Back to the future: Customer experience in airports during the pandemic

Valérie St-James by Valérie St-James | Feb 22, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused great upheaval to airports’ operations. Going from managing yearly passenger growth to almost deserted infrastructures, airports have had to reprioritize efforts and adapt to what would become their new reality.

The entire travel community had to modify the passenger journey to ensure the health and safety of the remaining travellers. Now, a year after the crisis began, the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) benchmarking data allows us to reflect who has travelled since the beginning of the pandemic, where did they travel and why, and what can we learn from their experience and keep improving for what is yet to come?

Passengers are satisfied

Our latest annual edition of the ACI Airport Service Quality Barometer highlights that overall passenger satisfaction has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Surprising? Not really. With the significant decrease in worldwide traffic, many of the most challenging touchpoints of the journey are temporarily less busy – there is easier access to the airport, faster check-in processes, less-to-no-waiting time at security screening, and a comfortable and quieter experience while waiting at the gate area.

Passengers’ expectations are also different in time of crisis. Cleanliness is more important than ever. Passengers want to feel safe and secure and they want to easily find their way through the airport. With less passengers travelling in 2020, these expectations have been met and airports have successfully implemented reassuring measures to ensure a hygienic experience to limit the spread of the virus.

Even though all regions have been impacted by COVID-19, their overall satisfaction scores have increased, except for Africa. African airports have met some challenges in regard to wayfinding – a key expectation in time of pandemic. For instance, they obtained lower scores for ease of finding your way through airport, flight information available on screens, walking distance, and easiness of connection.

North America has recorded the highest increase in their overall satisfaction, mainly due to parking facilities, the waiting time throughout the journey, and the cleanliness of washrooms.

Who travelled in 2020?

The main reason that brought people to airports during the pandemic is very different than under usual circumstances. ASQ numbers show a higher proportion of passengers travelling for personal reasons, with a significant decrease of passengers travelling for leisure. While the ASQ Global Traveller survey forecasts that business travellers will resume their flying habits faster than other groups of passengers, their proportion has remained stable compared to 2019 data. The main difference observed is in their frequency of travel – no matter what the main reason to travel was, all passengers travelled less than usual, but it was more prominent among business travellers. Fifty-five per cent were frequent business travellers in 2019 (more than five trips per year), compared to 41% during the pandemic.

Main reason to travel in 2019 vs. 2020

With restrictions in place to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many passengers had to limit their travel to domestic destinations. ASQ benchmarking data show a significant increase in domestic trips: from 54% in 2019 to 74% during the crisis.

Knowing that barriers – such as mandatory quarantine or infection rate at destination – limit travelling, the proportion of international travels went down from 46% in 2019 to 26% since the beginning of the crisis.

New hygienic measures put in place are reassuring

Airport members that are collecting data using the ASQ digital solutions on tablet had the opportunity to evaluate passengers’ perception of new measures implemented to increase the level of safety and hygiene at their airport.

Overall, the effectiveness of the measures in place, the clarity of signage, and instructions to inform about them as well as the staff ability to apply these measures have been evaluated by the passengers.

Knowing that there have been more domestic travellers since the beginning of the pandemic, and that this trend is continuing in 2021, it is worth highlighting that ASQ results show higher levels of satisfaction in regard to airport safety and hygiene measures among this group of passengers. Satisfaction levels are slightly lower for airports in Africa and Europe compared to other regions.

Positive results should not be taken for granted

While there is much optimism and anticipation of a sustained recovery with vaccines being distributed around the world, the pandemic is still not slowing down.

Traffic in airports will continue to increase before herd immunity is achieved since according to the ASQ Global Traveller survey, half of the respondents who travelled in 2019 are likely to travel again in the short term. More crowding, increased wait times, and more people using facilities, might contribute to an increase in the level of stress experienced by travellers. For many travellers, health and safety measures are not temporary – 65% of the ASQ Global Traveller survey’s participants believe that these measures should remain once the pandemic has subsided.

While it might be easier to manage and apply the measures with less travellers in airports, employees will have to maintain and increase their efforts to maintain passengers’ health and security in the months to come.

Ongoing tracking of the overall satisfaction while passengers are resuming their travelling habits will help airports succeed through the recovery.

Valérie St-James

Valérie St-James

Director, ASQ Marketing Research, ACI World
Valerie St-James leads the airport service quality benchmarking programme team’s efforts in market research, operations, quality assurance and new product initiatives. With more than 15 years’ experience, Valerie is known for her expertise in transforming consumer data into meaningful strategic insight. She is devoted in creating robust tools and methodologies allowing airports to emerge in their customer experience journey, while building a strong community and delivering the best passenger experience.
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