Passenger Experience

Can airports provide ‘insanely great’ wayfinding experiences?

by Andrew Cave | ar.cave@qut.edu.au

Intuitive Navigation Image.001

There is beauty when something works and it works intuitively
— Jonathan Ive

Of the wide range of factors that influence a passenger’s time in the airport terminal, a key consideration is the passenger’s experience with wayfinding. As a departing passenger, the overriding focus is to get to the correct boarding gate on time. This is crucial not only for passengers, but also for the airport and airlines.

The composition of the modern airport terminal doesn’t always make passenger wayfinding easy. Passengers are tasked with the overhead of finding check-in, security and customs, and subsequently finding their way through retail areas and get to the correct boarding gate before their flight departs. The effect of passengers who are unable to find their boarding gate on time affects not only the airline and airport that they may have wayfinding issues in, but also other airports downstream.

Wayfinding is complicated, with passengers of varying levels of prior airport experience and wayfinding ability, and multiple environmental elements within the airport that can assist, or confuse passengers. For airports, installing and maintaining signs and other wayfinding systems in not cheap, nor is it a small undertaking. Heathrow estimates it would cost approximately 10 million pound to upgrade wayfinding within the airport. Wayfinding upgrades Dubai airport required changing over 1500 signs. Surprisingly, the projects are undertaken with relatively limited knowledge available about what enables effective wayfinding.

Previous research on how passengers navigate has been largely based on studies which use surveys or questionnaires. With new technology, it has become possible to capture the passenger navigation experience in more detail than ever before. In research currently under way at the PAS Lab, we are using state of the art eye-tracking technology to investigate how passengers navigate through the airport. The project is focussed on analysing the eye tracking footage and talk-aloud protocols from 44 passengers using the departures section of two Australian International Terminals.

Through the use of Tobii eye tracking, we have been able to discover that passengers with high levels of airport experience navigate more intuitively (making fast, correct and semi or non-conscious decisions) than unfamiliar passengers. Those with little previous airport experience, or who have never flown internationally before, often had to spend time searching for what to do, and where to go.

With increasing numbers of inexperienced passengers, particularly as developing countries increase in wealth, airports will need to ensure that they enable passengers to use the airport easily and efficiently. We now have the methods and technology to analyse how people navigate through the airport, and ways to identify how to improve the wayfinding experience. Future airports have the potential to go from providing adequate wayfinding to ‘insanely great’ wayfinding.

Source: thanks to Andrew Cave for this post. Andrew is the key researcher on the Tobii wayfinding project at PAS Lab. Further reading about the project can be found at Passenger Familiarity and Intuitive Navigation within Airport Enviornments.

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