Design, Passenger Experience

On destinations and gratitude

Street Art by Scampi, New Zealand |

Street Art by Scampi, New Zealand |

I have reached the end of the academic endurance event that I have been pursuing for the last 3+ years at QUT, Australia. Although the race was mine, there were a number of amazing people that I met along the way who helped me at pivotal times during this research.

If we shared a conversation at a conference in the last three years, exchanged ideas via email, had a chat walking the corridors of an airport terminal, or connected in any way, please accept my sincere thanks… I have learned, been inspired and discovered my passion. I look forward to continuing to share research and lessons about how to create meaningful and profitable experiences – both in, and out, of the airport – right here at inPlaneTerms.

…There are, however, a number of exceptional persons who have had a direct influence on the direction and quality of this research. My supervisory team at QUT’s School of Design, Prof Vesna Popovic and Dr Ben Kraal, have been unshakeable in their support since the start of my PhD journey. Their high standards and integrity, and weekly doses of inspiration were instrumental to the completion of this work and the ultimate form that it took. Thanks also to Dr Tristan Kleinschmidt, who was part of the supervisory team in the early phase of this journey.
The learning curve associated with the aviation industry is extremely steep. I am very much indebted to the generosity of the following industry experts who helped to flatten the gradient of this curve: Steve Tarbuck (CPH), Pawel Kolatorski (ZRH), Kiyoshi Goto (KIX), Kickie Hiller and Lars Forssell (ARN), Sek Min Foo (SIN), Teresa Motley (LAS), Shreemen Prabhakaran (DXB) and Geoff Hehir (BVN Architects). In particular, I am grateful for their hospitality, frank insights and shared passion for innovation and unorthodox thinking.
The data collection for this research was made possible through a joint ARC research project (LP0990135). Thanks to the collaboration of the partners, I was able to call Brisbane International Airport my working laboratory for over a year. In particular, thank you to Kelly Wilkes, Dennis Krause and Adrian Bannister from Brisbane Airport Corporation for their help and insightful feedback. Thanks are also due to the 199 participants who shared their stories and airport experiences with me.

Anna Harrison, Principles of Experience Design in Airport Terminals

Passenger Experience

Can airports provide ‘insanely great’ wayfinding experiences?

by Andrew Cave |

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.

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

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

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.

Passenger Experience

Biggest Passenger Fear: “Will I make my flight?”


As part of my research at Brisbane International Airport, I have been interviewing departing passengers.  In the first field study, I interviewed 67 randomly selected passenger groups (168 passengers), asking them only one question:   “How was your airport experience today?”.

The question was deliberately simple, and minimally pre-emptive. This allowed for the analysis of not just the responses, but also the words that passengers used to describe their airport experience.

Although each passenger told a unique story, a number of themes were common across all passenger types, namely:

  •  “Will I make my flight?” emerged as the main fear, or risk, perceived by passengers. This risk appears independent of passenger type (experienced vs novice traveller; business vs leisure traveller).
  • Passengers mitigate this perceived risk by allocating time. They see time as a variable that they can control.
  • Passengers also use prior knowledge about the airport environment and airport processes to mitigate the perceived risk.

As the passenger makes their way through the various processing stages, the perceived risk of not making their flight decreases. Baggage drop is seen as an emotional milestone. Once the bags are checked in, the passenger perceives a significant reduction in risk. The second major milestone occurs when the passenger clears security and customs.At this stage, the perceived risk is reduced to almost zero, and the passenger becomes ready to engage the “airport experience”.

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