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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on July 6, 2014

Quality guaranteed

ACI World’s deputy director general, Craig Bradbrook, reflects on the first decade of benchmarking passenger satisfaction levels at airports.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of ACI World’s involvement in measuring and benchmarking passenger satisfaction.

Readers might be surprised to learn that prior to 2004, there really wasn’t much to offer airports that wanted to benchmark their services with other airports. IATA’s Global Airport Monitor (GAM) Survey was available, but it struggled to attract airports.

Earlier in the millennium when I was working with Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK), only about 30 airports participated in the GAM survey, and the small number of gateways involved meant that it was quite limited as a benchmarking tool.

In 2004, ACI and IATA joined forces to launch a new benchmarking programme, the AETRA Survey. It was a giant step forward, although customer airports never really understood the name AETRA.

Indeed, many thought it was an acronym, but the name was actually taken from the Latin word aethra, meaning ‘the upper air, clear sky’.

Though the choice of name served only to confuse, the jointly run programme succeeded in attracting more participating airports and grew in significance.

Hong Kong International Airport was awarded the ‘Best Airport Worldwide’ accolade in the first year of the AETRA Survey.

We [AAHK] viewed it as a major achievement at the time and a well-earned return on the considerable amount of staff time, effort and money invested over a period of three years to improve the passenger experience.

The survey programme provided Hong Kong International Airport with a methodology for measuring and understanding the passengers’ perception of the quality of service.

While we were fortunate in having a new passenger terminal, passengers were still critical of many aspects of the service provided. And those survey scores convinced us that we needed to make numerous facility improvements, including rebuilding all our passenger toilets, which were only five years old.

That was quite a capital asset write-off, but the greatly improved passenger satisfaction scores afterwards validated and vindicated the investment.

Incheon International Airport moved into the number one spot in 2005 and has enjoyed the highest average passenger satisfaction scores every year since.

It is a testimony to the pride, discipline and attention to detail that is evident at every level of the airport’s operation. But, it was probably Singapore Changi that created the airport passenger ‘experience’, and set the bar for other airports in terms of innovative passenger services and entertainment, making it the transfer hub of choice in South East Asia for many years.

The AETRA programme ended in 2005 and ACI World launched the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) Survey the following year, building on the success of the AETRA Survey.

ACI appointed DKMA SA as its sub-contractor, and that co-operation gave birth to a number of ancillary programmes, with the ASQ Regional Survey serving airports with fewer than two million passengers per year and the ASQ Unique Survey for those airports wanting a ‘one-off’ benchmark assessment.

In 2007, ACI launched the ASQ Assured Programme, which benchmarks an airport’s management approach to service quality against a business excellence model adapted for airports. It provided a ‘seal of approval’, certifying that the airport was managing service quality in line with leading practice, with a continuous improvement process culture in place that was validated by the passenger satisfaction scores from the ASQ Survey.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Abu Dhabi International Airport were the first to gain ASQ Assured certification. Austin-Bergstrom was the first airport in North America to get Assured certification, and it stands out for me as one of the best examples of customer service management execution that I have seen.

As we found in Hong Kong, measuring the perceived quality of service on its own provides an incomplete picture. One also needs to measure the actual service delivered. These two metrics used together can help airports to define service levels and drive improvements.

For example, we measured queue times at check-in, security and passport control as part of a comprehensive service delivery metric. From our analysis, we were able to determine what improvement in queuing times would be needed to achieve a desired passenger satisfaction score.

Those improvements in queuing time became a management objective and our line managers worked with the airlines and ground handlers to find ways of shortening the wait time.

This experience influenced the development of the ASQ Performance programme, which was launched in 2008. Today, it measures 16 key performance indicators using manual observations.

It is a good programme, but the fieldwork is resource-intensive. Moreover, airports consider it difficult to compare processing times with other airports since the airports might be very different in design and size and may operate under very different security regimes.

The important thing is that airports measure their actual service delivered and use that data to drive process improvement.

All this sounds rather rudimentary, but it became apparent that some airports needed training in how to optimise their use of the ASQ tools. ACI responded in 2009, launching the Managing Service Quality at Airports course, and it remains part of the Global Training offer to this day.

The most recent addition to the toolbox has been the ASQ Retail Survey. This was launched in 2012 and is designed to provide airports with more in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their retail and food & beverage offer.

The ASQ Survey provides a high-level indication of whether an airport has a problem, but does not necessary indicate the problem itself. Understanding the root causes of passenger dissatisfaction as well as the key drivers of overall satisfaction has become both a science and an art.

The statistical analyses provide the numbers, but teasing out the story and picture behind the numbers is the art in managing service quality.

And, it is fair to say that airports today have become very accomplished in both the science and art of managing service quality. Indeed, a number of airports have consistently featured in the top five of their respective categories in the annual ASQ Awards.

ACI launched the Director General’s Roll of Excellence in 2011 to recognise those airports that had been rated by passengers as being in the top five for five years or more in their regional or airport size categories.

This year Cairo, Dubai, Hyderabad, Keflavík, Montego Bay and Taipei join 23 other airports on the Roll of Excellence.

It is important to emphasise though that some of the most innovative airports do not win ASQ awards.

Often it is the smaller airports in emerging markets, where passenger expectations are easier to satisfy, that win. Look at the service innovations one sees in European airports, like the re-engineered security process at London Gatwick, the self-service baggage drop facilities in Amsterdam Schiphol, the seamless transfer experience at Munich and Zurich airports and the way London Heathrow wows the passenger with its shopping experience.

We see leading practice in every region, and that is one of the enduring legacies of the ASQ programme. First and foremost, it is a service quality benchmarking tool box designed to help airports enhance the passenger experience.

Airport service quality benchmarking has come a long way in the past ten years and the bar has been raised across the industry. The ASQ Survey results clearly show that the passenger is getting a better airport experience now than before, even with the more onerous security controls.

But what satisfies passengers today will not necessarily satisfy them tomorrow, and so airports have to understand and respond to those changing expectations. The challenge for ACI is to ensure that the ASQ Programme evolves in ways to help airports do that.

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