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5 Lessons Airports Can Learn from Successful Businesses

A few weeks ago, while doing my daily airline and airport news reading, I came across a blog post by Seth Godin called 11 things organizations can learn from airports. The author, an entrepreneur and public speaker, said he recently realized he does not dislike flying, but instead dislikes airports. While the blog post is less about airports themselves and more a collection of “how not to” comparisons, it set me to thinking what airports might in turn learn from other organizations and businesses.

I feel strongly that some relatively simple improvements to the airport experience would not only make airports less stressful and confusing places, but could also potentially improve the bottom line for airlines and airports alike — not to mention their public image. If people were happier and more comfortable in the airport, they’d be less likely to view travel as an unwelcome ordeal, and more likely to take non-essential trips and thus spend money in the airport.

You don’t have to look to forward-looking, “cool” companies with artsy campuses, in-house daycare, employee playgrounds and climbing walls for ideas. We’ve culled the following suggestions from places like fast food franchises, locally owned businesses, shopping malls and even the local CVS. To that end, here are five simple things airports might learn from businesses.

1. Post some maps.

If nearly every amusement park and shopping mall in the country can post easy-to-understand maps all over the place, certainly large airports that serve millions of people could do the same — but at most airports these maps are hard to find, hard to read and not particularly informative.

Of course you can find terminal maps here and there, but they are far too few in number to have much impact, and they most often look like an architect’s blueprints of the terminal, with gate numbers and not much else — as opposed to guides to where you are, where to go, where to find food, where to catch a bus or train or pick up your rental car, where to collect your bags, where to find your airline check-in and the like. Even the airport Web site maps are incomplete and overly simplified. Check out this “Interactive Flash” (woohoo) map of the Philadelphia Airport. Looking at this map, it would appear that the only place to get food is in between Terminals B and C — everyone else can starve. But if you have been to the airport, you know this isn’t the case; there are plenty of places to eat in each terminal.

So you click a bit more, and find that the Flash map has a “Food & Shops” tab, where you can find a list of all the shops by terminal, featuring a fairly generous list of options ranging from pretzel stands to sit-down restaurants. But they are displayed in list form; the maps don’t show where in each terminal these are located, so you still have to find them by exploring on your own.

You can try using a smartphone app for this information, but the fact that airports have ceded this role to third-party smartphone apps — some of them incomplete or inaccurate to boot — seems almost silly. Why should you need to connect to the Internet to find your way through a building in which you are physically standing?

And this information does matter. Since you can’t bring water or certain types of food through security, knowing where to buy that stuff on the other side of the checkpoints would be very helpful. Is there a shop near your gate, or should you get something as soon as you pass through security? Will there be a restroom nearby or will you have to trudge back 20 gates to visit one before your flight? These little bits of information could make a positive difference in many ways: less traveler anxiety, more sales for airport shops and more efficient boarding times with fewer passengers running late.

2. Offer security checkpoint status updates.

For as long as I can remember, electronic signs on the New Jersey Turnpike have told drivers the least crowded route to take across the George Washington Bridge in New York City — upper level or lower level. These signs have almost always been accurate in my experience. Obviously, steering approaching traffic toward the less crowded route is safer, more efficient and beneficial to everyone.

I know that the TSA likes to attribute procedural inconsistencies to trying to keep potential terrorists off balance, but it seems like some kind of status update system that would steer travelers to less crowded security checkpoints would help the good guys more than the bad guys. Honest travelers would get through security faster, agents at the busiest checkpoints would get relief faster and terrorists would be less likely to slip undetected past stressed-out, overworked security officers.

This might be expensive, but I figure if someone’s been able to tell us which side of the Turnpike to take for the past 20 years, someone can tell us which security gate is most full and steer us elsewhere.

3. Manage lines better.

At some point in the last few decades, the standard customer greeting went from “May I help you?” (directed toward the customer whom staff had determined was next in line) to “Can I help who’s next?” — which leaves it to customers to throw some elbows to establish their spot in line. Everyone adapted, and that is the norm now, but sometimes airports hardly even try to do that. It can be hard to know if there is a line, and if so where it starts and ends, where to stand, and when it is really your turn.

Even in a CVS or McDonald’s — hardly models of superb customer service — there are clear signs that read “Place Prescription/Order Here” and “Pick Up Prescription/Order Here.” At Panera, when you place your order, they give you a piece of plastic and your drink cups; you go get your drinks and pick a seat, and when your food is ready, the piece of plastic lights up and vibrates, and you go get your food. No standing 10 deep, no banging elbows, no survival of the rudest.

Meanwhile, at airports, for most places you need to stand in line — and I can think of at least three or four on every trip you’ll make — line management is inconsistent and often unclear; sometimes it is very tight, sometimes non-existent.

For example, at check-in, there is often one line for a long row of 25 – 30 check-in kiosks. Sometimes there’s an airline staffer overseeing this process, but other times there’s no notification when one comes open — so the travelers are all gesturing to each other which ones are open, which are working, etc.

At the gate, maybe there is a cord establishing about six feet of “aisle,” while agents mostly badger people to stay away and not to swarm the gate. This just seems to encourage people all the more, until each new announcement results in a slightly larger bumrush on the gangway door. One exception here: Southwest has established a numbered boarding system, with poles where each cluster of numbers stands. It is sometimes a bit inelegant, but at least the airline is trying.

Then at baggage claim, it’s another swarm with no attempt at guidance of any kind; once again, stake out a spot or be left behind.
Sure, an airport is not a McDonald’s or a Panera, but I have seen lines managed extremely efficiently in all sorts of situations — at crowded amusement parks, at Apple stores, at ticket outlets, at Grateful Dead concerts — surely airports could give this a shot.

4. Add more electrical outlets.

A few years ago, when renovating our house, our contractor told us about a local building code dictating that any new wallspace would need an electrical outlet every six feet. I know that many airports were built long before current building codes were written, but if they want the passenger experience to improve, this is one modern upgrade that would have high returns both in goodwill and increased business.

Given that we need to use up our gadget batteries to find a darn map of the airport, maybe a place to charge them would help. But at best the airports have mostly conceded this to Samsung charging stations or the like, and at worst let us compete amongst ourselves for meager outlet resources, yet again.

This is one amenity that I think would catapult some airports up the “best airport lists,” resulting in better revenue for the airports; when passengers view the airport as a more hospitable place, they are more likely to spend more time and money there. Give us a place to charge our laptops and gadgets so that when we get on the plane and get off at the other end, we have enough charge to get by.

5. Add more cool and fun stuff.

My small town is home to three locally owned businesses — a coffee shop, a frozen yogurt place and a luncheonette — that all display a constant rotation of art installations on their walls. The art is mostly created and hung by local artists, often at no expense to the respective establishments. The artists hang the art, and can put a price on it, giving them an instant high-profile marketplace. In some cases, businesses contact local schools, and elementary school kids get to see their art in a public place, which is both exciting and encouraging for young folks.

To be sure, many airports have public art installations, but they’re often oddly located: along corridors, outside the check-in, at baggage claim, all places in which travelers are mostly on the move. Placing interesting stuff in waiting areas would improve the ambience of those areas considerably, and it wouldn’t take much. If Twist Yogurt can do new monthly art installations at almost no cost to the store, and Small World can do 24 art shows each year, then certainly an airport can do it.

So there you have it: five ideas found in small-town coffee shops and drug stores, generic shopping malls and franchise chains, amusements parks and the New Jersey Turnpike, and even the township code enforcement office that would help travelers and airports alike survive the tedious experience of passing through a modern domestic airport. Any other great ideas you have seen that would work well in an airport? Let us know in the comments!

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