Numerous challenges have led to opportunities that are now enabling and encouraging airlines, and airports themselves, to help better shape customers’ end-to-end travel experience, resulting in trends that are fundamentally molding and steadily leading to what will inevitably be a much more customer-centric airport.

Just as airlines are reinventing themselves to address current market challenges and wrestle with today’s broader demands of global competition, airports are also dealing with a similar need for transformation.

As personal incomes have been on the rise globally, more people are now able to travel, and they are traveling more often, especially by air.

While this sustained, long-term growth in air travel is good for airlines’ net earnings, it continues to put pressure on the broader transportation industry to deliver new solutions to improve efficiency, eliminate traveler stress and significantly revamp the customer experience.

The pressure is even more notable when service disruptions occur. Not only is the passenger severely inconvenienced, but the airline and airport react to the situation with only a partial view of the operational effect, which directly affects the airline’s balance-sheet cost, as well as the airline’s ability to deliver on its brand promise.

Challenges for airlines

Making a realistic effort to reinvent the customer experience carries significant implications for airlines and airports.

During the day of travel, an airline’s operational focus must always be on passenger movement and on-time flight departures and arrivals, as well as on increasing throughput and streamlining processes, such as baggage processing, customer check-in and boarding, all while maximizing revenue per passenger.

Regardless of an airline’s efforts to deliver an exceptional customer experience, the greatest source of customer dissatisfaction is not the shopping experience or the price paid for ancillary services. Rather, it is the airport experience at departure and arrival.

A customer’s current airport experience involves lengthy queues, repetitive and redundant processes, and a lack of communication and personalization, and this is often compounded by flight disruptions, which not only add to the negative customer experience, but cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Challenges for airports

Significant expansion of air travel continues to put tremendous pressure on congested and aging airport infrastructures, and airports worldwide are struggling to keep up with all the demands being placed on them.

Updating of airport infrastructure around the world will require billions of dollars of investment from governments, the taxpayers who ultimately pay the governments’ bills and airlines.

Recent examples of such investments include:

  • Qatar’s new Hamad International Airport (US$15.5 billion),
  • The new Mexico City International Airport (US$11 billion),
  • The major expansion of Los Angeles International Airport (US$5 billion).

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s airports are not profitable. They are obligated to deal with extremely high fixed costs, stringent regulations and increasingly intense competition.

As a result, many airports are revamping their financial models, reducing their aeronautical income (landing fees) and increasing revenues from non-aeronautical sources (retailing).

Despite huge airport investments, travelers continue to experience frequent aircraft delays, missed connections, misdirected baggage and uncomfortable crowding.

Moreover, travel disruptions have almost become the norm. With the surge in global demand, the capability to solve, execute and recover from disruptions has been complicated by the lack of integrated systems and processes, poor communication between airlines and airports, and customers who are basically “armed” with social-media megaphones.

Opportunities for improvement

There are numerous areas of opportunity for improvement in the day-of-travel and airport journey today, tomorrow and in the future.

In an effort to reduce the impacts of airports’ constrained facilities, airlines are challenged with developing innovative ways to increase throughput and streamline processes, such as baggage and customer check-in, as well as focusing further on optimizing the customer’s end-to-end journey.

In doing so, airlines can employ a host of technology-based solutions and remove significant costs from across the business, including:

  • The airport experience (check-in, security, border control, boarding and connections);
  • Enhancing the overall customer experience through long-term loyalty programs and proactive personalization;
  • Tackling high-cost customer issues such as redesigning the service-disruption-and-recovery experience.

Similarly, airports can deploy technologies to tailor an appropriate airport experience around the customer that further expands the airlines’ and airports’ share of the traveler’s wallet by creating innovative revenue opportunities without interfering with an efficient operation and an exceptional customer experience.

Making processes more consistent and less redundant

Travelers often experience challenges or stress at the airport due to repetitive and seemingly redundant processes.

Typically, travelers are asked the same or similar questions at check-in, baggage drop, security, emigration and even boarding, and travelers are often required to present the same or similar documentation at various points in the process.

It is this repetitiveness from a lack of coordination across processes and among airport, airline and agency staff that makes for a negative experience.

Often, these disconnects result from the dueling objectives of various service providers. For example, the airline may wish to process and board travelers and baggage as quickly as possible. The airport, on the other hand, wants travelers to spend time, and money, engaging with airport services. And government agencies want to ensure safe and secure passage.

The intelligent airport

While specific operating models are vastly different, they all utilize a common underlying technology-based ecosystem consisting of adaptive architecture; personal engagement and sense of place; smooth connectivity; seamless intelligence; and operational excellence to create a truly “smart” airport, featuring:

  • The customer’s needs at the heart of the operation,
  • Safety and security,
  • Networked,
  • Adaptable,
  • Sustainable,
  • Flexibility as a primary tenet,
  • Virtualization wherever and whenever practical and appropriate.

Customers and airline executives agree on the top two priorities for improving the airport experience:

  1. One-time, seamless authentication and security control for the traveler, enabled via a single biometric identification accepted at every security point along the journey,
  2. Accurate and efficient baggage processing, delivered through electronic baggage tags linked to the customer profile and offering real-time baggage tracking throughout the journey.

Furthermore, more than 60 percent of airline executives and nearly 60 percent of consumers agree that boarding without human interaction would yield a great improvement in the customer experience.IATA has indicated that by 2020 it wants 80 percent of travelers to have the option of total self-service at the airport.

IATA has indicated that by 2020 it wants 80 percent of travelers to have the option of total self-service at the airport.

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The ideal day of travel for many airline customers is one during which the airport experience is completely transparent and seamlessly integrated, as well as a day during which the customers are in control, or at least feel that they are in control, of interaction with the airline, with the airport and with other players.

For the airline, a key element in enabling this level of experience is the empowerment of airport staff to address and resolve customer needs immediately, anywhere and at any time, especially during a service disruption. And for airports this implies a dynamic and robust communication-rich infrastructure to cope with the flexible needs of both the airline and the traveler.

Thus, the airport of the future is an intelligent environment: connected, immersive, personalized and multisensory. Airports are experimenting with this concept in various ways, such as tailoring the complete airport operating model to suit specific airline and traveler needs.

The traveler experience reimagined

Airports across the globe are increasingly examining the airport processing experience.

An array of new and emerging technology-based solutions promise improved operational efficiency and new approaches to engaging customers, and which hold the potential for new revenues.

Additionally, airports are driven to find new ways to process and interact with a new generation of tech-savvy travelers, epitomized by those carrying smartphones. These travelers expect instant interaction, engaging customer service and memorable experiences.

During the next decade or so, airports are likely to leverage and extend the efficiencies outlined in IATA’s Fast Travel initiative, which aims to deliver self-service options in six areas of a passenger’s day-of-travel journey:

  • Check-in,
  • Bags ready-to-go,
  • Document check,
  • Flight rebooking,
  • Self-boarding,
  • Bag recovery.

By implementing many of these solutions, and extending into additional areas of the traveler experience, airlines and airports are poised to continue realizing incremental efficiency gains.

As airports and airlines work to improve the airport experience, they will need to optimize and/or redefine two facets of the end-to-end traveler experience. One facet is the standard day-of-travel experience, and the second is the service recovery experience.

Service recovery requires proactive and timely customer interaction paired with solutions that reprocess travelers and re-allocate staff, aircraft and other airport assets. While this service-recovery complexity, in which resolution is imperative within a compressed timeframe, presents difficult challenges, airlines and airports can benefit significantly from opportunities that come from successful recovery and resolution.

Near-term travel technology solutions

For airports and all their customers, including airlines, travelers, retailers and ground service providers, a number of key technologies are likely to catalyze the development of entirely new business processes (and many of the technologies are not necessarily “new,” but adoption within the travel sector is only now reaching significant levels).

These technologies include:

  • Digital wayfinding,
  • Biometric identify management,
  • Token-based authentication,
  • Mobile tracking and proximity sensing,
  • RFID tracking,
  • Near-field communications,
  • Geofencing,
  • High-touch technology-enabled devices,
  • Service robotics,
  • Augmented reality,
  • Virtual assistants,
  • Predictive analytics.

But a more strategic rethinking of the entire airport experience will eventually bring significant further improvement. These changes are important, as air traffic is projected to double during the next 15 years, spurred on by intense global competition.

Thus is the customer-centric airport tied closely to customer centricity in general, with the focus always directly on the customer and serving the customer’s needs.

This article was republished from Ascend magazine.