Defining the passenger experience

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Left: San Francisco International’s Terminal 2 delivers one of the highest spend rates per passenger in the nation, according to SFO

“Who owns the customer?” is an often-debated question that has stimulated much discussion around the airport industry over the years. The answer is that no single entity does. Airlines, airports and many other third parties, from retailers to handling agents, all have an important role to play in every passenger’s journey. But by being the author of its own customer experience framework, an airport can heavily and positively influence the experience of its passengers and maximize the commercial and reputational benefits of doing so.

An airport’s ability to influence the type of memorable experience that its key audiences have when interacting with or travelling through its facilities can be a game-changer when it comes to optimizing the airport’s commercial performance.

Being able to describe the experience it wants its passengers to have allows retailers and other commercial operators to develop and deliver concepts and services that support the airport in delivering that vision. As a result, the airport can identify brands and partners who are a good ‘fit’ with its stated customer experience objectives. For example, an airport that truly values innovation in service delivery should demonstrate how this is embedded in its own brand ethos, and retailers should be able to see how they can deliver an extension of this through their own in-store experience. Ultimately, the outcome is a range of concepts that have been developed or adapted specifically to meet the airport’s desired customer experience.

A significant redevelopment or expansion is the ideal opportunity to undertake such an exercise. Taking the time early in the process to think about what type of experience you want your passengers to have will pay dividends later on.

Brisbane Airport in Queensland, Australia, took a strategic approach to creating a unique experience for passengers using its revamped International Terminal. In advance of its recent redevelopment, the airport went to great lengths to consider and articulate this positioning in the form of a blueprint for Brisbane Airport called ‘Going Places’. For retailers and F&B operators who were looking at tendering for concessions in the new development, it was an invaluable tool in helping them understand and interpret Brisbane’s vision and incorporate this into their business proposals.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO), in California, USA, undertook a similar exercise it called the Revenue Enhancement and Customer Hospitality (REACH) program. REACH aimed to elevate the entire passenger experience by providing an “aspirational guide” to “enhance the customer experience, drive revenue generation and bring a cohesive character to the entire airport campus”.

The result has been a series of initiatives delivered by SFO over the past two years that have set San Francisco apart from other airports. According to Doug Yakel, public information officer, communications and marketing, at SFO, the renovated Terminal 2, where the REACH principles were first applied, is now delivering “one of the highest spend rates per passenger in the nation”. Innovations such as free of charge yoga rooms and a museum have been supplemented by programs such as the ‘Wag Brigade’, which brings trained dogs into the airport over holiday periods to help de-stress passengers. Based on its success in Terminal 2, REACH was applied to the renovation of Terminal 3, Boarding Area E, which was completed last year, and underpins the development philosophy for the upcoming major renovation of Terminal 1. Just click on ‘Things to do’ on the airport’s website ( to get a clear sense of the experience SFO is aiming to deliver.

As airports such as San Francisco International have shown, delivering that distinctive customer experience can be so much more than simply adapting an existing ‘sense of place’ to the airport environment. In some markets, the culture, the natural and built environment, even the climate provide rich pickings for the country’s airport operators. This was the case in Iceland, where Keflavik International Airport’s operator Isavia was fortunate to be able to mine a rich seam when considering the type of experience it wanted to achieve for passengers using its recently completed airside redevelopment. Its efforts to communicate its intent resulted in some creative collaborations between leading global players and local experts that are highly original in their execution, such as Pure Food Hall, a delicatessen-style concept specializing in gourmet local produce, and Loksins Bar, an Icelandic-themed bar with a range of local beers on tap, both operated by LS travel retail.

However, it is possible to identify and deliver a specific type of experience even when some or all of these natural triggers are absent. Singapore Changi Airport is an airport that is repeatedly referenced as one of the best in the world by both customers and industry peers. It delivers a very distinctive Changi Airport ‘experience’ that encourages passengers to relax and explore. But it is not simply a reflection of Singapore itself; operator Changi Airport Group has created its own unique passenger experience. In fact, it could be argued that the organization has done more to influence the perception of Singapore the place, than the other way around.

By developing a very clear positioning, which can be simply communicated to each stakeholder, and easily interpreted to deliver unique experiences at all stages of the airport journey, everybody wins. If the airport and its business partners are of a shared mindset, working toward clear and common goals and delivering real commercial value, the customer gets a consistent and hopefully very distinctive airport experience.

Susan Gray is the managing director of Concession Planning International Australia. Established 18 years ago, CPI is one of the world’s leading airport commercial consultancies, specializing in airport commercial planning, strategy and management. It is also the industry’s only provider of specialist airport commercial training, with regular courses held in the UK and Australia, and bespoke courses delivered on request.

June 24, 2015

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