Passenger Experience

Great research: It’s the Vibe of it


“It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour” Dennis Denuto, The Castle 1997.

It is generally accepted that good research occurs when new and useful knowledge has been acquired. The exact process by which this happens is not quite as easy to define: there are many tools available to the modern researcher, and many philosophies about how these tools should be wielded. Although all good research is reproducible, free of bias and representative of the larger population, the actual method by which this knowledge is discovered is not completely prescriptive. It is often part science, part art, and part … well, part vibe.

Now, unless you are a fan of late 90’s Australian cinema, you may not fully appreciate the deep meaning that is contained within this deceivingly simple word. “Vibe” is more than a common feeling: it is elegance, simplicity, feeling, intuitiveness and depth all rolled into one. Vibe is an understatement, it is quiet and dark and sneaks in unnoticed – and yet, we see examples of it over and over again. Sergei Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs did not run focus groups to determine our collective future needs: simply put, they discovered the vibe of what we needed, wanted and desired – before the rest of us knew it was so.

So, just how does one uncover the vibe? Although there is undoubtedly an intangible element associated with the ability to see what others do not, there is also a more grounded, reproducible aspect to extracting the vibe. This scientific component lies in the ability to understand the core values associated with elements of human behavior. At our workplace, we call the process by which this happens Augmented Observation.

Augmented Observation is a method that we have developed specifically to research human behavior. The method is based on a combination of direct observation and semi-structured interviewing, conducted in-situ in places such as airport terminals and hospital rooms. The video footage and/or audio recordings of participant interactions we obtain are coded and analyzed in our labs with the help of various tools such as Noldus Observer and Atlas.ti.

We have found the above method to be very effective in understanding human behavior. Take for example a study conducted at Brisbane International Airport security screening. The project involved observation and analysis of the ebbs and flows in the security area during the course of a regular week. The observations were conducted in-situ, and also consisted of analysis of CCTV footage from the security area. The outputs were triangulated with interviews of security staff, and augmented by formal exploration of queuing theory. In the end, our research recommendations resulted in:

  • Average wait times in security were reduced from 20 mins to 3.9 mins
  • Passenger throughput improved from 260 pax/hr to 340 pax/hr
  • Capacity increased by 48%, which resulted in a 40% reduction in need fro additional x-ray capital expenditure for 2010-2012
  • Decreased security costs by 20%, while improving passenger satisfaction

The above results were achieved at Brisbane International without any capital outlays: the optimizations stemmed directly from a better understanding of how passengers and staff behaved in the security area, and the fine tuning of parameters associated with queue management. In other words, our research uncovered the security area vibe.

When it comes to studying passenger experience, we have found a few key elements to being essential. So, although there is no silver bullet for ensuring that great research happens on your next project, there are a few things that you can look out for in your quest to discover the vibe of things:

  1. Context is key. The context for the research can have a significant impact on the research outcomes. It is openly acknowledged that human memory is fallible, thus any data collection that relies on recall will necessarily be inaccurate. People have a tendency to rationalise and re-create what they cannot remember. By observing people in-situ, these challenges are mitigated.
  2. Words are influential. The words used in asking the question can have a huge effect on the results obtained. Surveys and questionnaires for example limit the responses to the set of questions asked. By their nature, they exclude the possibility of uncovering the unknown, as it is not possible to ask that which is not yet known. Keeping interview questions open ended and not leading is an essential skill to perfect.
  3. Rapport cannot be ignored.  Rapport is possibly the most important element of data collection. As the researcher, you have about 10 seconds in which to establish rapport: trust, likeability and camaraderie. Failure on this element almost guarantees that honest and deep insights will not be uncovered.
  4. Finding the vibe. This is the ability to articulate the unsaid and see the invisible. It is what happens when words, observations and experience combine to extract the real reasons behind passenger behaviour. It is an art, and relies on the skills and experience of the researcher … and their ability to observe what is there, and also what lies hidden in the spaces in between the words and gestures of the respondents.

Sources: an overview of Augmented Observation and related methods can be found in Section 7 of this report. The Brisbane International security re-design project is detailed in this publication. Essential Australian cinema: recommended viewing with a friend from down under.

Passenger Experience

Reflections on Passenger Terminal Conference 2013


This year’s Passenger Terminal Conference (Twitter: #PTE2013) was packed to the rafters with interesting talks. In fact, the biggest challenge was to decide which of the simultaneously offered presentations to attend: they were all interesting. As a result of being spoilt for choice, I jumped around and visited a range of presentations from various conference streams – ranging from Airport Design and Planning, through to Customer Service, Passenger Experience, Commercial Development and Strategic Planning.

As I bounced between sessions, I noted that there was an air of convergence and commonality between the various areas of specialty with the industry. This is likely an indication of the maturation of various ideas, and a possible sign that a common vision for the “Terminal of the Future” is within reach. In particular, the following themes emerged from this year’s conference, based on the presentations I attended:

  1. The proliferation of mobile technology. There is an industry wide strategic move towards the utilization of mobile, and mobile related (e.g. NFC) technology. In SITA’s vision beyond 2015, Catherine Mayer described the need to start looking beyond mobile to ensure that passengers feel “in control” and are provided with seamless travel opportunities.
  2. A focus on passenger experience. This year, it was no longer a question of whether passenger experience was important, it was assumed that it was. As Philip Wagnert from SAS articulated: “Customer satisfaction is money in the bank”. The focus on the passenger was touched on from all angles: technology, design, planning, retail, and even the environment.
  3. A need to address communication between stakeholders. This theme was articulated quite subtly, but there was evidence from various aviation stakeholders that the future of “seamless travel” will necessitate increased communication and co-operation. At Incheon, Jung (Cristina) Mi Lim reported that opening communication channels across stakeholders was at the heart of continued airport service improvements. From a pragmatic perspective, the facilitation of improved communication relies on the development of industry wide data standards: Alaistair Deacon (Amor Group) presentation sketched out a high-level approach towards this goal.
  4. Strategic growth in the middle east. The middle east is channeling “unconstrained growth” to position the region as the hub for global air travel. The strategically strong geographical location and free flow of resources will cement the area as the go-between of choice for world-wide travel.
  5. Convergence of ideas about the future travel experience. It is generally agreed that the future travel experience needs to be “simpler” and “streamlined”. This observation was articulated from various angles: Kiran Merchant from Port Authority of NY & NJ reported on the results of a workshop with over 90 industry leaders in September last year. It was interesting that the results from this perspective overlapped greatly with some of the findings from my own research. From an architectural perspective, there was consensus that terminal design needs to become simpler and more flexible. David Holm from Cox Architecture and Mark Wolfe from Hassell both gave different perspectives on the need to make terminals more flexible, and more integrated into the increasingly urban cities that we live in. Again, their results resonated with the research outcomes from my own work, although they originated from different vantage points.

The general conference atmosphere was collegiate and very positive – no doubt an indication that the future of air travel is on the verge of being shaken up … the time for “moon shots” is surely near, and as travelers, we will all be better off for it.

Looking forward to the conference in Barcelona next year!

Source: notes from numerous presentations at Passenger Terminal Conference, Geneva Switzaerland April 2013.

Passenger Experience

Pax Activities: What do they do in your airport?


This content originally appeared in the Airports of the Future newsletter: Are Your Passengers Satisfied?

The passenger experience is a critical aspect of airport business. When passengers have a good experience it influences their future travel plans and creates a sense of trust. On the other hand, passengers who have a negative experience form not only a negative association for the airport, but associations that have been demonstrated to have a flow on negative association with a city or country, with down-stream economic implications.

Most research about people’s experiences in airports has focused on passenger facilitation, processing and technology. However, two-thirds of passenger time in the airport involves non-processing, or discretionary, periods.

At the People and Systems Lab, our researchers are looking at these often overlooked aspects of passenger and staff activities within the airport. The basis of our research is close observation of passengers and their activities. From this, we develop maps of activities that illustrate the relationships between people, process and technology. By examining the maps of interaction, we draw conclusions about passengers’ activities and interactions.

Our descriptive models of passenger experiences provide a significantly more comprehensive understanding of passenger experience at the airport. Consequently, our recommendations are highly relevant and can have immediate impact on the airport planning and design.

As an example, we observed the activities that are undertaken by passengers within an airport environment. We discovered that as passengers begin to pre-pare for outbound processing activities before, as well as at, check in. In particular, we discovered that:

  1. Passengers with wavers make far more use of landside retail than other passengers;
  2. Passengers show ownership of things they carry with them after check-in;
  3. Passenger group activities show there is a need to provide areas for groups to assemble while waiting for other group members ;
  4. Security personnel activities at the security checking points, such as assisting passengers, affects length of time before, during and after screening process;
  5. Passengers experiences are affected not only by past experience but by that of their social group; and
  6. Passengers are encouraged to ask questions in the locations which cause queues to form prematurely, thus lengthening queue time.

Our current focus is on developing a classification of discretionary activities that not only describes passenger’s activities, but also the context(s) in which these activities occur and how they interrelate. Thus far, eight taxonomic groups have been identified, namely:

  1. Processing
  2. Preparatory
  3. Consumptive
  4. Social
  5. Entertainment
  6. Passive
  7. Queuing
  8. Moving

The next step is modeling the taxonomic groups to identify interrelations between them in order to assist airport planning and terminal design to facilitate and manage passenger experiences.

Source: the above results are extracted from the doctoral work of Philip Kirk (, and were published in Towards a taxonomy of passenger airport experience.