Airport all stars

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What should an airport look like? While all airports provide the same basic service, how is it that some are able to get it just right and provide an experience that is truly enjoyable? What is their secret?

Travelling through airports around the world I have noticed that the best have five things in common. Here is my own personal all-star team and a snapshot of what it takes to maximise airport satisfaction levels.

Excelling for basic needs

The one thing the most successful airports in the world have in common is that they focus most of their efforts on the basic drivers of passenger satisfaction. Before even thinking of providing great shopping or extra services, they make sure they excel at providing spotlessly clean facilities, great washrooms, friendly staff and comfortable, relaxing gate areas.

The airport that embodies this philosophy best for me is Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea.

Left: Incheon International Airport

A simple, stress-free experience

Once the basics are taken care of, successful airports focus on processes. For many passengers, airports are stressful places. The best airports understand this and spend a lot of effort making sure they deliver a simple, stress-free experience.

That starts with good wayfinding, long lines of sight to guide passengers and signs that stand out and can be understood in two seconds. And they keep queues short, create priority lanes to segment service according to passenger profiles and train staff to understand and proactively meet passenger needs.

The perfect airport should aim to be like Hong Kong which despite its size is able to make getting around it feel like child’s play.

Left: Hong Kong International Airport

A unique, special place

Once you have met the basic needs and have good processes, then you can focus on being unique. Flying is a special experience and great airports try to not just look or feel like any other public building. Their architecture and design embody the fun and excitement of flying from the second you get there. Beijing Terminal 3 with its instantly recognisable look is a prime example of this.

Another way of achieving this is by building on the growing trend of passengers wanting authentic, local experiences. Successful airports have understood that passengers are tired of all airports looking alike and try to be uniquely local by showcasing local artwork or providing a mix of global and local brands.

Take Elway’s Restaurant at Denver Airport. Despite a much higher price tag than the average restaurant in US airports, there is a constant queue of passengers waiting to get in because they know it is a meal they can only experience in Denver.

Left: Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3

A great place to hang out

There is nothing worse than having to face a long wait at an airport knowing there is nothing to do. The fourth characteristic successful airports have is that they are fun places to spend time and have you wishing you had gotten there earlier to have more time to explore. And they don’t equate fun with simply having more shopping. Rather they put a lot of effort into thinking about how different passenger segments like to spend time and deliver an experience that matches these expectations.

Changi International Airport in Singapore is definitely the best example of this with its world-class shopping and dining but also its huge range of free activities for passengers.

Left: Changi International Airport

A personal experience

And finally, the best airports make you feel that even though you are only one out of millions of travellers they have understood your needs and are willing to go that extra mile to make your experience better.

The washrooms in San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2 embody this mentality with their Airblade dryers set right next to the sinks and seating in front of the mirrors in the women’s washroom so passengers can freshen up after a long flight.

Left: Women’s washrooms at San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2. Image courtesy of Gensler



Excelling in one of these areas can help an airport improve satisfaction levels but in order to maximise them it is essential to be good all around, providing the sort of integrated, seamless journey that modern passengers expect.

The list of airports providing a great experience is long and there are plenty of other airports that have got it right.

Who’s on your all-star team?

About the author

James Ingram is a director at research and consultancy firm DKMA, which specialises in helping airports maximise satisfaction levels. After several years managing the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) initiative, Ingram is now in charge of marketing and communication for DKMA and regularly travels to airports to help them find new ways to improve satisfaction levels. You can learn more about maximising satisfaction levels at

February 24, 2014

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