COVID 19: Adapting the airport experience in turbulent times

Dimitri Coll by Dimitri Coll | Apr 10, 2020

Over a period of less than three months, the COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic has transformed passengers’ lives and caused massive upheaval and shutdowns of airport operations around the globe.

This has forced airport customer experience and customer service teams to rethink the meaning of customer care. Now more than ever, they are finding how it is crucial to put themselves in the customer’s shoes.

Customer experience and COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, airport customer experience management was focused on promoting and fostering positive customer emotions and perceptions through all of their interactions with an airport community. These interactions could be delivered in person, online, through self-service booths, or other channels and the focus was on journey mapping and adapting the experience to different passenger personas.

According to ACI World’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) programme, in 2019 the most important drivers of satisfaction were the airport ambience (including infrastructure and cleanliness), passengers’ discretionary time (including food and beverage, retail areas), and entertainment activities such as the Wi-Fi, followed by the security processes and, of course, the human factor.  

For airports that still have some passenger traffic during this time, the importance of understanding passengers has become more crucial than ever.

Amid these awful and unpredictable circumstances, those passengers still able to travel expect very different things from the airport experience. Along with the usual promotion of the many services an airport offers, passenger that are still travelling at this time also expect a heightened feeling of safety, of wellness, of cleanliness and sanitation. 

For airports that have stopped or slowed operation, a focus on care and connection is still important to keep customers engaged and involved with the airport through ongoing communication.

Focus on essentials: Health, safety, kindness, and connection

During this time, airports should go back to basics and focus on the essentials.

Customer care

The health and safety of customers remains paramount for airport operators. Understanding what customers are living through and what their fundamental needs are is a must. Customer experience managers and airport employees must seek to empathize with passengers who will likely be in a heightened sense of anxiousness.

To address this, passengers should be provided with extra information, guidance, and support to navigate a new set of challenges, and also reassurance that all measures are in place to keep them and their families safe. They want a resource they can trust, that can make them feel safe in uncertain situations, and that offers support when so much seems to be overwhelming.

The customer journey starts before they arrive at the airport, passengers look for information on airport website and social media so airports should leverage these channels to document all the hygiene and health measures taken.

The first step in caring is to reach out, not in marketing or overt attempts to gain a competitive edge, but to offer genuine support. These experiences are critical for customers in the short term, and the impact will build positive relationships that are bound to last long after the crisis has ended. It is less about profit and more about taking care of customers. Customers will gravitate toward businesses that provide safety and create confidence.

Communication with passengers and the public is key in order to ease customer anxiety, engage the passenger, strengthen relationships, and to promote efforts within the community. Furthermore, by stepping up their efforts to embrace passengers’ feelings and sentiments in this uncertain time, airports could increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Employee and stakeholder care

Under these terrible times, caring for customers starts with thinking first about employees and stakeholders. They need the airport’s support, even more so, if they do have a role to play in getting through the crisis and pursuing recovery.

They worry about their own health and that of their families and they might be concerned about their job or income.

Airport employees need the right tools and guidance to perform their job during the crisis. For those still on the job, employers (airports or stakeholders) can provide new tools, remote training and support to enable employees to deliver superior customer experience in a new environment.

Customer experience after the COVID-19

How the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold will likely have an impact on future passenger expectations and the way they will travel.

It is important for airports to understand during the crisis how it may affect passenger expectation and satisfaction in the future.  This information will be crucial, especially when the airport enters the period of recovery, to adapt the experience to the potential new passenger needs.  

Also, airports will need to understand what might prevent their passengers from travelling again – if there are new drivers of satisfaction – in order to ensure that when the passengers are travelling again, their expectations can be met which will, in turn, encouraging others to travel again as well.

The normal patterns of life have come to a halt for us all. Simple activities like a trip to the grocery store or dining out with friends are now difficult, risky, or even prohibited.

Overall online traffic has been increasing worldwide and digital-led experiences will likely continue to grow in popularity after the pandemic. 

Airports need to accelerate the digitalization for all the touchpoints of the customer journey. Improving the movement of travellers through the border will reduce passenger stress, for instance. Technologies such as e-gates, biometrics, and CT scanners might help in this process too.

Airports should try to make physical operations touch free.  If part of the customer journey must exist in a physical channel, they could consider converting to contactless operations.

A challenge for customer experience execution is to make the customer aware of the hard work that goes into providing intangible services such as cleaning and sanitation. With an invisible threat such as the COVID-19, airports will have to find some evidence to show to the passengers the huge efforts that are taking place in this area in order to reassure them, diminish their level of stress and make them comfortable again to travel.

Continuous adaptation to business as unusual

Customer experience has taken on a new dimension in the overwhelming challenge of Coronavirus.

It is more crucial than ever for airports to be customer-centric and to anticipate how passengers will change their habits of travelling and will build stronger relationships that will endure well beyond the crisis’s passing.

Furthermore, airports will need more that ever the employee and stakeholder’s engagement to recover after the virus.

ASQ Best Practice Report: Passenger Experience at the Gate Comfort in Waiting Areas
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Dimitri Coll

Dimitri Coll

Senior Vice President Airport Experience & Training ǀ ASQ ǀ Strategy & Marketing
Dimitri is the Senior Vice President, Airport Experience and Training at ACI World. Dimitri Coll took up the position of Head, Airport Service Quality (ASQ) at ACI World in October 2015. His main responsibility is to manage the ACI ASQ programme, which guides airports toward improving their customer experience excellence across numerous touchpoints of a passenger’s journey. Dimitri Coll holds a BBA (1998) and an MSc in Marketing (2000) from Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) in Montreal, Quebec. With nearly 20 years of experience in marketing across a variety of industries, he is an expert in product management, customer experience and marketing research. In previous roles, Dimitri was in charge of customer experience management and service design for Hydro-Quebec, as well as product management and new product design for National Bank Insurance and telecommunications company Videotron. In addition to his work at ACI World, Dimitri teaches marketing research and market analysis at HEC Montreal.
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