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Airports are finding new ways to manage passenger flow and growth while keeping passengers calm and cooperative. The techniques help airlines depart on time and satisfy the needs of concessionaires, who depend on foot traffic to their shops and restaurants.

The study of passenger behavioral patterns, sometimes subconscious ones, are providing insights that airports can use to influence or ‘nudge’ passenger behavior.

Jette Girgin, senior project manager at Copenhagen Airports, says that the use of nudging principles has helped Copenhagen Airport tackle a sudden growth spurt, especially in non-Schengen traffic. The airport studied passenger interaction with the terminal space at its new international pier C, in conjunction with Danish applied behavioral science group iNudgeyou.

Clearly demarcated pathways, signs overhead and on the floor are commonly used to direct passengers in terminals. But nudging design can also extend to environmental cues that passengers respond to subconsciously.

“We devise the passenger cognitive map to describe how we work as people – all of us –whether we are conscious of that or not. We work slightly differently depending on what type of travel we are on. During the wayfinding phase, moving out onto a pier, we decide how we enter that area. It’s a subconscious thing, not something we actually control,” Girgin explains.

“The wayfinding will determine how you move on. That in turn will decide how you choose the seating and so forth, with each subsequent step – how you do your waiting, preparing for boarding, queuing and going through the pre-boarding zone – being influenced by the previous step.”

Design trials

As an example, Copenhagen Airports created a single lounge area in its non-Schengen pier to optimize room and reconfigured the seating to waste fewer seats, by nudging passengers to seats configured according to their needs. The optimal seating configurations were determined through a series of live trials, changing the layout and observing passenger behavior. The team found that passengers arrive at the gate in a certain order that relates to their traveler profile. Business travelers arrive early, and appreciate finding seats that provide power ports. Couples want to sit together and apart from the crowd. Families want to find play areas for children and be seated close by so that they can keep an eye on them.

The airport trialled seat arrangements that fit those needs, layering business passenger optimized seating with power outlets along the walls and windows. Family seating was placed in corners, around play areas. The airport added clusters of seats for couples and created a divided section for groups traveling together in which the seats were turned to face each other. The types of seats varied too, with more comfortable seating encouraging people to gather inside the area and a row of harder seats near the aisle for stragglers.

Other nudging design strategies include colored markings on the floor and larger lamps, as well as the types of monitors displaying flight information and their placement.

After the trials, the overall number of seats required was reduced by 10% by moving to a shared gate lounge for the non-Schengen area. A 10% increase in the use of available seats was also achieved by arranging seats according to passenger types.

The airport also experimented with the boarding process by setting up a nudging lab at its gate C37. CPH worked with airline stakeholders to study passenger response to various boarding process cues. Passengers traveling to the USA who needed to fill out next-of-kin forms and those needing new boarding passes for reasons of security or upgrades, were called ahead to resolve these. The result was 13.7% fewer passengers missing their next-of-kin forms. Renewing boarding passes first saved 4 minutes and 30 seconds on boarding time and a reminder to present an open passport before boarding saved 4 minutes and 47 seconds.

The airport also used visual cues on the overhead screens. Passengers were able to anticipate the next requirement without prompting. For example, when shown a video nudging for open passports, they also forwarded their boarding pass.

“The end result was a saving of 6 to 10 minutes on average,” says Girgin. “We board an A380 in 20 minutes or less, provided all the tools are used. It reduced time spent on gate operations for the airlines and results in better on-time performance. It’s a better passenger experience, less queuing and better information. All together, it’s a better use of airport infrastructure because we don’t have closed gate lounges waiting behind closed doors.”

Waypoint optimization

Christian Wroble, senior solution architect for Fraport, conducted a passenger flow study to analyze how passengers at Frankfurt Airport move through the terminal space, where and why they cluster, and why they sometimes get lost. The objective was to identify waypoints that can be optimized, and get passengers to the right gates on time.

“Over 50% of our passengers are transfer passengers and the first thing they want to do is get close to their departure area. If they have time, they then get something to drink and perhaps do some shopping. That’s only after they complete the most important steps,” Wroble says.

By studying passenger movement with airport cameras and waypoint markers, Wroble found that most passengers are oriented based on signage but can also be driven by group dynamics. During peak traffic, for example, when large groups transfer together, some people miss signage completely and follow the crowd instead.

“We have 20% of passengers missing the path and behaving differently,” he says. In the future, by guiding passengers by sending notifications to their personal electronic devices, Wroble believes the risk of passengers getting lost may decrease considerably.

The data gathered at Frankfurt also revealed other surprising passenger patterns. For example, when flights arrive from Asia, it creates a larger backlog at metal detection checkpoints because passengers wear more jewelry.

Applied data analytics and statistical measures have helped Wroble’s team supply valuable information to Fraport’s business department and contributed to the design of more reliable passenger traffic flow. The next step is to build predictability models to support long-term technical and strategic planning.

Touchpoint redesign

In an effort to tackle limits on growth, Manuel van Lijf, head of product design at Dubai Airports, has been working on a radical redesign of key passenger touchpoints such as check-in, security and boarding gates. Dubai World Central (DWC) is scheduled to open in 2025, but the facilities at Dubai International (DXB) will not grow further. However, its already large passenger thoughput, over 83 million in 2016, is expected to rise by as much

as 15% per year through 2025.

“We have to keep passengers happy until then, and we can’t build our way out of that. So we have to redesign the touchpoints as one interconnected journey, finding solutions at every point, and using technology and data in a smart way,” he says.

Touchpoint improvements deployed or under consideration include capturing passport details once, at the beginning of the journey, and transferring that information digitally to other stakeholders, to avoid the delays caused by passengers reaching for their IDs at each waypoint. Dubai has also introduced smart gates to scan passports and automate immigration, and is reviewing the use of blended check-in processes, a combination of traditional desks and self-serve check-in. The airport is looking at biometric check-in, pending the approval of stakeholders.

The airport uses overhead cameras, which capture traffic at the various passenger touchpoints to identify queues and clusters.

“It’s a great way of measuring throughput objectively,” van Lijf says. “We can verify passenger complaints. We can ask stakeholders on the ground how many desks were open and how many staff were present, for example. Those numbers are the start of our briefings to our designers. We know if we have an issue with a certain throughput and we know pretty well what to address, and how to address it.”

Satisfying benchmarks

But van Lijf emphasizes that the objective is also to keep passengers happy. To gauge passenger satisfaction, the airport uses a combination of ACI ASQ (Airport Service Quality) scores and Net Promoter Scores (NPS). While there aren’t established NPS benchmarks for airports, Dubai Airport compares its performance with airline NPS scores as well as the overlapping industries of retail and hospitality.

Using insights from these quantitative and qualitative measures, the airport has optimized its boarding gate area with seating configurations designed around the ways waiting passengers eat, sleep, socialize and work.

“We also introduced a flavor of the local culture, infused with the history and identity of Dubai at the airport,” van Lijf says. Glass screens that demarcate seating clusters, decorated by local artists, create a sense of place. “This way, even if passengers are just transferring, they get a sense of Dubai.”

Such initiatives, whether touchpoints in Dubai, waypoints in Frankfurt or nudging in Copenhagen, are helping airports improve the passenger experience and increase efficiency within existing assets.

June 15, 2017

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About Author


Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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