Passenger Experience

Preparation prevents poor passenger experience

by Dr Philip Kirk |


Most research about passenger experience is conducted from a managerial or operational perspective. In the various questionnaires and surveys carried out by airports, passengers are asked for feedback on areas that management regard as important to passenger. This may be, and often is, different to what is actually important to passengers themselves.

In order to ascertain what passengers regard as important, we have developed a number of techniques specifically designed to research passenger experience. These techniques allow us to uncover, rather than predict, or guess, which factors are important to passengers and which are not.

In this particular research work, the question regarding what passengers do at the airport was answered using two techniques, namely:

  1. Observation of passenger activities, in-situ in the passenger terminal.
  2. Retrospective interviews conducted with passengers.

Passenger observation provided insights into what passengers actually do while in the terminal building. The retrospective interviews provided information about the context in which the activities took place. Consolidating the information from both sources resulted in the formulation of a passenger activity taxonomy. The passenger activity taxonomy developed allowed us to learn about what passengers actually do in the terminal building, and, most importantly, which of these activities affect their passenger experience.

Quite surprisingly, we found that waiting in queues was not a significant contributor to the passenger’s overall experience. Passengers generally expected to queue, and as such, only discussed queuing as a negative experience when queue length exceeded 30 mins. Conversely, queue length was regarded in a positive light only when there was no queue at all. This result indicated that queue time is not the ideal metric by which to evaluate passenger experience – unless of course, an airport could achieve the improbable scenario of zero queuing.

A more interesting discovery was the role of preparatory activities on the passenger experience. Preparatory activities were defined as those activities that a passenger undertook to get ready for the next activity. For example, some passengers used their check-in queue time to get their flight details and passports ready. This meant that when they got to the check-in desk they had everything ready for the staff member to process them. This would lead to a shorter interaction at check-in (compared with a passenger who did not have these documents ready). Using “dead” queue time to prepare the passenger for the next activity was found to dramatically reduce the processing time at the check-in counter. Similar results were obtained when queue time was used to prepare for security, customs and also boarding.

The importance of using queue time to prepare passengers for their next activity was found to have benefits outside of increasing the general speed with which each passenger was processed. As each passenger arrived at the next processing activity prepared, they generally had an easier, less complicated experience. This simplicity of interaction, which stemmed from passenger preparation, was found to leave a positive effect on the passenger experience.

Many airports have recognised the value that volunteers or ambassadors have in providing a point of human contact in the context of the terminal building. Some terminals also use video animations, such as those commonly found in security areas, informing passengers how to prepare for their upcoming security activity. In a general sense, these human points of passenger contact and video counterparts serve as facilitators in passenger preparation. Tools such as signage and notices were observed to be far less effective in preparing passengers than interaction with humans and/or viewing of animations.

Naturally, with global move towards increased reliance on automation and self-service technology, the interesting problem arises: how to maximise the benefits of passenger preparedness while reducing the overall contact with humans and staff members? Indeed, as the utopian goal of a queue-less airport becomes a closer reality, the opportunity for preparing the passenger for what lies ahead diminishes. Incorporating preparation into self-service kiosks remains an unexplored opportunity for improving both passenger throughput and satisfaction.

Source: a big thank you to Dr Philip Kirk for his contribution to this post. Philip’s thesis about passenger experience at airports, contains a detailed description of the research on which this post is based.

Passenger Experience

Design led innovation gets its KIX


Design affects lives. Great designs do it in a way which is so subtle and complete that we take them for granted. Look around at the products you use each day, and how they have transformed the way you work and live: your iPhone, the takeaway coffee cup, wi-fi, sunscreen lotion, sliced bread… all examples of design leading innovation.

The concept of design being a pre-cursor to innovation is not restricted to products. At Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Japan, the design of a low cost terminal was the catalyst for creating a whole new era in demand in the Japanese skies.

In 1995, Kansai International Airport offered passengers the choice of over 30 domestic routes. By 2010, however, that number had fallen to just 9 routes. The retreat of the major airlines, namely JAL and ANA, from the domestic market was problematic for KIX on two counts: firstly, a well connected domestic air network was necessary to service the international passenger traffic passing through KIX, and secondly, the domestic routes provided a much needed boost to airport revenues.

KIX needed to find a solution to the decaying domestic network. Prior to the start of the Peach project, the future was looking bleak for KIX. There appeared to be no clear way forward despite the range of options being considered. Amongst the ideas on the table were the purchasing of a new airline and the foray into the Low Cost Carrier (LCC) market. At this time, the LCC market in Japan was non-existent.

In 2010, KIX together with ANA commissioned a LCC feasibility study. On the basis of the investigations, it was clear that the introduction of LCCs in other regions resulted in the creation of “new demand”. For example, in the European market, 48.4 million new passengers travelled by air after LCC emerged in the region, while in the UK domestic market, 24.8 million new passengers jumped on board (see figure below). The experience in these regions was significant enough that, despite no history of LCCs in Japan, the question was being considered: would the introduction of LCC’s have the same effect on the creation of new demand in Japan as it did in other regions?


Source: Civil Aviation Authority, “No-Frills Carriers: Revolution or Evolution?” November 2006

In what constituted a brave move, KIX decided to take a gamble on the construction of Japan’s first LCC terminal. According to Kiyoshi Goto, Executive Officer at KIX:

There were risks involved in the project.  But you’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take… taking the environment surrounding the airport at that time into account, missing the opportunity presented an even bigger risk.

And so, negotiations began with Peach Aviation to construct a purpose-made LCC terminal at KIX. The project presented a number of challenges, most notably, coping with risks associated with:

  1. Pitching the LCC model in an environment which had not yet embraced the idea.
  2. The profile of the target passenger was unclear: who, if anyone, would identify with LCC model?
  3. Keeping the construction costs down in order to minimize debt and allow access to “jaw dropping fares”.

Designing a terminal to address all of the above challenges symbolized a significant change in the approach to terminal design in Japan. The LCC terminal design was targeted to mirror the “cute and cool” image of Peach Aviation and keep construction costs and construction time as low as possible. In the end, the terminal was erected in an unheard of time frame (6 months design, 11 months construction), at the lowest price per square meter of any terminal in Japan.

The Peach Project at KIX singlehandedly changed the nature of air travel in Japan. The successful design and conception of the LCC terminal at KIX allowed the Japanese people to discover a new experience in domestic travel. It opened air travel to an entirely new Japanese market: the cost conscious passenger who formerly did not travel by plane… another subtle yet elegant example of design quietly changing our lives.

Sources: sincere thanks to Kiyoshi Goto-Sama, New Kansai International Airport Company, for the numerous conversations which led to the formulation of this post. Thank you also to Peach Aviation for their permission to publish the above.