I'm not suggesting that airports start installing roller coasters, fairy-tale castles, and cartoon character meet and greets. I suppose the airplane trips themselves already feel a lot like the world's most expensive 4D rides — stare at a screen for three hours while your seat shakes and moves! And airports and the airlines that operate within them pioneered the businesses of variable pricing and upselling years before theme parks go into that act.
No, where airports need to emulate theme parks better is in the way that they manage and service the millions of people who pass through them every year.
Modern airports demonstrate a mastery of complex logistics — but for planes, not necessarily for the passengers who fly in them. Airlines spend ungodly amounts of money to learn how to turn around the flights in as little time as possible, maximizing the income they can earn while planes are in the air. Gate schedules and ground traffic control support the airlines' efforts to get people and luggage off and on, garbage off, and fuel and refreshments back on a plane with no delay.
So long as people are in place at the gate to get on when the plane is ready to move, the airport has done its job, in the airlines' view. But the experience that people endure on their way to the gate too often leaves them feeling frustrated — if not defeated and angry — setting the stage for disappointment and too often in recent months, conflict. Surely, there's a better way to handle the flow of tens of thousands of people on a daily basis?
There is, and theme parks are the experts in doing that.
The big problem here is that airports need to start caring as much about passengers as they do about airlines. While every airport management team in America will say that they care about their passengers, the decisions they make about their operations betray their true loyalty. Airports want passenger satisfaction the way that a little kid wants a pony from Santa Claus. Wishing and hoping are nice, but they rarely get the job done.
I've been flying a lot more than usual over the past year, but no matter what airport I'm flying through in the United States, I can guarantee you I will see a huge line of people spilling into and blocking the hallway in front of the Starbucks. And that there will be a huge, unruly mass of people swarming 20 feet away from any gate where a flight is scheduled to leave within the next 30 minutes.
Don't think they're so unruly? Try to push your way to the front and see how people react.
We see these crowd flow problems because too many U.S airports continue to operate under a 20th century model, before the threat of long lines at TSA checkpoints pushed people to arrive long before their flight times and when people could bring their own beverages into the airport and on their planes.
The number-one thing airports could do to improve their operational efficiency — and therefore, their guest satisfaction — is to double, if not triple the number (or at least, capacity) of the coffee counters in their terminals. Maybe it's Starbucks, or maybe it's a well-respected regional chain. (As a Californian, I love seeing Peet's in airports where I fly.) But people want their coffee, and airports need to quit making them wait such long lines to get it.
Airports don't have unlimited space for expansion, of course. So what needs to go to make way for all those extra coffee counters? Easy. When was the last time you saw people buying an armful of magazines and newspapers to read on a plane? Just like when we're on the ground, we pass our time in the air with digital entertainment now, whether it's via seat-back video systems or in-flight entertainment apps. Yet airports continue to devote valuable retail space for enormous newsstands that typically end up selling mostly bottled water and a few snacks. Guess what? People could buy those at the coffee counters if the lines weren't so long.
The last time I was in LAX I had to stop myself from laughing when the only two other people in a newsstand store were there to buy bottled Frappuccinos... because the line at the Starbucks across the way was too long for them to make their flight. The allocation of retail space in too many airport terminals is simply absurd.
Airports would know this if they more consistently tracked wait times, guests served per hour, and theoretical guests capacity, in addition to sales and inventory data — the way that theme parks routinely do for their attractions and retail locations. If wait times at the Starbucks were part of an airport's success metric the way that on-time departures are, you'd better believe we'd see a lot more coffee counters in the nation's airports.
Airports and concessionaires love long-term contracts because they provide both sides with the economic security that the concessionaires need to recoup their investment and that the airports need to support their operations. But when contracts get so long that the airport can no longer adjust to shifting consumer needs, well, that's when we end up with empty newsstands and overflowing Starbucks.
At the gate, airports need better queuing design to speed flow onto plane and reduce congestion at the gate. In the United States, Southwest Airlines come closest to getting this right. People are going to stand around gate near boarding time. You might as well organize that and put people into an ordered queue rather than leaving them to amass in an unstructured crowd. Other airlines' "boarding zones" don't provide enough structure to prevent that. Why not try better to do this right?
Ultimately, elected officials need to stand up for the people who elected them and demand more consideration for passengers in their community's airport. Local officials can address retail concerns at individual airports, but we need federal leadership to challenge airline operations.
The silly — yet so frustrating — thing about this is that these problems can be fixed. There's no inviolate law of physics or even economics that prevents airports from providing the stuff people want and from airlines from moving their passengers more efficiently before they get on the plane. The problem is one of inertia — of overcoming the habit of the way things have been done in enormously expensive, hard-to-change capital developments.
I get that. But theme parks aren't exactly cheap and easy to build, either. If the theme park industry figured out how to more efficiently manage and service crowds, airports can, too.
The question is... do they care enough to try?Tweet
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