Jonathan Doughty offers some suggestions as to how our airports might enhance the passenger experience

This is my first article for AFI and as you would expect, I have thought long and hard about the subject matter. I don’t pretend to be an airport expert, which I suppose is a good thing. Our business has done work around the travel market, including T5 at Heathrow and various other activities that have “brushed us up” against the sector.
More importantly I am the passenger. In our work around the world in 40 or so countries, we work on hotels, restaurants and shopping centres. We do all things foodservice, but we are particularly interested in the consumer, or the “guest” as we like to call them. Their experience, their comfort and therefore their ability to spend is critical to the commercial success of many of the sites we develop with our clients. We spend a lot of time studying what we have termed the “Guest Journey” – the key steps and stages that guests move through to enjoy and engage with commercial operations. The “condition” in which the guest arrives determines exactly how they behave, how they enjoy the facilities and how they rate the overall experience. I suppose, therefore, my view is as valid as anybody’s in the world of airports.

So, without trying to be clever, I thought I would look at the Airport “Guest Journey”, with a bit of regular insight and experience. Whether you are using a restaurant, a hotel or a transport hub, the steps of the journey are all pretty similar. So let’s have a look, through my eyes, at the airport “Guest Journey”.
So I arrive at the airport, and… confrontation. Pretty much everything that you want and desire is airside, you just have to get there. Am I the only person that thinks like this? Knowing what security will be like, knowing how long it will take, my mind is focused clearly on getting to “the other side” so to speak. Not dissimilar to a hotel, where you just want to get to your room, shower and relax.
Have I got tickets, passport? Have I left my liquids and gels, have I got my laptop ready to hand. Have I, have I… only time will tell.

Security – can be great can be terrible. The hottest confrontation point of the guest journey in my view. Do I take off my belt, my shoes, as well as my jacket and bags. There is no way to tell. Now for a moan. Why does the “greeting” vary so much from airport to airport? Some are brilliant – friendly, efficient, helpful and surprising this, they also make the queue go quicker.

Likes – Plenty of tabling to get your laptop out – I have seen so many get dropped on the floor as flustered guests try and balance bags and remove their mobile devices on the conveyor.
“Morning”. Sorry? Did I hear that right? Yes I did. Now, if you are wondering where, it was Stansted, in my view the airport that has turned round its abysmal experience to a really rather pleasant one on occasions. On my way out to Poland last month I had a chat with the security team at the machine. They were business-like, efficient, but really friendly and set me off on my way – delighted. I am easily pleased.
So I finally get through to airside and immediately I feel like I have dropped my “worry baggage”. My frame of mind has changed once I have checked the departure board and know where I am going. Well actually no, because no gate is showing yet, “wait in lounge”. Story of my life.
I look around for somewhere to sit – plenty of seats, just not the right sort. By this I mean a seat where I can sit and have a look at my laptop, but there are row upon row of seats that don’t really make this very easy. I don’t need funky seating zones for wireless access, but a bench seat with a table would be nice. Think Wagamama without the food. Another moan – does anybody actually try the seats before they buy them? It would appear not.
I suppose I am not typical when it comes to the shopping side of things. As a frequent traveller I tend to use the Restaurants and Cafés more than the shops. Power points, only now creeping into the shop fit plans of these establishments, are few and far between. Lots to do to improve the “eat/ work” life balance in an airport. I am happy to do both at the same time, but find it hard precariously balancing my laptop on a minute table, whilst seated on a stool. Shopping Centres are getting wise to this and are providing seating zones, with power, WIFI, foodservice and other services that “blend” the casual use of space with commercial activities. You don’t have to buy things to sit there, but you can if you want.
The gate pops up on the screen and I prepare for the next stage of the journey, before actually going anywhere! Having re-packed my bag I head off to the gate in question. Through passport control and then I get there. Why does nobody get rewarded for turning up on time, except if you are travelling on a budget airline and are “speedy boarding?”
Just time to visit the toilets – often a deeply unpleasant experience in its own right. Why, in this day and age, do they have to smell so much? Stale, acrid and lacking in fresh air. Have you tried to wash your face when there are only fixed downward hand dryers?
Then the wait, no information, just the crew chatting away at the gate desk, what they did last night, how they were feeling, only interrupted now and again by a wayward traveller who interrupts their conversation with a request for information – how very inconvenient. This manifestation of the airline brand, at the gate, leaves a much deeper and more lasting impression on me than the flight or the food they deliver. Then onto the flight.
Arriving at the other end, the stress levels are never quite the same as the departure. There is always the not knowing how long it is going to take to get through passport control and if we are going to be lucky. Sometimes you are, mostly you are not.
Having got through passport control, either at the beginning, the end, or in the middle of a very very long walk, which seems to characterise modern airports, I want to spend a few minutes gathering thoughts, sending and receiving emails and… nowhere to sit again that really suits the modern business traveller. Lots of hot-spot counters, some funky seating, but nothing that resembles the sort of workstation or booths that you’d find in an airline lounge. Such a shame, this would be a great addition to the mix.
Then out to the wide world. Depending on the airport you go to, taxi queuing is something you need to be prepared for. The Middle East seems to hold the gold award for chaotic, unpleasant and muddled in the provision of taxis. Why is the guy “organising” the taxis the only one that doesn’t seem to understand how the system works and how to move people along quickly?
Then out of the airport and onto a day’s work in a City somewhere around the world. I am not alone, I am sure, in wondering why it is as stressful as it is. People, the key resource in the foodservice industry, in hotels and shopping centres, are also critical to the success of an airport. It isn’t all about the people, but with the right facilities, well thought out, well delivered and manned by people who want to give service to the travelling public, it improves the experience immeasurably. So what’s the point? Well, I know which airports I like to use and those that I like to avoid. I have a choice and that choice is getting bigger.
I pick a regional airport over an international one if I can. I have preferred modes of transport and I factor in all the other things that make it easier for me to travel. I love the innovations that are beginning to creep into the world of airports. “Fast lane” security at a price, work zones, clear, clean fragrant toilets – plenty of hand dryers and paper towels, information screens that mean something.
I am not alone, I just have the opportunity to express my views as a traveller. I am actually remarkably easy to please. All I need is some certainty, some basic services and a pleasant attitude from staff.
There is the rub. People. This is the key to a successful experience and if they do their job I am excited and delighted by the simplest of things. Get it wrong, and the smallest things irritate. An airport relies on lots of people, all employed by different businesses, all impacting on my experience. A lack of greeting, or a “nil” response to my “good morning” irritates. Inefficient, poorly thought out processes and systems which waste time irritate me. I am not alone.
Shopping centres and hotels hold the secret for me, in enhancing the airport experience. I am aware that security plays a massive part in the day to day operations of these transport hubs and am not naive enough to expect that to change. But the improving service, facilities, thought, care and attention and experience that these two sectors are now demonstrating, makes them good models for the “Guest Experience” in airports. Th ey manage to pull together people from different companies, retailers and caterers, different departments and divisions to act as one, for the benefit of the guest. Don’t get me wrong, many get this wrong, but lots are now getting it right as well.
The world of airports is changing. The architecture is stunning, the capacity enormous and the experience well, for the most part, it is average. Our expectations are quite low so if anybody wants to step forward and raise the bar then please do so – I will be your most loyal customer. I want to enjoy my travelling, to spend my money in your shops and restaurants and to feel that my time with you is valued. I am, after all, the passenger…

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