Guest Post: Airlines, airports and the impacts of whether they tolerate or embrace each other

airport

The world of “passenger experience” moves fast.  Well, that’s not strictly true:  it’s our way of thinking about customer experiences that’s evolving.  Whether intentional or not, customer experiences are – and always have been – there anyway.

So the challenge for airports and airlines is to build on that core functional objective of helping people and their bags be in a different place.  Passengers have a choice and a voice, both of which they will exercise in a positive or negative way depending on how it was for them.  It’s what they remember from last time that will determine what they do next time.

In that context then, I’m looking forward to making a return visit to the World Low Cost Airline Congress in September.  Last year I facilitated conversations between airports and airlines about how the way they work together affects passenger experiences, how it can be utilised to take out unnecessary costs and increase crucial revenue.  However, I had the distinct feeling that despite the commercial reliance on each other, these two protagonists were more like flat-mates who tolerate each other rather than a couple making a healthy marriage work.

Will the relationships be the same 12 months on?

In the meantime, the challenges that have been thrown at the industry in the last few months will do nothing to ease pressure on margins and the search for process efficiencies. But could better communications between airline and airport improve the passenger experience in a way that means they spend more, they come back more often and they share their advocacy? Could it lead to better investment decisions and resource for the things that passengers value rather than be wasted on the things they don’t?

Speaking in Barcelona earlier this year about the post-earthquake rebuilding of his airport, Andy Lester of Christchurch, New Zealand said that “If airports think like airports they will never understand their customers”.   It also means that if airports don’t understand their customers, the interdependency is such that airlines will go where they are confident their brand is secure.

I spoke to a group of airport operators recently about an app from an airline that tracked lost bags.  The technology exists and the data exists but does the specific need?  As a passenger, it felt like the airline was getting in first to blame the airport and its baggage handlers for a problem that obviously happens more frequently than I thought.  It’s understandable in a way, as United (“guitars”) and Air Canada (“bag drops”) will testify.  Most of the time though, it’s not unreasonable to think my bags will be with me when I arrive.  Yet the time, effort and resource that has been used to create this app has made me lose confidence.  I’d prefer to know that airline and airport will work together to find me before I end up standing next to an empty carousel, to tell me what is going to happen and to reunite me with my bag as soon as possible.

Airlines have a vested interest in the airport experience and visa-versa.  Customers meanwhile have a choice and don’t always know or care who does what.  Take a look at just three passenger reviews on freely available websites such as Skytrax:

I usually fly [X] but will now try to avoid them – to avoid [Y].

I refuse to fly from here even though I live in the area

Never flying [X] again – long queues for security with unfriendly staff shouting misleading instructions

Likewise, airports understandably celebrate increases in passenger numbers, non-aeronautical revenue and satisfaction metrics.  And airlines rightly make noise about the launch of new routes.  But that feel-good vibe isn’t always reflected in passengers when they read the same headlines;  in response, they’ve posted comments such as “Oh no, more people going through a process that’s already creaking at the seams”.  By being more unified, the airport / airline voice could be more empathetic about the impact of its good news.

With many organisations, not just in aviation, there appears to be an unquenchable thirst for Big Data.   Red and green smiley button sets greet us all over the place but if everyone hit the red button, aside from knowing that, what is going to change?  Simply having more information is pointless if it is not the right information nor shared with those who can, and need to, act on it.

When there’s a disruption to services, we are told to call the airline.  Why then, I ask, have I given my email address and mobile phone number?  I get a “We’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, here’s your flight number etc” reminder SMS, which is nice.  However, on the day, when there’s a schedule change, the silence then is deafening.  So if airports and airlines shared more information and it means I get contacted before I know there’s a problem, that’s the sort of experience that will keep me coming back and telling others to do the same.

In the same sense, my last flight could have been a nightmare cocktail of delays, diversions and incidents.  If I’m an anxious flyer, they’re all things that will be front of mind next time I book and check-in.  Yet there’s no acknowledgement of that: “You’re here to be processed, not shown empathy” – at least that what it feels like.  If airports and airlines really want personalised experiences, communicating with each other and making passengers feel like humans and not barcodes will make little things go a long way.

At one level, airlines and airports are about moving people and bags from A to B.  So as I say, I’m looking forward to the WLCAC this year and learning how commercial value is being unlocked by a collaborative shifting of the focus from the “moving” to the “people”.  Or, in other words, whether the flat-mates have stopped labelling the food in the fridge as their own.

 About the author: 

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Jerry Angrave is a Certified Customer Experience Professional and consultant.  Managing Director of Empathyce, Jerry has worked for or with organisations in the aviation and travel, retail banking, utilities, legal services and pharmaceutical industries. 

Jerry will be joining us at our event AirXperience. Join us at the event, and take the opportunity to ask Jerry further questions at his roundtable, which is taking place at 4 pm on the 16th of September. 

AirXperience Europe 2014