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New airport strategies: A focus on customer experience

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David Feldman, Managing Partner, Exambela Consulting, shares an open letter to the airport community, discussing recovery, strategies, and the new normal.

To my airport industry friends and colleagues,

First, I hope you and your families are well.

It takes a crisis like Covid-19 for us all to fully understand just how important family, friends, and colleagues are, and how much we take for granted like the simple, everyday interactions with those we live and work with.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that humans need to connect. Technology is great and can tick a lot of boxes, but it has its limits. There is no substitute for physical presence and human contact.

So as the airport community tries to plot a way through these dark times, how does this lesson translate into your airport’s strategies for survival and – fingers and toes crossed – a speedy recovery? The answer is: in several ways.

Despite all the buzz about new realities, airports are primarily a people business, especially during this time of no-touch, socially distant hygiene measures. An airport’s primary mission hasn’t changed – it’s still to provide a safe, secure journey through the terminal. But also, in this time of increased airport competition and decreased commercial revenue, airports need to create a customer experience that makes people feel valued and even makes them smile. After all, a happy customer is a profitable one.

So, in implementing Covid-19 safety measures, perhaps airports can differentiate their approach by not being overly heavy-handed and by adding empathy into this serious business in ways which might surprise and delight. For example, airport communications and IT departments might be tasked with coming up with cool, clever video or mobile messaging concepts – not just to inform people about the new procedures in place in the terminal, but also to underline the message: “Welcome back – we missed you.”

OPEX needs to be slashed at most airports, but customer service training for all customer-facing airport employees has become more important than ever. We can learn how to smile from behind the mask. Airports would do well to look at some famously people-focused companies that have been particularly innovative in “creating magic” for their guests in the age of contactless interactions and social distancing, such as the work Disney is doing in reopening its theme parks.

In terms of social distancing, we also need to recognise how Covid-19 is transforming airport operations (at least until we have improved testing technologies and/or globally deployed vaccines), which means transforming airport space and time. According to a recent Eurocontrol report, implementing Covid-19 hygiene measures (including social distancing) will require:

  • 50% more space at check-in
  • 100% more space at security control
  • 35-50% more space at boarding gates
  • 100% more space at immigration
  • and 30-50% more space for baggage reclaim.

This adds up to 10 minutes extra time to the departing passenger’s journey – time in the terminal that can be used to help make customers feel welcome and safe.

And, while digital technologies are exciting, they are essentially enablers of what airports have always done. As I’ve spoken about before, no one will love your airport just because it has good Wi-Fi and high hygiene standards. These have to be part of an airport’s core offering, not the offering itself.

We are in an unprecedented crisis, so the airport customer experience will change. Airport CEOs need to make clear to passengers and staff that airports are safe places. But – and this is where new and innovative thinking is required – they should also make clear that airports are happy places, perhaps even symbols of hope for the time when our customers no longer need to face worry about quarantines, last-minute travel restrictions, and all the other uncertainties we face in these times.

Finally, now is not the time to lose sight of our customers. Although much has changed, much has also stayed the same – airports still need to focus on improving the customer experience, strengthening the brand and competing on excellent service. In fact, these pre-Covid-19 competitive differentiators that focus on an airport’s customers have become more important than ever – they just need to be recalibrated to the new reality.

I wish you well, David

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