From transit hall to shopping mall

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How has the passenger experience progressed over the last 20 years? A whole lot really. Today’s airports look nothing like they did 20 years ago.

Non-aeronautical revenue has become the key source of income, bringing fundamental changes to the way many airports operate. Worldwide, airports have gone from being places where you go to catch a plane to shopping malls where you can incidentally also catch a plane.

The game has changed and with it the rules that dictate success. It is no longer possible to simply count on increasing traffic and streamlining processes to grow revenue. Instead airports have had to learn how to provide an overall experience that puts passengers in the mood to spend money.

How has this affected the way airports operate and has this focus on improving the passenger experience really paid off?

Shifting priorities

Over the past 20 years airports have had to undergo (and for many are still undergoing) a profound shift in mentality: making the transition from being process facilitators to becoming experience creators. And this is easier said than done.

What has made it so complicated is that historically airports have been geared toward processing passengers as efficiently as possible. Many airports are still having a hard time shifting their focus to other aspects of the passenger experience. Yet, this is absolutely necessary as processes alone do not make a great passenger experience (when was the last time you came away from an airport thinking, “Wow! That airport was great! It had the best security queue ever!”)?

The airports that have made the transition most successfully are those that have understood that you can’t and needn’t excel in all aspects of the airport experience. Rather they prioritize their efforts and limited resources according to the impact that each service has on the passenger experience.

They aim to craft well balanced experiences that leave a positive impression on passengers by:

1. Making sure that they focus most of their efforts on the basic drivers of satisfaction

2. Designing processes that keep stress levels low but without over performing in this area

3. Providing additional services (note that these come last and will only perform well if the drivers and processes are well managed)

The ROI of a great passenger experience

Achieving the switch in mentality is complicated but worth the effort. Airports that understand what their passengers want and provide an experience that matches it are able to influence passenger travel and consumption habits.

Indeed, our research has shown that an airports most satisfied passengers:

• Spend 10% more time at the airport

• Are twice as likely to shop

• And will spend 7% more on duty paid retail and 20% more on duty free

And this has a direct impact on the bottom line. Airports that have been able to increase satisfaction levels year on year by 0.1 (on a 5 point scale) have on average benefited from an increase of US$0.80 in terms of non-aeronautical revenue per enplaned passenger.

What about the next 20 years? The focus on increasing non-aeronautical revenue is only going to get stronger. And data shows that there is still a lot of room for airports to progress in terms of providing the sort of commercial experience that passengers want.

So after becoming experience creators, airports will need to learn how to also be shopping mall managers, playing an increasingly strong role in managing their commercial experience and understanding the mechanics of their sales experience. The battle for creating the airport experience of the future will be won or lost on an airport’s ability to understand who its passengers are and how they want to experience their airport.

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, James is now in charge of marketing & communication for DKMA and regularly travels to airports to help them find new ways to improve satisfaction levels. You can learn more about maximizing satisfaction levels at

December 2, 2014

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