The Future of Airports: Passenger Terminals and Customer Experience (Topic No. 7)

25 June 2020 Airport of the Future
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The Airport Think Tank of ENAC Alumni published last month the global analysis of The Future of Airports. Each week, discover a new focus on one of the 11 topics of this research initiative.

Airport operators used to be infrastructure managers providing aviation facilities as a public service. As their vision is now more passenger-centric, airport operators consider the passengers as their clients and might sometimes even compete with air carriers on providing specific services to them. The missions of airport operators are being transformed as they are transitioning from facility providers to mobility providers and hosts competing on the experience they offer.

They develop services to passengers that may not all be commercially viable but have an overall positive impact on customer satisfaction. Innovative services include free lounge to connecting travelers, entertainment nearby the holdrooms, concerts and exhibitions, lactation rooms, water stations to replenish bottles, and even yoga rooms. Some of them, like the in-airport hotels, can be a competitive edge and a source of revenues as well. Airport retail and concessions are another key to generate substantial ancillary revenues. These retail spaces are part of the experience itself.

The newest, largest passenger terminal facilities have a polyform and centralized layout that can accommodate several dozens of million annual passengers under one single roof. The gigantism should not hinder the customer experience, operational efficiency, and resilience. Future concepts shall also achieve simplicity and modularity – and this is not necessarily a question of shape or configuration of the building only. Passenger facilities shall go beyond grand architectural designs and get back to the roots of terminal design: providing a straightforward, seamless, and pleasant access to the aircraft from the curbside. There is a race to the biggest “cathedral-terminal” building between mega-hub airports. But we shall not forget that many passengers just want to get from their car or mass transit system to the gate, or from the gate to the gate for short connections.

Modularity should be another function achieved by future terminals. While air transportation has been experiencing strong long-term growth, air traffic is also highly sensitive to temporary economic turndowns that can lead to quick market transformations such as airline consolidations and strategic decisions with impactful decisions for airports, from a restructuring of the network to more dramatic reductions of the number of airline hubs. The past decade has seen emerged other novelties such as low-cost, long-range air carriers, single-aisle aircraft being used on long-haul routes that call for more agile passenger facilities that can handle fairly dynamically larger and smaller aircraft, and domestic and international passengers. Geopolitical changes and disruptive events changing standards and practices are other conundrums for airports. The information and intelligence technologies might ultimately influence how space and resources are used and change the main ratios and reference values used by the industry for planning and design.

In the end, getting the basics right is as important as creating a “wow” effect. The top priority of a passenger is either locating the departure gate or recovering his bag and securing a ride to arrive on time to the final destination. Applications and services may alleviate this mental load, improve the experience, and perhaps increase ancillary revenues. But simplicity does not mean low-cost. No-frills terminals show their limits as they do not achieve passengers’ expectations. It might be a difficult paradigm to address for some airport operators that need funds to maintain or upgrade their facilities while facing a strong opposition of air carriers to collect adequate user fees to do so.

 Efficient and passenger-friendly terminals will be a key competitive advantage for air carriers. Individual carriers and wider alliances are spending a large amount of money modernizing terminal facilities and customizing them to offer a consistent high-end experience from airport to airport. The next competition will be on the first and last miles – from the door to the curbside. Airlines and airports might team or at least better coordinate with transportation network companies to simplify this part of the trip. It is already possible in some cities to check-in bags at hotels or the train station to the airport. Additional services will be proposed, such as the baggage pickup and delivery at home or the workplace.


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