How has Birmingham Airport improved the passenger experience?
We’ve spent a lot of our shareholders’ money to upgrade and facilitate passenger journeys – we put the customer at the heart of everything we do. People may laugh but we take our inspiration from The Walt Disney Company – they are one of the most successful people-moving businesses in the world. You go to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, USA, for example, and you are processed from the moment you arrive until you leave; the service is brilliant and that is because they put the consumer at the heart of what they do.
So we thought, how does an airport do that? The consumer has an expectation from the moment their door closes at home to the moment the aircraft door closes that their journey is going to go smoothly and if anything goes wrong, we (the airport) get the blame. We have looked at how we can use technology and ‘re-program’ our staff to improve the passenger experience.
We have completed some physical projects: we’ve lengthened the runway to give us global capability, which was a £65m (US$93m) project; we’ve moved a road to facilitate the runway; and we’ve built a new control tower. We’ve also built a new international pier, we’re building new passenger lounges, investing in the retail experience and continuously updating the security experience because people hate queuing. We’re looking at how we manage those queues, and recognize that regulations are increasing all the time and we have to bring new equipment in. We’ve burned our way through £300m (US$429m) in eight years and we’re already seeing a payback on some of those investments. We’ve seen passenger growth from 8 million in 2010/2011 to 11 million in 2015/2016, and that brings great economic activity to our region.
How have passenger demands evolved?
Passengers want shorter queues and better facilities. They expect more service for their money. If you go back to the low cost revolution when Ryanair was starting out, they offered a 25p fair to Europe and it got people flying. However, the people who were doing those journeys, who may have been backpackers for example, are now moving up the value chain – they’re no longer backpackers, they’re businessmen and women, and they no longer want the service they had back then. The value proposition has moved and passengers expect allocated seating and free hold baggage, etc.
Technology has also had an impact – everyone is using a mobile phone and we need to work out how to use technology passively to improve the journey. How can we change consumer behavior so they feel they’ve got something out of using technology – a reward or better service – and what do I get back from it so we can improve our business?
The consumer will continue to want more because we’ve given them more – and the challenge is working out what more they want. I travel the world to see what else is available and it is clear that the UK is still operating largely on a model that was designed 20 years ago; we need to go beyond the technology we’re employing now because I think the consumers will expect more and those that are prepared to pay extra will get a dedicated personal customer experience.
How are you operating the airport differently to accommodate these changes?
We manage our business differently to others – seven years ago we managed the airport from different locations, now we have pulled that back into one location with a backup location off-site. The dynamics in the operations room
has changed, with everyone working together, which makes us far more effective as an airport than we ever
were before. The next stage is putting in technology that will allow a gate-to-gate approach. I’m hugely optimistic about the future but there are lots of hurdles along the way.
Which airports do you take your inspiration from?
I was recently on a family holiday to New Zealand and had a really great experience at the four airports I visited – Wellington, Queenstown, Christchurch and Auckland. The three departing airports had remote check-in and the process was so slick. Munich Airport, in Germany, is also great – they have a massive terminal but have managed to disperse the queues because there are so many access points for passengers.
We as an industry have effectively put the airport processes in the consumers’ home on their computers, printers or their phone – they don’t need to interact with the check-in desk in the terminal. But there are people within the industry still encouraging us to build check-in desks and I think that is a thing of the past. I think 90% of the airport will become self-service in the future, and we’re seeing this at some airports around the world.
How important is intermodality in addressing capacity constraints in the UK?
Consumers want the utmost convenience all the way along their journey and I think improving intermodal transport will be key. We haven’t got there yet as a country – Germany has, France is on its way, but we’re not there yet.
Birmingham Airport is on the main line with 10 express trains an hour to main cities around the UK, so why wouldn’t passengers want to jump on a train at, say, Milton Keynes having checked-in at that station, and walk straight through the airport? In Hong Kong they have the downtown check-in and it’s not beyond the wit of technology to be able to do that here.
The debate over another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick isn’t actually the answer to the UK’s capacity problem and I think Sir Howard Davies has ignored the importance of ground connectivity in his report on airport capacity. By improving ground connectivity, we could open up more airports to more city pairs all around the world.
Outside of the Heathrow/Gatwick runway debate, what conversations are you having with local and national government about how to persuade more airlines to move their services away from the southeast? We are talking to a series of airlines who say they want to grow in the UK as they still see us as an important market. Birmingham Airport now has a daily Emirates A380 service to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, so that airline is looking at increasing its services at airports outside of Heathrow and Gatwick.
I hope that other airlines can recognize that if we can get the ground infrastructure right, we can attract back the people leaving our airport and going to Heathrow, and show that people can access the world market through Birmingham. We need to change the behavior of passengers and encourage them to use alternative airports to those in the southeast; this would not only benefit our local economy but the country as a whole and ensure the UK is still seen as accessible.
What does the future look like for UK aviation?
The uncertainty of ‘Brexit’ (the possibility of the Great Britain leaving the European Union) in the short term and what might follow is a real concern for everyone. My own personal view is that the two largest airlines in Europe would not exist if it had not been for the deregulation of the European air market – EasyJet and Ryanair have truly transformed the European aviation scene, and they are both children of that European experimentation in deregulation. To meddle with the European market would be very challenging, but I think overall there is positivity for the future of our industry.
April 1, 2016