial and digital services.

Think laterally. How can you follow a pain point with a high point? The largest gains come from giving passengers ‘surprise and delight’ moments where they least expect it. In Singapore, Changi famously offers a city bus tour for passengers on a long layover. For many passengers this is unexpected (“I can leave the airport?”) and a considerate way to break a long wait.

The value of human touch shouldn’t be underestimated. Airports are becoming increasingly digital places, but good or new technology doesn’t automatically equal a good experience. In fact, people place higher value on good interactions with others than they do with tech. A great example of this in practice is Schiphol Airport’s security trial using nannies who help parents with children through security.

Source: Changi Airport

Think about expectations – poor experience is the gap between expectation and perception of the actual – passengers don’t like a long walking route if they didn’t expect it and the airport didn’t help them know what was coming.  At Dublin Airport, we helped them map their future experience vision and identify where flexible assets could have the most significant positive impact on their passenger experience, both now and in the future.

Key to finding marginal gains and quick wins is understanding the experience of the airport for all passengers and to have a vision for experience. This gives you the foundation that can then be translated into actions for today – how can the future passenger experience be cultivated in small, surprise-and-delight moments now?

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David Watts

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