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MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS Last modified on October 10, 2012

Great expectations

How do airports manage growing customer service expectations? Joanne Paternoster investigates.

If you ask passengers what they generally expect to experience at an airport, more often than not their response will include: long queues, obtrusive security measures, unfriendly airport staff, dirty restrooms, uncomfortable gate areas, plenty of hassle, and absolutely no fun!

This may have become a global airport stereotype, but more and more progressive and well-rated airports are challenging and redefining the new "customer excellence" normal for airports.

There has been a significant change in the way airports view their customers in the last 15 years. It was not all that long ago that many airports viewed the passengers as the airlines' customers, and the airlines as the airport's customers. Today, airports have become very sophisticated and creative in their commitment to customer excellence.

Their definition of customers has become quite expansive, which has been a huge benefit for the travelling public, those who come to the airport to meet and greet them, and those who live near or work at or with the airport, all of whom are today's airport customers.

A basic tenet of customer experience management dictates that when the customer experience exceeds the customer's expectations, the customer is surprised or thrilled.

Conversely, when the customer's expectations exceed their experiences, they are very disappointed.

Unfortunately, customers' expectations are a moving target, influenced by all sorts of stimuli, both real and perceived. Therefore,  to maximise customer satisfaction with the airport experience, airports are improving their performance across the entire service delivery  chain while simultaneously managing their customers' expectations.

The following pages outline some strategies that can  influence customer expectations before, during and after the  'airport experience'.

Information is power and puts customers in the pilot's seat!

How many times have you heard a frustrated customer lament, "If I only knew?" Armed with information, customers are empowered to chart a more pleasurable course.

Informed customers feel they are more in control of their experience and are happier customers, translating into less stress for them, the airport and its staff. The icing on this cake includes increased airport revenues!

To quote a 2010 study conducted by JD Power and Associates, a well-known US customer satisfaction/market research firm, "happy passengers are super spenders in the terminals".

That's just one reason why airports are using a myriad of ways to provide their customers with timely information that helps them to better understand what to expect. They include airport websites and social media.

Many airports use their websites to establish a more personal relationship with their customers. These websites have a personality that often mirrors the airport's approach to servicing the customer.

They are portals to all sorts of travel information that can  facilitate the customer's use and enjoyment of the airport and  its services.

In addition to the usual information about flight status, directories, amenities and advisories, airports use the web to solicit customer feedback as well as push information to the customer to better understand the airport's brand.

Many airport websites offer services that can be booked online, such as reserved parking or meet and greet services (see Dubai International Airport's Marhaba – welcome in Arabic – service.

An excellent example of managing expectations can be experienced on Boston Logan International Airport's website, where a virtual tour in multiple languages familiarises arriving passengers with airport facilities, processes and roadways before the customer reaches the airport.

As airport websites evolve to match the fast pace and preferences of today's travellers, they are now being 'mobilised' as airport apps so customers can 'connect' with their airport of choice any time and anywhere through their iPhone, Android, Blackberry or iPad.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is launching a new mobile application early next year, and is using its airport website to identify qualified beta testers to test the app before it launches – an excellent example of walking the customer-centric talk!

Social media has changed customer expectations in very dramatic ways. Today, customers expect to get answers to their questions  24/7 on their preferred online platform.

Customers constantly go online to get information, to learn about the experiences and opinions of other customers, and to acquire products and services, and they expect airports to respond accordingly.

Social media is a great communicator but an even better influencer. Many airports have embraced social media and are capitalising on this growing phenomenon to establish an even more intimate relationship with their customers that is omnipresent and two-way!

Other airports are treading warily and are listening to what is being said about them and reacting accordingly.

Either way, airports utilising popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are discovering new ways to understand, respond to and shape customers' needs, wants and expectations.

Some social media lessons have come the hard way, with many lessons learned resulting from irregular operations. Tracking new key performance indicators, such as the number of friends on Facebook, is  not uncommon as airports adapt to today's transparent and very public communication channels.

If you haven't already done so, 'friend' or 'follow' some airports, especially your own, and don't forget to check out what's showing now on YouTube.

People power

As Hal Rosenbluth, a publisher with HarperCollins, stated – put your people first and watch 'em kick butt!

Successfully engaging the thousands of employees who work at an airport to focus on the customers' experience, cognisant of the impact of customer expectations on their unique perception of the experience, is fundamental to customer excellence.

Countless airports have put in place website portals for employees and airport-wide programmes, in collaboration with their stakeholders and business partners, to educate, energise and recognise airport employees who 'wow' the airport's customers.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest airport, employs standardised customer service training for all airport staff in a bid to make 'ordinary' airport service 'extraordinary'.

Hartsfield-Jackson is but one airport that has recently implemented an airport-wide customer service training initiative with more than 7,000 airport trained employees. They include TSA security agents, concessions, police and fire, parking agents, customer care representatives, custodial staff and car rental employees.

The classes are taught in both English and Spanish and are based on the airport's Appearance and Behavioral Standards for all airport employees. Based on feedback from customers, service has significantly improved.

Similar to security awareness and training, the gateway's customer service training is a requirement of the airport's badging process.

Supplementing its training initiative is a 'surprise and delight' component or making ordinary airport service extraordinary. Customer care representatives, volunteers and operations staff have fanny packs that include small trinkets such as airport wings, bandaids, tissues, colouring books and crayons, and 'Be our guest' cards to distribute to passengers.

The 'Be our guest' card has a $10 value to be redeemed at any airport concession, and can be given to customers to enhance their experience.

Nashville International Airport's, Flying Aces volunteer programme is a cost-effective, but priceless, way to delight or de-stress customers.

Individuals who volunteer their time are rare in today's fast-paced, busy world, but many communities have highly motivated people who are no longer in the active workforce, have much to contribute and who enjoy serving others.

Airports that are so blessed have capitalised on this important and dedicated asset to shape customer expectations by answering customer questions, assisting with way finding, managing queues and putting a friendly face on what can sometimes be a stressful experience.

One such robust community resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Since 2000, the Flying Aces, a volunteer group of 120 men and women, have been sharing their spare time to make the travelling experience more pleasant.

They are easily spotted in their ruby red vests or blazers and can be seen throughout the airport at entrances, security checkpoints and baggage claim. They enjoy what they do and customers often respond in kind!

Holistic customer service strategy and messaging

This can best summarised as a branded approach, integrating Information, people, technology and services.

Airports Company South Africa's (ACSA) airports are highly rated by passengers in ACI's ASQ customer satisfaction survey. Indeed, last year ACSA was inducted into ACI's Role of Excellence.

ACSA owes its success to doing many things well, not the least of which includes a consolidated and strategic approach to service excellence. To support its strategy, ACSA implemented its multi-tiered iHELP programme to address customer priorities, and its services and customer-centric messages are pervasive at ACSA's airports.

Their iHELP agents exemplify ACSA's customer caring approach as they assist customers on the front-line. In addition, iHELP posters throughout the airports welcome customers to share their airport experience with the airport team and the airport responds expeditiously.

Customer feedback from a broad range of channels including SMS, websites and social media is immediately shared with service providers utilising 'Viewing Deck' WHERE `id` = an application developed to track responses and trend customer feedback.

Even customers who do not utilise iHELP are subliminally influenced as they note iHELP's actualisation in the field. ACSA's holistic approach facilitates cohesive, consistent service excellence delivery across all customer touch points at each of its airports.

Empathetic or emotionally intelligent signs

Airport wayfinding continues to be identified by many airport customers as a top, but underperforming, priority. Improving wayfinding through intuitive airport design and enhanced signage is an opportunity to both surprise customers while shaping their expectations.

Additionally, emotionally intelligent signs – where applicable – allow airports to form an emotional bond that resonates with the customer. Daniel Pink, an author and self-professed sign buff (www.danpink.com) is an excellent resource to benchmark the use of emotionally intelligent signs that demonstrate empathy on the part of the service provider or encourage empathy by the user.

Many airport customers do not expect emotionally intelligent signs and they are often delighted to experience them.

Signs that indicate walking distances, time to destination, length  of queue, wait time for the next train, or that explain (often cleverly)  why the customer should comply with an airport rule – or that the airport understands how the customer feels – are examples of empathic signage.

Whether static, virtual, or trendy 'avatars' like Libby at Newark Liberty International Airport, Carla at Boston Logan, or John at Manchester Airport (pictured on previous page), they let customers know that the airport cares and they help customers relax, better understand, and appreciate the service being provided.


These are but some of the ways that airports are bringing service excellence to new altitudes. Although many significant strides have been made, as airports enhance service levels, customer expectations are reset.

As customer's experience new services, new technologies, new amenities and 'customer hugs' elsewhere, their expectations are changed once again.

Service excellence is as much an attitude as it is a continuous improvement strategy and airport operators are best positioned to lead the way for their airport.

Singapore Changi has superbly verbalised its customer service philosophy in a way that resonates with customers and guides its business partners and airport staff.

It states: "Every day, we set to create an airport experience that's second to none. One that's filled with clever ideas to delight the young and old, thoughtful conveniences for smooth, stress free travel, and warm personal service every minute of the day. So whichever seat the passengers are on in the sky, here at Changi Airport, the feeling is first class."

Changi is but one of the airports that is delivering on its promise, and customer response has been 'wow'!

About the author

Joanne Paternoster is a customer service consultant specialising in the unique challenges confronted by the aviation industry. She can be reached at .

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