Passenger Experience

Terminal Schizophrenia


Today, just about every airport has as their mandate to be the “best”. But what does this actually mean? Does it even make sense for every passenger terminal to strive to be shinier, bigger, faster and offer more retail opportunities than the next?

In the race to be the best, airport terminals are slowly developing a case of “terminal schizophrenia”. In this state confusion, terminal buildings are trying to be everything to everyone… and instead risk being not enough to too many. Take, for example, the concurrent strategies of retail expansion and automation:

“The trend towards automation and streamlining the core passenger journey is reducing pre-departure time requirements, and therefore potentially cutting passenger spend in the airport… passengers say they will be willing to spend even more time and money in the airport if airports can provide inspiring leisure options and a competitive, enticing retail offering.”

Reinventing the Airport Ecosystem, Amadeus

These strategies suggest that the terminal be designed for passengers to spend less time in the building (automation), while necessitating that they spend more time in the building (retail expansion). These inconsistent goals often result in confusion, as is exemplified in many terminals right now: like me, you have probably disembarked from a long flight, feeling like nothing but a shower but instead being directed to enjoy an “ambient shopping experience”. Naturally, there is a place and time for this design strategy, however, it is not applicable in all airport situations. Just like passengers, airport terminals have distinct personalities.

 Passenger Terminal Personality Types

  1. The In & Out Commuter Terminal. The In & Out terminal services commuters primarily travelling on short-haul flights. The passengers at these airports travel with little, or no, checked baggage and are usually not accompanied by wavers (non-travelling companions). Passengers travelling from an In & Out terminal suffer mild consequences if they miss their flight as another one is likely to depart in an hour or so. The In & Out terminal sees passengers at their freshest. For these terminals, speed is a primary focus: IATA’s vision of fast travel is most realizable at an In & Out terminal, as are various self-service automation solutions. Other than “grab and go” style eateries, shopping is generally misplaced at the In & Out terminal.
  2. The Long Haul O&D Terminal. The Long Haul Origin and Destination terminal sees off and welcomes passengers travelling on longer haul flights (7hours+). Most international flights from Australia fall into this category. Passengers usually have checked-baggage, and are more anxious about missing their flight, as there may not be another for a day or longer. The Long Haul O&D terminal sees passengers at their most anxious and exhausted. For these terminals, speed is not as critical as for the In & Out terminal as passengers generally allocate longer airport dwell times (the risk of missing an outbound flight from Australia has much more severe consequences than missing a flight between London and Paris, for example). Friendly service and sit down food outlets have a higher priority at these terminals, both due to longer flight times and the presence of wavers. For logistical reasons, extended shopping facilities are also misplaced at this terminal, as passengers will need to carry anything they purchase during the remainder of their flight, which may include a transfer at another airport terminal.
  3. The Transfer Super-Terminal. The transfer super terminal is the blingy brother: water slides, amusement parks, shopping malls, rainforest experiences… these belong in the Transfer Super-Terminal. This terminal sees a captive audience of bored passengers looking for ways to fill time. Passengers are not accompanied by wavers, and usually have multiple hours between flights. Services that alleviate boredom and exhaustion (showers, massages, pedicures) and various entertainment options (music, movies, swimming pools) are best placed at these terminals*. Shopping serves as an interesting distraction, the major obstacle to converting browsing to spend being the inconvenience of carrying purchases on board and onwards at the destination airport. This of course could be resolved by providing gate-check in facilities for shopping, however, I have not seen this offered in a hub terminal to date. The main challenge for the Super terminals lies in managing the wayfinding issues as terminals become physically monstrous in size.
  4. The City Life Terminal. The City Life terminal is both an airport and a major transport hub for the city. Busses, trains, and other modes of transport are all co-located at the City Life terminal, making the terminal a place that is frequented by both air-travellers and local commuters. This type of terminal generally exists in European cities, as these tend to have the most well developed pubic transport infrastructures.  As the City Life terminal services commuters and air-passengers, the provision of extensive landside “shopping mall” facilities is a natural choice. The challenge for these terminals is to manage the landside/airside split for passengers: as most of the attractions are located landside, and there is a higher chance that travellers are accompanied by wavers, there is motivation for passengers to spend most of their time landside. Automation and fast processing is therefore important for the City Life terminal.

Thinking of passenger terminals in terms of their distinct personalities may lead to healthier, less confused buildings… and ultimately, happier and more satisfied passengers.

* Changi Virgins series of videos on YouTube provides a comedic take on the facilities on offer at many Super Terminals.

Passenger Experience

Form Follows… Workflow


M.C. Esher’s “Relativity”

The form of the passenger terminal building is shaped by many influences. Available real estate, budgetary constraints and the size of aircraft servicing the terminal all contribute to the eventual geometrical layout of the building. In addition to these factors, the physical architecture of the terminal building is also heavily constrained, or influenced, by the business logic surrounding passenger processing. These logical/business processes are directly reflected in the layout of the terminal building. An excellent example of this can be found in the stairwells of Zurich International Airport (ZRH).

Following Switzerland joining the Schengen countries in 2009, ZRH underwent a major expansion and refurbishment project. A key focus of the project was to make accommodations for the processing of Schengen and non-Schengen passengers.

Passengers arriving at ZRH may have begun their trip in either a Schengen or a non-Schengen country. On deplaning at ZRH, passengers could be terminating in Zurich (Schengen), or transiting to another airport (either Schengen or a non-Schengen). Of the transit passengers, those travelling to a “One Stop Security” (OSS) destination need not have the in-transit security check.


Figure 1: The physical design of Pier B at ZRH is a direct reflection of the underlying logic associated with processing Schengen and non-Schengen passengers
Source: Zurich Airport, “Reconstruction of Pier B” (used with permission)

Logically, this gives rise to five possible scenarios for processing arriving passengers, namely (Figure 1):

  1. Schengen to Schengen
  2. Schengen to non-Schengen
  3. Non-Schengen to Schengen
  4. Non-Schengen to non-Schengen (OSS)
  5. Non-Schengen to non-Schengen (non-OSS)

Each of the above processing scenarios is associated with different immigration (visa) and security requirements. Hence, the arrivals process would differ depending on which of the above scenarios held for a given passenger, i.e.:

  1. Schengen to Schengen: no visa or additional security check required.
  2. Schengen to non-Schengen: visa check required, no additional security check required.
  3. Non-Schengen to Schengen: visa check and additional security check required.
  4. Non-Schengen to non-Schengen (OSS): no visa check and no additional security check required.
  5. Non-Schengen to non-Schengen (non-OSS): no visa check but additional security check required.

In order to facilitate the correct routing of passengers arriving at ZRH, the airport commissioned the construction of specialized stairwells linking the skybridge to the terminal building. The stairwells are equipped with physical switches to route arriving passengers down the correct processing path (marked as “doors” in the figure above. For example, passengers arriving from Schengen countries and terminating their trip at ZRH (scenario one above) would proceed down the path which had the immigration pathway closed (as not required) as well as the additional security pathway closed (again, as not required).

The elaborate design, construction and operation of these stairwells mirrors the complexity associated with the underlying processing logic. It follows therefore, that any simplification of this logic would likely result in a direct simplification (and thus cost reduction) associated with the architecture of the corresponding physical structures.

Source: sincere thanks to Pawel Kolatorski, formerly of Zurich International Airport, for his collaboration and insights.

Passenger Experience

The Osaka Experience


This week, I rediscovered the joys of being a tourist in a foreign land. For a few glorious days, my senses were overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, flavors and curiosities of Osaka. As I reflected on my adventures in the city with colleagues from KIX, I had a private “Eureka” moment… let’s call it The Osaka Experience.

For the last several years, I have been immersed in researching passenger experience at airports. However, my experience in Osaka reminded me of a key ingredient in the passenger experience equation that is overlooked when the lens is narrowly focused on the airport: the reason why passengers travel. Examining the psychology of the traveller outside the terminal building can be leveraged to improve their experience within the terminal. More specifically, it can be the key to influencing the expectations of future travellers – which in turn, affects satisfaction and the bottom line.

Let’s take the case of the holiday or vacation traveller. Passengers go on holidays to collect experiences. The recollection of these shared experiences lives on past the actual holiday itself, and continues to influence the experience of future travellers. Now, we know from studies of human behavior that human memory is fallible, prone to remembering only the beginning, the ending, and the highlights in between.

As passengers begin and end their travel in an airport terminal building, there is a very good chance that this is the part of their trip that they will readily recall. We know that the parts of a passenger’s vacation that are remembered indirectly shape the expectations of many future travellers through direct (word of mouth) and indirect (social media) channels.

The outbound passenger who has just finished their vacation is likely to be bursting with anecdotes and photos from their trip that they could share while waiting (bored) in the departures hall. Why not help them share their stories? Imagine an interactive giant digital wall displaying these photos and anecdotes. This would create instant engagement for the passengers waiting to board their flight, and build a repository of social capital for future travellers.

In effect, the departure hall would become the training ground for the airport’s army of social champions. Additionally, by reinforcing the highlights of the trip in the departing passenger’s thoughts, the seed for a return visit would be quietly planted.

Sources: a big “Arigato” to my wonderful hosts in Osaka – Goto-san and the team from KIX and Ando-san from All Star Osaka Walk. A special thank you to Murata-san, my generous and tireless host in Kyoto.

Passenger Experience

Leveraging Video Walls to Shape Future Airport Retail

Video wall at Vienna International Airport, April 2012 (Source: Anna Harrison)

Video wall at Vienna International Airport, April 2012 (Source: Anna Harrison)

Around the time the world stopped thinking about the Y2K crisis, I was involved in product design for a digital advertising company in the USA. During this time, we developed a blueprint for what we called the “Digital Signage Exchange”. In a nutshell, the Digital Signage Exchange was like an eBAY for buying, selling and customising advertising on a network of digital plasma screens.

An essential component of the Digital Signage Exchange was the existence of a connected digital signage network. Ultimately, this was a hurdle that AdSpace was unable to overcome at the time, as digital plasma screens were still prohibitively expensive and costly to maintain. The concept had to wait for digital signage technology to become cheaper and smaller, and for connectivity to become faster.

A decade later, Vienna Airport has unveiled their immensely cool video wall installation. The giant wall ushers travellers towards the security area creating a larger than life “mood of anticipation”. The really exciting thing about Vienna Airport’s video wall, however, is that it marks the time that the Digital Signage Exchange has been patiently waiting for: the feasibility of a large scale digital advertising network.

A digital advertising network could represent an interesting new way for airports to generate revenue. Drawing on the concepts of the Digital Signage Exchange, the digital advertising network could be utilised to remotely schedule fully customisable advertisements.

The customisation of advertisements was something that we had successfully implemented at AdSpace back in 2001. The clients’ digital advertisements were able to be remotely configured based on placement criteria. For example, it was possible to tune and schedule an advertisement (from an internet based control panel) to display prices in the local currency or language of the target digital display. This of course could take effect instantly, effectively reducing the roll out time of an advertising campaign to zero.

Since 2003, AdSpace, the company that the Digital Signage Exchange concept was borne at, has morphed into AdSpace Networks. The “Coolsign” technology which we developed to power the signage exchange is owned by Haivision Network Video. Today there are also a few more players in the digital advertising space, however, as far as I know, a large scale Digital Signage Exchange has not yet been rolled out.

With the trend towards new technologies such as OLED, powerful connected video walls, and fully digitised airport terminals, the infrastructure necessary to create an “advertising exchange” is in place. An advertising exchange represents an interesting component which could be leveraged to shape future airport retail… generating revenue while optimising terminal footprint, and concurrently contributing to a personalised passenger experience.


Harrison, J. and Andrusiewicz A. (2004), A virtual marketplace for advertising narrowcast over digital signage networks, Electronic Commerce Research and Applications.

Passenger Experience

Lanterns shed new light at Xi’an Xianyang?


Although I have not yet been there, I am sure that Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is a very pleasant place in which to spend the requisite pre-flight wait period. I am also certain that the various features, and specifically the 8 new historically inspired lanterns which have been crafted to give the airport a “sense of place” are an architectural success (The essence of Xi’an embodied in an extraordinary shopping experience). What I am less sure about, however, is the claim that the creation of “sense of place”, through the installation of said Lanterns, will generate increased passenger spend.
The notion that passengers value “sense of place” has almost the quality of a Chinese whisper in airport industry circles. It could be that investing “quite significant” amounts of money to create a sense of place comes more from a position of adopting the status quo, rather than from any hard evidence based on “following analysis of customer behavior”.
In the last 18 months I have spent hours interviewing passengers at Brisbane International Airport. Based on this data, I can report that, to date, not one of my interview subjects has initiated references related to “sense of place”, or indeed any architectural features. Passengers speak of their experience almost exclusively in terms related to strategies to tame an unfamiliar environment, over which they have little control.
It is possible that a significant investment in lanterns will lure the passenger to spend more while at Xi’an Xianyang International Airport … I would bet, however, that a better result would be achieved from investments targeted at reducing uncertainty, rather than creating a “sense of place”.
Reference: The essence of Xi’an embodied in an extraordinary shopping experience, Future Travel Experience post, 31 January 2013

Passenger Experience

Bypassing “The Waiting Place”


Last year over five billion people travelled by air. Each one of these people arrived at the airport and made their way through the necessary stages of waiting; check-in, security, customs, boarding. On average, each passenger will have spent 42 minutes doing nothing but waiting. Not eating or reading or relaxing, just waiting. Have you ever wondered what travel would be like if you could bypass all that waiting?

If we can reduce the average wait time from 42 minutes down to 39 minutes, reduce it by a seemingly insignificant 3 minutes, we would have saved travellers worldwide about 28,000 years  – last year alone. The insignificant becomes significant … figuring out exactly how to do this is the focus of my work: the themes of which I will be sharing with you in this blog.

The above is an excerpt from AIRPORTS – WHERE YOU GO TO WAIT, The Science Show on ABC