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OTHER ARTICLES Last modified on July 16, 2018

People Matters

Terri Morrissey and Richard Plenty provide their thoughts on the importance of empathy for the passenger experience.

Enhancing the passenger experience is a worthy objective for anyone working in an airport.  But what does it actually mean?

Passengers come in many shapes and sizes, with differing tastes, expectations and needs. Some just want to minimise their interaction with the transit part of travelling to get to their destination as quickly as possible without any fuss.

Others wish to savour every minute of their experience, lingering in the luxury goods emporia, sipping exotic cocktails, experiencing foot massages, indulging in exciting sights and sounds. Romantics, pragmatists, grumps …all travel through airports.

This provides quite a challenge. Understanding how people who may be very different from ourselves feel – and being prepared to modify our own attitudes and behaviours accordingly – requires empathy. Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective is important if we are to improve their travel experience.

Recently, both authors have had personal experiences of what it is like to be a ‘Person of Restricted Mobility’ (PRM). For one of us, the cause was a broken ankle; for the other, a hip operation.

‘Walking in the other person’s shoes’ never became more relevant! What an impact it made. A simple trip to the bathroom, making a cup of coffee or even a visit to the local supermarket required planning, effort, and inventiveness. Let alone international travel.

We found we had become part of a community of people in similar circumstances. Walking stick users, people with crutches, zimmer frames and electric mobility scooters, generally acknowledged us cheerily with a nod, a smile or a wave of recognition. Neither of us had noticed before how many of us there were.

The response of the general population was more variable. Some offered assistance when we couldn’t negotiate swinging doors or getting into taxis; others ignored us. We asked ourselves: should we have to experience what it is like to have reduced mobility to empathise with those who live these lives every day? Is it possible to really understand something without experiencing it personally? Well, yes, we believe that it is possible.

It starts with empathetic design. It is not beyond the wit of woman or man to design environments for those permanently or temporarily incapacitated who still want or need to travel. It should be possible to say goodbye to escalators that are so fast or steep you can’t get on or off easily; to provide seating on the long interminable walks to distant boarding gates; to loosen up stiff, unyielding doors that can’t be opened; or to have other options than to climb wet, rickety steps in windy conditions on the tarmac.

And… the human touch is as important. Empathic skills can be learnt and become habits. Every passenger should be considered as an individual with their own unique personal needs. A helping hand, a smile and small acts of kindness make a huge difference.

As we found for ourselves.

Arrivals and departures

Dick Benschop has succeeded the retiring Jos Nijhuis as CEO of the Royal Schiphol Group, operator of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Benschop was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the second Dutch cabinet led by Prime Minister, Wim Kok, From 1998 to 2002. He says: “Schiphol is a special place and a wonderful company that I have worked for previously. I am really looking forward to the opportunity of leading one of the most dynamic organisations in the Netherlands.”

Judy Ross has officially become the assistant director of aviation for Mineta San José International Airport after holding the role on an interim basis for close to a year. Since joining SJC in 2015, Ross has played a key role on the management team in leading the design and construction activities of numerous safety, security, and customer-service capital improvement projects totalling over $50 million.

Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport has announced that Mathieu Claise has been appointed director of government and public affairs and will be in charge of creating and maintaining close relations with the various communities in the greater Québec City region.

JFK International Air Terminal, LLC (JFKIAT), the operator of Terminal 4 at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport has named Dutchman, Roel Huinink, as its new CEO. Huinink, an international transportation executive with two decades of leadership in business development, commercial management and marketing consulting, will replace Gert-Jan de Graaff
on August 1.

Meanwhile in the UK, David Grant has assumed the role of managing director of Durham Tees Valley Airport and Karen Smart has been appointed managing director of East Midlands Airport. The former director of landside operations at London Stansted succeeds Andy Cliffe in the hot-seat. Charlie Cornish, Group CEO of MAG, said: “Karen Smart is an exceptional leader and with her strong track record I’m sure she will build on the great foundations that exist at East Midlands Airport.”


About the authors

Terri Morrissey is chairperson of This Is… and CEO of the Psychological Society of Ireland.  Dr Richard Plenty is managing director of This Is… and runs the ACI World Airport Human Resources programme. Contact them through

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