10 things that great airports do

If all airports provide the same basic service, how is it that some seem to get the recipe just right?  What makes those airports so good? Why are they able to provide an experience you look forward to while others provide one that you will go to great lengths to avoid?

Seoul Incheon Airport

Working with over 300 airports, we’ve been able to see first-hand how some of the best manage their passenger experience. While they each manage their business in their own special way there are some common practices that are worth noting.

1. They plan ahead

To stay ahead of the game, the best airports make sure that they are constantly evolving and try to imagine what the passenger experience will look like in 10-15 years.  It may sound obvious but it is surprising to see how many airport managers find themselves having to live with facilities that are not adapted to current passenger needs or volumes. Is your airport doing that thinking or are you still trying to deliver the experience passengers wanted 15 years ago?

2. They get the basics right

Before trying to be special, great airports make sure that they get the basics right. They know which aspects are most important to the passenger journey and are relentless about delivering on these 100% of the time:

  • A spotlessly clean terminal and washrooms
  • Comfortable gate areas
  • Warm and friendly staff
  • Simple wayfinding

Why are these the basics? Because every passenger sees and experiences these aspects of the airport experience.

These may not be what make an airport sexy but they are what make an airport great. The good news is that you don’t need an astronomical budget or brand new terminal to excel in these areas. The bad news is that if you don’t get the basics right your airport will never become great.

3. They get the whole journey right

Getting the basics right will only get you part of the way though. To excel, you need to make sure that the whole passenger journey is well managed. One of the key findings from our passenger satisfaction research is just how much damage one poor experience can do to satisfaction levels.

And what constitutes this negative experience can be different for each passenger. In order to improve satisfaction levels you can’t simply focus on some aspects at the expense of others. Instead airports should aim to ensure that the whole passenger journey through their airport goes well. In terms of service quality management this means focusing on improving satisfaction levels with the overall journey rather than focusing only on improving individual touch points.

4. They create an atmosphere that makes you want to spend time at the airport

A lot of people think that to create ambience all you need to do is add in more artwork, some funky chairs and nice plants. While doing this can contribute to creating a better atmosphere it will only help make some parts of the airport experience interesting. Great ambience is about the whole experience (processes, retail, architecture, staff, wayfinding, etc…) working well and creating an atmosphere that is relaxing, making the airport a place you would actually want to spend time. And it’s getting the whole experience right that makes great ambience so hard to achieve.

5. Their processes are designed to keep stress levels low

The sad truth about processes is that the best ones are those that passengers don’t notice. If your passengers are noticing your processes, chances are they are complaining about them. But when processes are well managed passengers simply forget they are there. So there is no point in having the shortest queues in the world. The best airports simply make sure that their processes are good enough to avoid creating any stress for passengers, enabling them to focus more time and energy elsewhere.

6. But they focus on more than just processes

When you look at satisfaction levels for average airports, quite often processes are the things that passengers liked most. That’s because average airports tend to focus on getting the passenger through the airport as efficiently as possible. Great airports manage their processes well but put a lot of effort into making sure that their airport experience is defined by more than just great processes. Do you really want passengers to think that the best part of your airport was how quick it was to get out?

7. Their staff is proud of the airport and they set high standards

In order to become great you have to want to be great. If your standards are average, chances are your airport will be average. The best airports set themselves high standards and cultivate a culture where staff are proud of their work and of their airport. When staff are proud of the airport they are more likely to keep it clean and well maintained, creating a virtuous cycle that drives the airport toward excellence.

It’s when you start getting this type of customer-focused culture within your organisation that you get employees who are willing to go that extra mile for passengers, giving you the little something extra that will make your airport memorable.

8. They involve stakeholders in the airport quality improvement process

Not all aspects of the airport experience are delivered by staff working for the airport. And since one poor experience can damage the overall perception of your airport, it is essential to make sure that stakeholders understand the part they play. That is why the best airports view their stakeholders as partners in the overall quality improvement process rather than simply using SLAs to monitor their performance.  Some even go as far as involving stakeholders in the service quality improvement processes by giving them a say on key decisions.

9. They put themselves in the passengers’ shoes

After working at an airport for a while it’s quite easy to lose sight of (or get used to) how it looks. Passengers don’t though, so it’s very important to regularly get out into the terminal and try to see the airport as a passenger would. Sometimes this may mean bringing in an outsider for a different point of view.

Is your signage really that clear? Does your Wi-Fi system really work all over the airport as your IT department claims, are the washrooms at the end of the concourse really that clean?…  You can only know the answers to these questions by actually experiencing your airport. And it’s this knowledge that will help you better understand where your key weaknesses lie.

10. They focus on what is important to the passenger, not to the airport

Finally, great airports make sure that they keep their priorities straight and focus on what matters to passengers. When an airport starts focusing first on what matters to itself the passenger experience always suffers.

Signage is a good example of this as some airports consistently assign the best spots in the terminal to advertising even if this makes it more complicated for passengers to find their way around. Top airports such as Seoul Incheon make sure that they keep key spots in the terminal for key airport signage and make sure that advertising doesn’t distract from what is the passengers’ primary need – getting to the gate to catch their flight.

Great airports are good all around

So that’s my list of areas that great airports are constantly able to get right. I’m not pretending that this list is exhaustive and hope that you will bring up plenty of other things that great airports get right.

What it shows is that in order to be a truly great airport you can’t just focus on one aspect of your airport, say shopping or processes. Instead you need to make sure that you are trying to be better across the board rather betting everything on one or two experiences no matter how great they are. And that’s where the real difficulty lies. We see many airports that get part of this right but only a handful that have been truly able get the whole mix right.

So what is the one thing you think great airports do?



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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