User psychologist Christian Vatter outlines how focusing on the user will help airports deliver a better passenger experience.

While some airports are little more than a means to an end, others excel at providing travellers with a relaxed, enjoyable experience that they look back on fondly. The difference lies in the focus on passenger experience: optimizing processes, services, and features that improve passenger satisfaction and create a more favourable image, which in turn leads to beneficial results for the airport organization itself.

This article shares lessons learned from a recent project conducted for a major US airport, serving more than 80 million passengers annually. Additionally, it incorporates insights from a study on airline passenger experience, examining the experience along the entire course from booking to opening your suitcase at the final destination.

Although collected in the aviation context, these learnings can be applied to other environments with complex user processes, such as hospitals, libraries, administrative buildings, transportation hubs, or even hospitality concepts.

By focusing on enjoyable processes and quality time, airports gain operational efficiency

Balancing passenger and airport needs

Passenger experience works as a quid pro quo: improving the experience, i.e. less stress and more enjoyment, helps to increase the airport operator's business results. By focusing on enjoyable processes and quality time, airports gain operational efficiency through reduced friction. It also upgrades their public image and unlocks greater revenue potential by catering to relaxed passengers who are more open to enticing offers. An Airports Council International report puts this into numbers: a 1% increase in passenger satisfaction leads to a 1.5% increase in non-aeronautical revenue.

Passenger experience quid pro quo

Passenger experience works as a quid pro quo

The multidisciplinary approach

Creating a positive passenger experience is not always easy and requires a psychological, systemic and multidisciplinary approach. Human experience is a concept that involves thoughts, emotions, and well-being in the "here and now", and, if consistent over multiple occasions, results in long-term opinions and images that feed back into the next experience. The experience itself is caused by multimodal elements such as spatial layout, furnishings, wayfinding, processes, analog and digital services, temporary activities and programs, retail and commercial offerings, and employee behaviour. Because of this complexity, the devil is often in the details: It is more about "how" you do it than "what" you do.

The primary goal of our project was to provide methodology, input, and conceptual ideas for the design of a new terminal, but also for the entire airport campus, e.g. by improving the flow to and from said terminal, taking into account future transportation concepts. We took away six key learnings from this project that can be used as checkpoint by any airport:


1. Consider the entire passenger journey ("Manage my entire problem space")

It is important to understand that the challenges users are facing extend far beyond the airport premises. From a passenger's point of view, the departure journey begins at home (or wherever a passenger's starting point is) and ends with boarding the flight. Vice versa, the arrival journey extends from disembarking to putting down the bag at the final destination. Additionally, there is the transfer journey. For all legs, users have quite different goals and expectations, so they need to be understood separately. The best way to do this is to have open conversations with individual travellers to gain deep insight into their thoughts, emotions, and stressors. Even a small sample size can provide valuable direction for improvement.

For example, airports can help users with packing requirements, pointing out transportation options and durations, and, most importantly, help them manage their overall time to the gate. A great example of the latter is the Zurich Airport web app.

Zurich Airport app

Zurich Airport's web app provides a step-by-step guide to the journey

2. Be helpful to different types of passengers ("Consider my situation")

Obviously, passengers' needs vary greatly depending on their situation and abilities. Instead of relying on demographic indicators, airports should focus on understanding passengers' psychological needs. This is best done based on situation-specific insights rather than using preconceived personas. The ideal way is "bottom-up": grouping people based on their needs into meaningful travel types of a workable number (e.g. four to seven).

Addressing the needs of different types seems at odds with delivering a centralised experience. However, there are several solutions to this problem. One is to provide additional options or services in a given situation, for each type to choose from. Examples include giving additional information to inexperienced travellers, or providing zones with different offers to passengers after security, based on their needs. Obviously digital solutions can help address highly individualised needs, such as gate location and departure time.

Skin conductance is an interesting measure of what is particularly stressful

3. Tackle pain points ruthlessly ("Save me from stress")

There are three major pain points for most passengers: time management, mental overload from a cascade of tasks, and wayfinding, all three often intertwined. Time management refers to the uncertainty of how long each step and the entire process will take, with a tension between arriving early and wasting time, and arriving late and missing the flight. Mental overload is concentrated upon entering the terminal with simultaneously processing information, finding the right counter (automated or manned?), while congestion and queues add to the stress. Wayfinding extends throughout the terminal journey, with the fear of losing time and energy by missing wayfinding points and walking in the wrong direction.

Skin conductance is an interesting measure of what is particularly stressful and can help identify critical moments in the journey. However, it does not reveal the cause of the stress, which still needs to be explored in open conversations.

There are many solutions for those major pain points, from combining highly visible wayfinding landmarks with situational, context-specific information, to personalised digital assistance. Improving the readability of procedures also helps make them as convenient as possible.

Signage Barcelona Airport

A sign at Barcelona Airport indicates the duration of the security check

It is important to actively facilitate relaxation throughout the journey

4. Improve quality time ("Help me to make the most of my time")

Easing pain points is not the only way to create a positive experience. Setting highlights at neuralgic points of the journey is another approach. For example, as passengers are always on the move and rushing through procedures, it is important to actively facilitate relaxation throughout the journey. Strategically placed rest and refuelling areas can help, as can space for undisturbed repacking before and after security.

Quality time means different things to different people. After security, some people prefer to rest and sleep, while others enjoy watching a movie, playing, shopping, or educating themselves. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is a source of inspiration with a wide range of options, including a library. Also, as flying is the beginning (or the end) of an exciting journey, many passengers are open to new and memorable experiences, which also offers potential for business and differentiation.

Library at Schiphol

Why not read a good book while waiting for your flight? A library at Schiphol 

5. Provide a unique touch ("Make me feel where I am")

Many airports seem to come out of the same "airport factory", with uniform looks, features and activities. However, airports are the gateway to a city or region, whose inhabitants usually are proud of their cultural specialties. Likewise, many passengers have actively chosen their destination for a reason. Even if that's not the case, wouldn't it be nice to get a sense of where you are?

One of the best ways to create a sense of place is to provide a glimpse of the local culture and specialties, giving it a unique character. This not only makes local travellers proud, but also airport employees. And it is a great way to differentiate. Why not have a local museum display some of its art, or a sports team showcase its successes? Standing out in a sea of sameness gives the passenger experience a nice twist.

Rijksmuseum display Schipol

The Rijksmuseum displays some Dutch masters at Schiphol Airport

6. Unify the experience through an overarching guideline ("Make the experience graspable for me")

The overall experience is made up of many individual measures along the passenger journey. For these to have a strong and compelling impact, and thus provide a benefit to both the passenger and the airport, they must consistently strike the same chord.

To achieve this, a clear strategic guideline is needed that brings the experiences under one roof. In this way, solutions do not remain patchwork, but rather contribute to an overall impression, be it an experience or an image goal. In addition to help inspire solutions (and check their fit), a guideline like this also helps steer the many stakeholders that contribute to a coherent impression: process-owners, designers, marketers, concessionaires, and so on. A guideline of this nature needs to be supported at the top of the organisation and should contain actionable design principles that can be easily applied by everyone contributing to the experience.

I hope these findings will help an airport or two optimise the passenger experience they provide. After all, almost all of us are airport guests, at least occasionally, and would be happy to have a more relaxed, enjoyable travel experience.

Christian Vatter, Rlevance

Christian Vatter is a user psychologist and human-centred design strategist. As founder of Berlin-based innovation agency Rlevance, he specialises in creating compelling brands, enjoyable experiences and highly useful places – from retail to hospitality to urban spaces.