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Customer Experience At Airports: Is It Actually Improving?

People walking along a pathway through a busy airport.

The customer experience at airports often includes tales of long lines, messy restrooms, and lack of seating. Yet good customer experience at airports is possible – when those overseeing the terminals invest in the travelers.

Take New York’s LaGuardia airport, which The Atlantic magazine once compared to “the intricately dressed set of an apocalypse film,” featuring “abandoned check-in stands gone feral, floors damp with discharged moistures (and) low ceilings looming over dark corridors.”

Until local officials in 2015 began an $8 billion transformation focused on “the goal of creating a world-class, 21st century passenger experience featuring modern customer amenities, state-of-the-art architecture, more spacious gate areas and a unified terminal system.”

Now, LaGuardia is a significant part of why passenger experience at airports actually improved in the recent J.D. Power 2023 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, an upswing the customer insight firm labeled “an amazing thing.”

Even amid record-high passenger volumes, pilot shortages and numerous weather delays and cancellations, passenger satisfaction went up three points, on a 1,000-point scale, to 780.

J.D. Power officials credited improvements in terminal facilities, food and beverage and retail service, and baggage claim, fueled by major capital improvements and investments.

“Nowhere is the positive effect of capital improvement clearer than in New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which has climbed from dead last in passenger satisfaction in 2019 to reach the large airport segment average, this year,” J.D. Power said.

The Experience Maker Survey On Airport Customer Experience

As a keynote speaker, I travel a lot and so do my colleagues. So I fielded an informal survey, posting the J.D. Power results on LinkedIn and Facebook and asking fellow frequent travelers for comments.

The results generally tracked with the J.D Power study, which ranked Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (mega airports category), Tampa International Airport (large airports), and Indianapolis International Airport (medium airports) atop customer satisfaction rankings

“Detroit was a huge surprise to me the one time I had a connection there. That airport was lovely, clean, and easy to navigate for such a large airport,” posted Rob Dwyer, VP – Customer Engagement at Happitu. He added that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (which ranked 8th out of 21 mega airports) “gets a lot of hate from infrequent travelers, probably because it’s a bit intimidating, but it really is a modern marvel and there’s probably no place I’d rather have a long layover in the U.S.”

On the lower end of the flying spectrum, “Washington Dulles should be at the bottom (actually, it could go farther down in my opinion),” posted Gina Schaefer, a speaker, author, and board member at CCA Global Partners. “The amenities are non-existent, you still need to take an odd people mover around runways to various terminals despite the fact that a huge amount of money was spent on an underground train, and the list goes on.”

Washington Dulles ranked 18th out of 28 large airports.

Schaefer said her current favorite airport is George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston (10th for J.D. Power mega airports).

Why is Customer Experience in Airports Important?

Good customer experience can – and should – happen anywhere, even at the airport. Those in charge should always remember that they are serving customers, in this case the flying public, and invest accordingly in providing a memorable experience.

After all, as consulting firm McKinsey says, “ask any consumer where he or she finds a good customer experience, and the answer isn’t likely to include airports—but that doesn’t have to be the case.”

An airport is like a small city, and navigating it requires a myriad of potentially stressful moments – ranging from checking luggage and getting through security, to standing in line for food and locating a gate.

That makes it essential for airports to put passengers first. One blogger laid out the stakes, writing that “the future of air travel, like that of any other industry, is dependent on providing a memorable customer experience.”

Related: Loyalty Programs Can Gain – Or Lose – A Customer’s Loyalty

It’s also good for the bottom line. As J.D. Power said in announcing its airport survey results: “There is a direct correlation between overall passenger satisfaction and spending at the airport. Passengers classified as ‘delighted,’ meaning they rate their airport experience as 10 out of 10, spend an average of $44 in the terminal, while those classified as ‘disappointed’ (1-5 out of 10) spend just $29.”

More Airports Are Focusing on Customer Experience

As a result, airports are increasingly focused on making passenger experience at the very least stress stressful – and ideally, something more positive.

In New York, transportation planners took this trend to heart with the LaGuardia renovation that has won widespread plaudits, hailed as “a Queens miracle,” with lessons for businesses and brands everywhere.

That’s because the proprietors never lost their focus on customer experience. The Airport Customer Experience (CX) Performance & Standards Manual, released by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – which operates LaGuardia – said it well:

“The dramatic renaissance of airports will certainly help transform the customer experience by addressing our facilities’ physical and operational challenges,” the 168-page document said, “but only if we also embrace delivering excellence in service through the implementation and management of standards that cater to all our customers and employees.”

Other airports have made similar investments. San Jose Mineta International Airport, for example, won a customer experience award after making improvements that included faster Wi-Fi and other technological innovations, focusing on cleanliness and safety, and working with local businesses to open new concessions.

Orlando International Airport won recognition from McKinsey for customer experience upgrades such as a $2 billion terminal expansion and a laser focus on an area that officials discovered was a major passenger concern: cleaner restrooms.

Additional Comments From The Experience Maker Survey

Travelers were eager to share their thoughts – positive and negative – about their airport experiences. Here are more comments from The Experience Maker’s informal online survey about airport customer experience:

  • “I was just at the KC airport (MCI) and found the experience enjoyable. Easy access, easy to navigate, friendly and comfortable.” – Alex Lieb, a loan officer at Coastal Lending Group LLC
  • “Southwest Florida (RSW) is amazing. St. Louis and Cincinnati airports are the equivalent of hot garbage. I’m impressed with the updates at Chicago Midway and Nashville is solid more recently. Maybe my favorite airport is Minneapolis/St. Paul.” – Ryan Cox, Manager, AI Solution Sales at ZS
  • “San Diego is my favorite! TSA agents treat you like family, like a welcomed visitor. My home airport, Atlanta, is the worst for me. A consistently terrible experience from start to finish.” –Mary Drummond, Vice President of Marketing at Neighborly Software
  • “Portland took a hit in the ratings because of the construction on the main concourse, but the airport services are still top-notch.” – Lauren Teague, digital marketing strategist and founder of FANWAGN
  • “#1 in medium airports: Indianapolis. I’m biased because I live there, but it’s newer, nice restaurants, easy access, lots of art and windows!!!” – JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, LLC
  • “I love Denver airport. I know it’s far, but everything else just WORKS there. It’s well laid out so that you don’t have to walk forever to get anywhere, the trains are easy and fast, people are friendly, it’s clean, and the bathrooms are nice.” – Michelle Villalobos, owner of Superstar Activator
  • “With all the improvements, Kansas City should move up the list because it was abysmal. I find San Diego presently a pain with all the construction.” – Rodney M. Loesch, financial advisor at LifeGoals Strategies Group

What is your favorite – or least favorite – airport? Comment on my LinkedIn post with your thoughts!

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

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