Passenger Experience

Bliss is fun and fun is nice, but at what price is bliss nice?


“… we’ve entered an era of “terminal bliss.” It’s a state of joy that comes from being in an airport that excites and caters to that all-important you … It may sound ridiculous, but it’s actually sound business. Airport operators, owners, and developers all over the world are realizing that people will indeed spend time–and good money–at an airport if you give them something to be blissful about.” Bill Hooper

Bill Hooper, a veteran of airport design, presents his vision of the future airport with aplomb in The Airport Of The Future Is Actually Fun To Be In. This airport of the future is a place where you no longer feel like an insignificant cog in the wheel of a large bureaucracy, but instead are blissfully delighted by a boutique and civilised experience custom designed specifically for you.

According to Hooper, this vision can be achieved if airports instigate (a) concierge like bag drop services, (b) introduce fast track services through security, and (c) provide the passenger with smartphone apps. In return for these airport infrastructure investments, the passenger will be swept up by feelings of “bliss” and therefore induced to spend more time and money at the airport.

Although there is inextricably a link between the provision of great experiences and increased profits, this link is based on an unwritten, and intimate, understanding of the target customer group. In Japanese, they refer to this notion as Kansei. In English we call it customer focussed design. In either case, the successful design of a customer “experience” requires an understanding of the minimal and authentic values of that end customer. The questions raised, therefore, are whether (a) specialised bag drop, faster passage though security and an airport app are reflective of the core values of the passenger, and (b) if they are, will satisfaction of these core values result in increased retail spending?

Based on the research I have been conducting at BNE, “Will I make my flight?” has emerged as the core passenger fear, making the reduction of the said fear a core passenger value. I have found that there are two major milestones in the reduction of this fear, namely bag-drop and clearing security/customs. It is not until the passenger completes all necessary airport formalities (check-in, security/ customs) that the passenger fear drops to an insignificant level, and the passenger is open to “engaging” the airport experience.

Thus, in order to capitalise on investments directed at the “passenger experience”, it follows that an airport should increase the speed at which the passenger completes the two milestones rather than focussing on the service that is provided during these initial phases.  This of course puts forward a stronger case for automation than boutique personalisation of the check-in, security and customs processes.

Regardless of which technique is adopted in the design of the terminal, the second and more pertinent question is whether passenger satisfaction is connected to an increase in retail spend, and underlying this, whether increased availability of time will result in increased retail spend.

The connection between passenger satisfaction and retail spend is both complex and inconclusive. Although mood certainly influences purchases, especially impulse purchases, there is no solid evidence to suggest that “blissful” passengers spend more time and/or money in airport retail environments. To the contrary, preliminary research indicates that airport purchases tend to be pre-planned, and impulse purchases are primarily influenced by the group dynamics, and not by the availability of time or the presence of a good passenger mood. Hooper’s suggestion that the 2010 ACI retail income figures are linked to theimprovements in retail expeience offerings is not clearly supported. It is possible that the increase in retail revenue is related to higher passenger traffic.

The second dimension related to passenger spending is the assumption that an increase in available passenger time will result in an increase in passenger spend. Again, there is no evidence to suggest a correlation between time and passenger retail spending. The explanation for this could be related to the discovery that not all passengers relate to their airport time in the same way. Contrary to common belief, my research indicates that only a small percentage of passengers (14%) are genuinely focussed on the speed with which they are processed through the airport. The majority of passengers (86%) have very loose thresholds for what they consider acceptable “levels of service” – as long as they complete check-in and bag drop in the first half of their allocated airport time, they have confidence that they “will make their flight” and are thus reasonably satisfied.

Returning to Hooper’s vision: will investment in personalising baggage drop and security result in happier passengers who spend more time and money at the airport? If the personalised services reduce the amount of time that it takes for passengers to complete all airport formalities (check-in, security/ customs) then the airport would have potential passengers who are ready to “engage” the airport experience. Of all these passengers, however, only about a third (32%) will be likely to convert the extra time into extra airport spend.

Sources: the results of the study quoted above will be presented in April at Passenger Terminal Expo, and published in detail later this year. Check back for a blog post early April for more on this topic.

Passenger Experience

The Time for Moon Shots


The Aviation industry is no stranger to change. Since the early days of commercial air travel, the aviation landscape has been moulded by economic influences, government regulations, scientific breakthroughs and the forces of world events. Much of this change, however, has been reactive and incremental. As the world has changed, the industry has adapted in response. There has been little need for “moon-shots” or radical change. Until now.

Under the current terminal design paradigm, the relationship between the number of travelling passengers and the size of the terminal building is embedded in the historical Level of Service metrics. The exact space requirements prescribed by these metrics depend on a number of complex parameters – the critical point being that there is a direct relationship between passenger growth and terminal size: as one increases, so must the other.

As the price of air travel has declined, its uptake by the public has gone up at an approximately linear rate of growth. Looking forward over the next several decades, it is predicted that this rate of growth will change from linear, to almost exponential. It follows that this increase in passenger traffic will necessitate a corresponding increase in the size of the passenger terminal buildings.

Unfortunately, an exponential increase in terminal building size is not a practical reality in most cities. In many places, the lack of available land is itself a limiting factor. However, even in areas where land is physically available, it is believed that the costs associated with the creation and operation of significantly larger terminal buildings are not sustainable.


The aviation industry is at a point where innovation has become a necessity. The current reactive and incremental approach to change is not enough to create sustainable, and profitable, travel experiences for passengers. There is a need to exploit and consolidate the various independent advances in fields such as automation, standards development and personal technology and begin to think of passenger experience in new ways.

The time has come for the industry to take some moon shots.

Acknowledgement: The phrase “moon shots” is borrowed from the pen of Steven Levy.

Passenger Experience

Fifty Shades of Stats


You are reading your third 40+ page report of the morning. Your eyes roll over the neatly formatted lines of Times New Roman 12pt font, the single spacing lending an almost hypnotic cadence to your reading. As your mind opens itself to accepting thoughts of shopping lists future and weekends past, your head begins to drift into its usual after lunch power nap position … KAZZING! without warning, you are awakened by an intense adrenaline surge and there it is.

“The name’s Percent. Eighty Nine Percent,” croons the Sultry Statistic.

Like all heroes, the Sultry Statistic is powerful, yet often misunderstood. In the passenger experience space, statistics are often derived from data collected through surveys or questionnaires. This is both a popular and cost effective methodology to attain a “statistically significant” result. It can however, inadvertently introduce ambiguity, or shades of grey, into the reported results.

To illustrate the point, let’s examine our hero a little more closely. Let’s say that Eighty Nine Percent claims that by 2015 “89% of passengers will want mobile flight updates”. This of course, at first glance, conveys a very strong message. However, if we look a little deeper we discover that this statistic may imply a range of unintended meanings. Consider the following scenarios under which the underlying data may have been collected:

  1. Passengers are surveyed: “Would you like mobile flight updates?” [Yes | No]
  2. Passengers are questioned: “How would you like to receive flight updates?” [empty textbox]
  3. Passengers are interviewed: “How was your passenger experience today?”

Given scenario one above, it is likely that most passengers would respond “Yes”. The reality is that phrasing the question in this manner makes the data collection process almost meaningless. More importantly, it sends an implicit (and possibly incorrect) message that “mobile flight updates” are really important to the passenger experience.

Looking at scenario two, we can see that removing the suggestion of a specific response from the question is likely to generate a wider range of responses. This in turn would most likely result in a smaller percentage figure for the “mobile flight updates” category. Naturally, this data collection method would lead to the inference that “mobile flight updates” are less important to the passenger experience (when compared with scenario one).

The third scenario removes any leading suggestion of what factors may be important to the passenger’s experience. This could result in a very wide range of responses, which may or may not specifically relate to “mobile flight updates”. Once again, the data collected in this manner could result in a different inference regarding which factors are important to the passenger experience.

The above example reminds us that survey and questionnaire data collection methodologies can only report on the questions that are explicitly asked. By their very nature, surveys and questionnaires assume a “closed world” perspective, i.e. what is not asked must be false. From this observation, we can generalise that these data collection tools are best suited to confirmatory, rather than exploratory research.

In the context of research aimed at discovering factors which influence passenger experience, the research should, ideally begin with an exploratory phase. During this initial phase the aim would be to limit the “open world” of possible factors to a finite, “closed world” set (scenario three). On the basis of the finite set of factors, a validating questionnaire (scenario two) could be issued to provide assurance that the closed world set contained all the key responses. It is at this point that the administration of a survey (scenario one) would lend statistic significance to the reported results while reducing the likelihood of ambiguity.

Related: Interesting paper regarding importance of wording and interview skills. A topical example of misundertsanding resulting from mis-use of statistics.

Passenger Experience

Why Passenger Experience Matters

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Passenger Experience is important. It receives top billing at major industry conferences and is the focus of numerous industry publications. Passenger Experience is influential. It is shaping the design of future passenger terminals and has a direct link to airport profitability. Passenger Experience is perplexing. Why is it that a force from a non-involved aviation stakeholder is wielding such power in the industry? The answer lies in the serendipitous interaction of three unrelated developments of the last century.

The first major influencing factor is embedded in technological advances in the computing and social media space. The ubiquity of the internet, coupled with advances in mobile computing and the power of social media have amplified the voice of the passenger, elevating this non-traditional stakeholder to a position of power. This is perhaps best illustrated by the legendary case of David Carroll who used social media to take on a giant, and won. Although a precise dollar amount of the damages caused by Carroll remains vague, it has become unarguable that there is a direct connection between the digitized passenger’s experience and airport profits.

The second development which has elevated the importance of passenger experience is steeped in the aviation industry itself. Since the 1970’s, the effects of de-regulation and the introduction of low-cost carriers have resulted in changes to the sources of airport revenue. Prior to privatization, airports operated as quasi-government “utilities”. Much of the revenue under this model was generated from exclusive use, long-term lease arrangements between airports and carriers. With de-regulation, however, the revenue streams shifted. In the current model, airports rely on significant revenues from retail and passenger ticket fees. The nature of the relationship between passenger experience and retail profit is still being explored, however, results to date indicate that there is indeed a positive correlation between the passenger retail experience and profit.

The third contributing factor is the effect of the commoditization of air travel. The decrease in differentiation between the “in-flight” component of a passenger’s journey has largely removed price elasticity from flying. However, if we consider that the passenger journey also includes interaction in the terminal building on departures and arrivals, it follows that the terminal building itself can be used to create a differentiated, hence more price elastic, experience offering. Thus, through the design of the passenger terminal, passenger experience can again be linked to airport profitability.

It is unlikely, but the integration of three disparate world developments that have propelled passenger experience to the top of the industry’s agenda. Passenger experience is important, it is influential, and it is directly linked to current airport profits. However, the key reason passenger experience matters is that it may be the fresh perspective needed from which to approach the development of new, better and simpler paradigms for future air travel.

Sources: Overview of the aviation industry and the effects of deregulation: Airport systems: Planning, design and management.Creating value in the new experience economy: The experience economy: Work is theatre & every business a stage.

Passenger Experience

Level of Service Paradox


The design of passenger terminals is a complicated process. One of the inputs into this process is an approximation of space required per passenger at each of the various processing phases such as check-in, baggage claim, security and retail. The allocation of space to each of these areas is guided by a set of metrics known as “Level of Service”.

The terms “level of service” and “quality of service” have been used almost interchangeably in the aviation literature. Most importantly, neither phrase uses the conventional meaning of the term “service”, i.e. an act or helpful activity. In this context, service refers to the range of acceptable area per passenger (in square meters), as defined by a six point scale (ranging from A-best, to F-worst).

The inclusion of the word “service” in the Level of Service standards reveals a hidden assumption, namely, that more area per passenger equates to better service. Thus, the metrics contain an implicit (flawed) relationship between space and service: the levels of service (A to F) are associated with both space (per passenger) and a qualitative description (Excellent, High, Good, Adequate, Inadequate, Unacceptable). Although there is unarguably a minimum amount of space required for humans to function, there is no evidence that the more space allowed per passenger, the better the terminal design, or the better the “service” experienced by the passenger.

This inherent and paradoxical relationship between service quality and space injects an air of confusion that adherence to the Level of Service standards will result in the provision of superior service to passengers.

Sources: An excerpt of the LOS Standards for check-in areas can be found in Challenges in Passenger Terminal Design. IATA Airport Development Reference Manual contains details of the LOS Standards. A more recent evaluation of the LOS Standards by ACRP.

Passenger Experience

Poll: What kind of time traveller are you?

Passenger Experience

Mitigating Perceived Passenger Risk


The airport is seen as an environment over which the passenger has very little control. In this environment, the passenger’s main perceived risk is whether or not they will make their flight (Biggest Passenger Fear: Will I make my Flight?).

In order to tame the uncertainty and fear associated with air travel, passengers utilise two main tools, namely:

  1. Time
  2. Prior knowledge and familiarity

Time is used by the passenger as the main compensator for the perceived risk. The arrival time at the airport is the major variable that the passengers feel they have control over. Passengers feel that as long as they arrive at the airport at the “recommended” time, they will make their flight.

In addition, passengers use prior knowledge and familiarity as a strategy to control their airport experience.  Familiarity of general airport processes, such as check-in, security and customs, reduces the uncertainty associated with what lies between the current queue and the boarding gate. Familiar personal routines, such as clearing customs, then buying a book and having a coffee, help passengers feel comfortable in unfamiliar airport environments.

Source: results based on data collected at Brisbane International Terminal (departures) during February and March 2012.