The desire to understand customers and assess customer experience is by no means new. In 1895, for example, Harlow Gale at the University of Minnesota used mail-in questionnaires to solicit public input on advertising. By 1910, it became clear that the new field of market research was growing, as corporations sought to build knowledge about customers and develop methods for using consumer opinions and associated marketing activities (1). Market research has a long pedigree. It is hardly surprising that market research has been applied to all aspects of organizations to understand consumer behavior, and to capitalize on knowing what customers want and, ultimately, how customers can fuel the generation of more business.
Airports have benefited from the applications of market research and the broad categorization of air passengers into specific groupings, namely by creating ‘personas’. These ‘personas’ have been used to help airport operators determine what types of services and facilities specific passenger groups value most while travelling. Airport operators have invested considerable time and effort in soliciting feedback from passengers in developing customer experience programs. These programs are often based on the categories of passengers that this type of research suggests are the most important to drive revenues and optimize passenger flow. The creation of passenger personas, then, is an inherently top-down approach to the development of customer experience initiatives and processes, where passengers ultimately have limited control of their airport journeys.
Yet, the rate at which mobile technology has transformed our airports raises important questions about control of the passenger experience. The ability for consumers to hire a car instantly, have a meal delivered anywhere, or pre-book a time to go through airport security has changed customer expectations and the emotional response people have towards products and services. Post-pandemic, passengers’ growing desire to exercise direct control of their airport journeys has also been accelerated in response to Covid-era health and safety-related requirements, with increasingly powerful digital and mobile technology being used.
Airport management groups must move beyond providing choices to passengers moving through their facilities. There is a need to further democratize the journey and enable passengers to directly personalize the experience. Hyper-personalization has the ability to put control of the journey back in the hands of customers.
Hyper-personalization of travel experiences is particularly important for demographics that do not fit neatly into traditionally established personas. Among others, this includes people with disabilities. People with disabilities represent some 16% of the global population – or one in six people worldwide (2). Combined with an aging population and better access to health care services in many parts of the world, the market potential is significant.
In the UK, for example, the combined purchasing power of Britons with disabilities is an estimated £274bn (US$333bn) (3). Similarly, in the USA, the combined purchasing power is around US$490bn per year (4). If one includes friends and relatives of persons with disabilities in this market segment, then the value of the market expands further. And while definitions of disability continue to evolve, it is abundantly clear that an aging population and those passengers who have reduced mobility (PRMs) only add to this important market.
Additionally, market conditions have changed dramatically since many of the Covid-19-era restrictions have been lifted. The significant decline in business travel, on which many airlines and airports relied for revenues, is likely to remain flat for some time. One recent report noted that business travel in Europe and the USA has slowly started to recover but faces significant challenges, including corporate sustainability mandates and higher fares in many parts of the world (5). At the same time, the remote and hybrid work trends of the pandemic era have resulted in new types of travel, namely “blended” travel that combines work and leisure. Skift Research found that 72% of business travelers from India and 50% from the USA extended their business trips for leisure purposes in the last 12 months (6).
This raises serious questions about who the passengers of the future will be and what behaviors, expectations and experiences they will demand from airports. How can airports continually enhance customer experience programs to satisfy such individualized and diverse needs?
Many airports have begun to incorporate technology to help personalize the experience for passengers with disabilities. These technologies are often wayfinding-related or help simplify the travel journey. For example, Aira is a mobile app that offers visual interpretation, enabling someone who is blind to access visual information within a terminal. This is particularly popular in the USA and Canada. While these apps are helpful, they are often introduced without a clear plan or strategy for accessibility. We call this “solutionizing” the passenger experience and it leads to a proliferation of different apps and initiatives. This approach addresses specific disability types but fails to address the systemic barriers people with disabilities face while traveling. To deliver a better customer experience, the emphasis must be on barriers as opposed to disability. To generate more non-aeronautical revenues, airports must focus on eliminating barriers instead of entirely tackling disability.
In our work at InterVISTAS Consulting, we emphasize the importance of a clear strategy for barrier-free travel. A key component of this involves identifying the barriers that exist across the airport and then developing the solutions to remove them. Hyper-personalization has a role to play in supporting more barrier-free customer experiences for this large demographic segment. In our consultation with people with disabilities, we hear frequently that the current system of support for passengers with disabilities is broken. Many airports offer a “one-size-fits-all” approach, where people with disabilities are often given a wheelchair regardless of the barriers they may encounter in their journey.
For the past two years, InterVISTAS has collaborated with NACO as ACI World’s principal research and strategy partner on the ASQ Global Traveller Survey (GTS) program. The GTS remains one of the world’s largest airport passenger-focused studies. In the latest 2022 study, 4,125 air travelers from 30 countries responded to the survey. This global research program initially tracked challenges and investigated the passenger journey in highly controlled airport environments during Covid-19. Now, in response, and related to these evolving post-pandemic times and the opportunities presented in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives, the world’s airports are currently examining ways to transform and rehumanize the airport experience for passengers.
However, the drive to rehumanize passenger journeys can only be fully achieved through hyper-personalization, inclusion and the removal of barriers for passengers with disabilities. Passengers have strongly expressed their fast-growing desire to take control of their airport journeys and seek hyper-personalized solutions now. The GTS program found that 75% of global air travel respondents sought real-time information to improve their journey, with a further 72% looking for self-service technologies at the world’s airports. Notably, 66% of global passengers in the survey looked for specific customizations dependent on their unique needs and abilities to manage their journeys. These latest insights into the world’s air travelers have direct implications for supporting the needs of all passengers. They also highlight the opportunity that hyper-personalization provides to transform airport journeys, particularly for passengers with disabilities.
We have touched on the market potential that passengers with disabilities present, and the role that hyper-personalized services can play in democratizing and transforming the airport journey into a barrier-reducing travel experience that passengers can largely control. We question the current reliance on market research and operational approaches that broadly group air passengers into a few personas and then recommend service solutions for passengers based on representing a category, not through consideration of passengers as unique individuals. In an era of increased demand to tailor services to the individual, categorizing passengers into types is becoming more challenging and incongruous. This is compounded by shifting demographics and market conditions related to air travel.
Yet, what comes after airport personas is much more difficult to predict. Clearly, market research and persona development have influenced corporate culture and organizational approaches at airports to date. Airports continue to develop passenger personas today as they have had utility in the past. But how long will the traditional categorization of passengers be relevant as we respond to overdue calls to action in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, and as we witness developments in AI, machine learning and other technologies? Approaches to customer experience and the travel journey at the world’s airports need to be as diverse, unique and individualized as the passengers they serve.
For more on accessibility at the airport, read Passenger Terminal World’s exclusive feature on how airports are reducing the stress and danger caused by poorly designed wayfinding initiatives, here
Paul Clark vice president at InterVISTAS Consulting
Clark delivers solutions in customer satisfaction tracking research, customer experience assessments, performance benchmarking, stakeholder consultation and engagement exercises, workshop facilitation, strategic planning, and tourism development. Clark has completed projects in five continents for airports, tourism and transportation organizations. In addition to his consulting experience, Clark directed a number of Tourism British Columbia’s key worldwide marketing initiatives related to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and held senior positions in strategic planning, marketing and market research for Tourism Whistler, Forbes Travel International and Vancouver Airport Authority. Clark has both a master’s and a bachelor of science (Hons) degree in Geography.
Kirk Goodlet, senior director at InterVISTAS Consulting
Kirk Goodlet is a senior director at InterVISTAS Consulting. Prior to joining InterVISTAS, Goodlet worked in the aviation industry for 10 years. Goodlet has extensive experience in strategic planning, border and security facilitation, airport accessibility and barrier-free travel, biometric technologies, and passenger experience. In addition to his work in the aviation sector, Goodlet helped establish the office of biometrics and identity management (OBIM) as part of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Goodlet serves on the board of directors for Inclusion Winnipeg and is a champion of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA). He holds a master’s and PhD from the University of Waterloo and is a designated International Airport Professional (IAP) by Airports Council International (ACI) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
- Lawrence C. Lockley, “Notes on the History of Market Research,” The Journal of Marketing volume 14, issue 5 (1950), 733.
- World Health Organization (WHO), “Disability: key facts,” 7 March 2023
- Ebunola Adenipekun, “What do disabled consumers choose to buy and why?” on Business Disability Forum (BDF) (29 June 2022).
- Michelle Yin, Dahlia Shaewitz, Cynthia Overton, and Deeza-Mae Smith, “A Hidden Market: The Purchasing Power of Working-Age Adults With Disabilities,” (April 2018).
- Deloitte Insights, “Navigating toward a new normal: 2023 Deloitte corporate travel study,” (10 April 2023)
- Skift Research, “State of Travel 2023,” (January 2023), 2/28.