Defining customer experience: How airports can own the passenger journey

Dimitri Coll by Dimitri Coll | Mar 5, 2020

Customer experience has become one of the most talked about concepts in business – how a business carries itself and relates to its customers has become as important as the quality of the product it is offering.

It is not surprising that Customer Experience Futurist Blake Morgan said in Forbes magazine recently that “managing customer perception is one of the most important things brands should be doing”.

But how does this relate to the airport industry?

Airport customer experience can be defined as how a customer perceives their interaction with an airport as the sum of all the interactions that a passenger has with the entire airport community.  

These interactions can be delivered in person, online, self-service booths, or other channels.  Together, these all add up to the critical moments—also known as moments of truth—that create the overall customer experience.

Airports are prioritizing customer experiences

In the past, it was often the airlines that sold passengers the idea of customer experience with the quality of in-flight services at the forefront of this.

In recent years, as the airline industry has become more competitive on price, many airlines have retreated from this space, preferring to focus on price and convenience over customer service.

Into this space, have come airports. No longer are they considered simple infrastructure providers, airports are now sophisticated and competitive businesses and customer experience is fast becoming one of the most important tools to differentiate them from their competitors

Customer experience in the airport sector is composed of past and present airport experiences and these have a direct impact on the airport brand. 

The airport global customer experience

The global experience is what the customer ‘lives’ while travelling through an airport. 

Through the departure (connecting and origin and destination), arrival and commercial experience, customers shape their evaluation of the quality of an airport.  

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research into memory and his ‘peak-end theory’ helps us understand how human beings form memories and how memories inform decisions.

The ‘peak end’ theory and customer experience

The peak-end theory proposes that customers judge an experience mainly on how they felt at its emotional peak and its end. 

Emotionally charged situations can lead us to create longer-lasting memories of the event.

When we are led to experience feelings of delight, anger or other states of mind, vivid recollections are often more possible than during everyday situations in which we feel little or no emotional attachment to an event.

The link between emotion and memory explains the importance of an airport to deliver experience emotionally loaded and to surprise the customer.

The most intense moment, however, is perhaps not the same for all the passengers at an airport and this is the key for managing customer experience.

Finding the airport ‘moment of truth’

Airports need to discover which moment of truth along the customer journey contributes the most to the overall satisfaction because this will inform decision on where to invest at an airport to deliver a memorable experience which will increase overall satisfaction.

In order to do this, the airport needs to map the customer journey and define the drivers of satisfaction by each touchpoint.

Based on ACI World’s Airport Service Quality programme, the most important drivers of satisfaction are the airport ambience, the discretionary time including food and beverage, retail areas and the entertainment activities including the Wi-Fi, the security process and, of course, the human factor.  

The ASQ benchmarking service helps airports to analyze where they need to prioritize investment and resources in a way that is most beneficial to providing the best overall customer experience.

Energizing staff and providing the best for the passenger

The ASQ programme is clearly designed to help airports provide a better experience to passengers but there are also other positive impacts on the airport’s employees and all the stakeholders involved in the delivery of the experience within this airport.

Indeed, recognition through ASQ – whether it be an ASQ Award, accreditation, or direct engagement of staff through the Employee Survey – is a concrete source of motivation and engagement.

Engagement goes beyond being happy in a job or being loyal to an employer, it is about passion and commitment, and an employee’s sense that he or she is an integral part of the organization’s plan for success.

Airports should leverage on this achievement to keep their staff engaged and show the direct link between this ASQ award on the employee contribution.

Bringing together the wider airport community

Focusing on the entire customer journey provides an opportunity for airport management to strengthen the ties between all stakeholders and partners at the airport and to acknowledge their good work.

The customer journey through the airport covers many touchpoints, many of which are not necessarily within an airport management’s direct control. In many airports, this is true of security screening, immigration control and through some third party retailers and service providers.

In the past, airports may have sought to distance themselves from services they could not directly control but, as customer experience and improving the entire customer journey has become more and more important, airports have increased the level of collaboration and cooperation within the airport community.

Improving customer experience can galvanize an airport community as it has been proven that increasing customer satisfaction has a direct and positive impact on non-aeronautical revenue.

Benchmarking airport service quality

ASQ is the global benchmarking programme measuring passengers’ satisfaction whilst they are travelling through an airport and provides research tools and management information to better understand passengers’ views and what they want from an airport’s products and services.

ACI World through the annual ASQ awards recognizes excellence in customer experience. This year’s ASQ winners are due to be announced the 9th of March.

The ASQ Departures and ASQ Arrivals awards represent the highest possible accolades for airport operators and are opportunities to celebrate the commitment of airports worldwide to continuously improving the passenger experience.

The next ACI Customer Experience Global Summit, taking place from 7– 10 September 2020 in Krakow, Poland, will provide the airport community at large with the opportunity to understand what drives the customer satisfaction and how to go beyond the customer expectations.  

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During the event, ACI will recognize the best airport through the ASQ Award and the Customer experience accreditation.

** Please note that the 2020 Customer Experience Global Summit will be postponed to 2021 as a result of the impact and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the latest information, please see the event website.

Dimitri Coll

Dimitri Coll

Vice President, Airport Customer Experience, ACI World
Dimitri Coll's 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. 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 addition to his work at ACI World, Dimitri teaches marketing research and market analysis at HEC Montreal.
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