How to use passenger personas to maximize satisfaction & spending at your airport

Airport passenger personas

If you travel through airports these days, chances are you have crossed the paths of the likes of Ben the businessman, stressed out Sally, Brian the backpacker or shopaholic Sharon. Except none of these are real passengers. They are examples of some of the personas (fictional representations of key user types) that airports are using to help design the sort of experience their passengers want.

In this article, we’ll look at the reasons why airports are using personas, how to create them for your airport (and the key pitfalls to avoid) as well as some examples of how using personas can help you improve your passenger experience and maximize sales.

Why using personas makes sense

It’s no secret that providing the sort of experience that travelers love makes good business sense so I won’t dwell on it here. If you want to read more on this topic, the following articles are a good place to start:

Airports have been focusing on improving their passenger experience for many years. What has changed is the manner in which they are doing it, going from simply having a customer focus / providing an undifferentiated experience to wanting to provide differentiated experiences to cater to the needs of key passenger groups.

This change ties into two key trends. First the increasing focus on non-aeronautical revenue as airport business models change. Second is the increasing competition airport retail is facing from e-commerce which is putting pressure on sales on the retail industry as a whole. Shopping habits are changing and simply having shops in your airport (even Duty Free) is no longer a guarantee that passengers will buy. If you want to maximize spending you need to give passengers a good reason to buy.

Years of monitoring passenger satisfaction levels have taught airports around the world that not all of their travelers want to use the airport in the same way or value the same parts of the experience. To design the sort of experience that will put them in the mood to shop it is necessary to understand what different passenger groups want and expect from your airport.

And that’s where personas come in. These fictional portraits of key user groups provide airports with a much richer understanding of who their travelers are (going well beyond what usual demographic and travel profile studies provide) focusing on their needs, attitudes towards traveling, their state of mind, their aspirations and consumption habits.

Besides providing a much richer understanding of passenger profiles, using personas has additional benefits which make it particularly appealing in an airport context:

  • Airports are in the people business so putting a face on customer data helps management create compelling stories to communicate on passenger needs with staff and stakeholders and create an airport-wide dialog on the need for improving the passenger experience.
  • Understanding what different passenger groups want of the airport, how they experience it and what their emotions and aspirations are helps airport management empathize with passengers and see the airport through their eyes which is essential to improving service delivery.

How to create personas for your airport

Just because personas simplify the way you present passenger segments doesn’t mean they are simple to create and there are some pitfalls you need to avoid.

A common temptation is to simply take data from an existing demographics or customer satisfaction survey, create broad segments, give them cool names and brand them as personas. The trouble with this is that normal demographics or satisfaction surveys do not collect any data on the needs, motivations or aspirations of passengers. So the data you get will tell you something about who passengers are, a little about what they want but nothing about what motivates them or drives their purchase decision which is essential if you want to be able to use your personas to design an airport and commercial experience that encourages shopping.

The risk (and this is something we often see) is that the attitudes, motivations and aspirations are then added into the personas based on guesswork or on one-size fits all industry segmentation instead of on actual factual data. And so you end up with something that looks like a persona but isn’t really one and can mislead you in your decision making process.

To create a proper set of personas for your airport you need:

  • A survey that is specifically designed for the purpose and covers demographic, travel profile, consumption habits and attitudinal data
  • A survey that is tailored to your own unique airport situation
  • A large sample size in order to be able to conduct the clustering that is necessary to identify your key segments

Of course, this comes at a cost but is worth the investment if you want to truly tailor your service delivery to your passenger needs. While there are similarities between certain passenger types worldwide, there are also key local differences relating to your culture, the size of your airport and its traffic mix for instance and so doing a tailored persona development for your airport will give you that additional contextual data which will enable you to design a truly outstanding experience that meets the exact needs of your passengers.

How personas can help you design an improved airport & commercial experience

We’ve seen why airports should be considering the use of personas and how to create them. The final step is looking at a few examples of how having a more complete understanding of your passenger profiles can help your airport up it’s game.

Plan future airport and commercial development

A great experience doesn’t happen by chance, it is designed. Having a more complete understanding of your passenger groups and what drives both their satisfaction and purchase decisions will help you design more successful airport and commercial environments.

Knowing who is buying, who is not and what is driving their decisions will help you identify gaps in your commercial lineup which could help you capture sales from segments you are currently missing out on.

Integrating persona data into your planning decisions instead of simply using demographic information such as age, income or trip frequency will help you avoid having a cookie cutter approach to designing your commercial lineup where you see the same brands in every airport and present a commercial experience that your passengers desire, helping you drive dwell time and ultimately sales.

Proactively solve pain points

Creating an overall great airport experience is all about balance and making sure that the experience is great all the time instead of simply excellent at some times. That means being able to identify and fix the key pain points your passengers experience as quickly and proactively as possible.

Understanding what each persona values and how specific issues are likely to impact them is invaluable information. For instance, airports can use this information to prioritize the importance of key service delivery issues according to which persona(s) are most likely to be impacted and an estimation of the impact a specific issue is likely to have on their bottom line.

Creating individualized passenger journeys

It is no secret that dwell time is strategically important for airports. Studies show there is a direct link between the amount of time passengers spend in the airport and both their likelihood to purchase and the amount spent. And so in this context streamlining the journey and helping passengers make the most of the time they spend at the airport will have a direct impact on the bottom line.

By understanding how different personas want to spend their time at the airport, what their information needs, preferred communication channels and key pain points are help airports create and deliver passenger journeys that help passengers optimize the time they spend at the airport and deliver a maximum of value. Airports can for instance tailor and target their marketing & communication messages more precisely with personalized and well time messages or design premium services specifically for individual personas.

Passenger needs and consumption habits are changing and airports can no longer only count on increasing traffic to drive non-aeronautical revenue growth. There is a need to deliver more relevant and individualized experiences in order to create value and give passengers a good reason to consume at the airport.

Passenger personas provide airports with a powerful tool to do just that, helping them gain a much deeper understanding of the needs, expectations and motivations of key passenger groups. Used in conjunction with initiatives and tools such as loyalty programs and CRM they are essential in designing and delivering the sort of personalized experience that travelers want and that will put them in the mood to shop.

Want to identify your passenger personas? Contact us and we’ll be happy to help.


Why don’t you read our case study to see how we create passenger personas for a medium-sized international airport.

James Ingram

James Ingram

Director at DKMA
James has extensive expertise in airport market research and specialises in helping airports improve their passenger experience. After several years managing the ASQ Survey, James is now in charge of marketing & communication for DKMA. He regularly travels to present research results & findings to airport management teams.
James Ingram

About James Ingram

James has extensive expertise in airport market research and specialises in helping airports improve their passenger experience. After several years managing the ASQ Survey, James is now in charge of marketing & communication for DKMA. He regularly travels to present research results & findings to airport management teams.

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