Putting passengers first
What are the core elements of passenger experience and customer services in Middle East and European airports?
There are many factors that define the quality of passenger experience in any airport, so finding the right blend of design, architecture and customer services is a skilful art. As airports compete more intensely for business there is a growing need for them to focus on the customer services and convenience that passengers demand.
A pleasant experience in an airport fuels repeat business in the future, but efforts to take care of customers and provide them a pleasant environment must be balanced with cost-efficiency. Finding that balance can be a major boost to business.
“The quality of passenger experience is what makes the customer return for a repeat journey. The good will and positive feeling that this generates is spread both virally and otherwise, enhancing the reputation of the airport considerably. In short, it’s a very effective marketing vehicle in itself,” says Sharjah International Airport director general Dr Ghanem Al Hajri.
The first challenge, of course, is to know what passengers want, which means finding the right mechanisms to gather and interpret customer feedback.
“It is very difficult to get mathematically robust data on what people think. Information is very anecdotal. We have found some key components that make up a good passenger experience, but there is no blueprint to pick up and roll out in every airport, as circumstances differ in so many ways,” says Pascall & Watson architect and chairman of the British Aviation Group Alan Lamond.
Lamond has a long history in airport design, and has spent 20 years understanding what passengers want. Recent work at Dublin Airport, for instance, relied heavily on passenger surveys, which showed that passengers want their journey to be simple, they want clear and intuitive way-finding, a clean environment, courteous staff and good facilities.
“It is not rocket science, but there is great variation in airport experience, largely because airports develop in different ways. Scale is important, and people like smaller airports. The challenge for a big airport, therefore, is to make things simple,” says Lamond.
Al Hajri agrees: “It varies considerably from airport to airport, depending on many factors such as size, infrastructure, regulations and culture. The most important thing is that we get the passenger through the airport rapidly, safely and comfortably.”
In the Middle East airport development is now relatively rapid compared to Europe, and often faces fewer constraints. London Heathrow, for instance, has grown incrementally with no coherent master plan. Nevertheless, Amsterdam’s Schipol shows a European airport with a clear, long-term plan can evolve in a consistent manner and remain a favourite with many passengers.
Schipol’s success in blending different styles of architecture with consistent finishes and key attributes such as flooring, plus its use of natural light and a good view of the airfield, highlight the importance of architecture in determining the quality of passenger experience.
Lamond’s experience has taught him that passengers want airports to be spacious and bright, and that a sense of scale and grandeur is very important, even in a small airport. For Al Hajri another key design goal is to create a sense of place by incorporating elements of local culture in the aesthetics, cuisine and services.
Both agree that defining passenger flows within the airport is of supreme importance. The aim is to get people quickly and easily to their aircraft while optimising the airport’s ability to generate ancillary revenue, and this is where the real challenge lies. Some passengers want to visit the shops and restaurants, but others may be frustrated if they cannot go straight to their departure gate.
“In most airports there is a tension between retail and advertising needs on one hand, and simplicity on the other. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 may not be right in every regard, but it is a good example. There is a lot of retail on the passenger’s journey, but there are still relatively simple routes between important places. A balance must be found between ancillary revenue and efficiency,” says Lamond.
“It must be easy to find your way, but there should be nice shops, too. But you can’t make an airport into a shopping mall. Passengers should be given the choice of whether they want to shop,” adds Munich International Airport vice president of Terminal and Passenger Services Thomas Penner.
Whatever the layout of an airport a further challenge lies in the use of signage in directing passengers efficiently. Many airports in Europe have successfully used orientation zones, where easily understood signs direct them to the next stage of their journey. The intention is to lead passengers to these zones and away from entry points so they do not block access for others, and to help them make quick, informed decisions.
“Many airports do not have it in their strategy to accelerate the process for passengers. They need to make it easy and have self-explanatory signs, as well as people to help,” says Penner.
Signs must be intuitive, clear, simple and as universal as possible.
“Information overload is a real risk. There are so many messages about where to go, about luggage requirements, security information and so on. You need to ensure people end up in the right spot and are not misled by a morass of information. Passengers want to know immediately what they have to do, so that they do not have to stop,” says Lamond.
Sharjah International is one of the region’s airports that have worked hard on designing passenger flows.
“Our airport attempts to make passenger flow smooth and hassle free by providing adequate signage all over the airport to direct people. Additionally, floor walkers are present in key areas to guide passengers and information desks are conveniently located. Over and above that, ample staff are available all over, 24/7, to assist passengers,” says Al Hajri.
For Al Hajri, passengers’ priorities include a pleasant ambience that is created as much by people as by architecture or design. They appreciate friendly and co-operative staff who are willing to assist with problems or queries. His emphasis on the role of staff in creating a positive passenger experience is shared by many airport operators. Customer services are key competitive differentiators.
“Customer services are a very high priority both in Europe and the Middle East as passengers can choose different airports. If Copenhagen or Amsterdam are much nicer than London or Frankfurt then people will choose them for connections. Airports must surpass passenger expectations, as they do in Singapore,” says Penner.
Predictably, Munich has focused on services that will help it thrive as a regional hub.
“If an incoming flight is delayed and you need to make a connection we will come to get you from the plane in a small bus, perform an airside immigration process and take you straight to your next aircraft. Passengers like it and there is a lot of positive feedback, and it helps the airlines save money, too,” Penner explains.
For Al Hajri, the Middle East can and should excel in customer services. At Sharjah, this belief is exemplified in special services. ‘Hala’ services, for example, include meet and assist, the presentation of flower bouquets, a limo service and fast tracking.
“The Middle East has inherently a culture of hospitality, and this is conveyed in every aspect of the passenger experience through the airports here – thereby making this region world famous for its excellent services. Customer facilitation along with safety and security is and has always been the topmost priority,” he says.
In different parts of the world the challenges for airports vary. For instance, many Middle Eastern airports are far less congested than their European counterparts, so formalities such as the check-in procedure are relatively fast.
Yet efforts are still being made to improve the efficiency of passenger processing. Sharjah, for instance, has implemented machine readable cards for use at ‘e-gates’.
All airports must put customer services and the quality of passenger experience at the top of their agenda, but each will have to find its own approach.
“There is no silver bullet, but the core principles are the same in terms of how you should approach the design of an airport. Above all, keep it simple,” says Lamond.
Penner reminds us that constant vigilance and co-operation are also vital.
“You can’t wait to get a complaint. Passenger experience needs to be reviewed regularly and airports need to work closely with airlines and with other agencies like the immigration service to improve it,”
As for whether airports in the Middle East have much to learn about shaping passenger experience from their more mature counterparts in Europe, Al Hajri is clear.
“The attitude in the Middle East is that facilitation and comfort is a given, not a special service on a commercial basis,” he says. “Why not let Europe learn from us on this issue? After all, not every aspect of customer service can be commercialised.”