Airport operators can spend millions on new construction, renovations and the latest customer amenities, but none of it affects a traveler's satisfaction more than an extended wait time.
Of course, air travel is full of opportunities to wait - from the time it takes to find a parking spot or catch a shuttle bus ... to checking in, clearing security and finding the right gate ... to flight delays, missed connections and reclaiming checked baggage.
Waiting is an airport traveler's unwelcome, yet constant, companion. If any point in the process takes longer than expected, the airport's complaint meter will likely start to spike.
Former Harvard professor David H. Maister has devoted his career to the study of lines and the psychology of waiting in them. He has found that it's not just a matter of losing patience. Waiting can make an individual feel demeaned, dismissed and even humiliated.
Maister's First Law of Service maintains that Satisfaction = Perception - Experience.
Orlando International Airport (MCO) has spent more than a decade improving customer satisfaction, through several pioneering programs under an initiative it calls "The Orlando Experience.(r)
In addition to enhancing its terminal design and amenities, MCO has integrated several key programs designed to reduce wait times and streamline U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) functions for international travelers. While the changes will no doubt increase customer satisfaction, transforming the way international passengers are processed is also crucial to MCO's operations.
Growth in the airport's international traffic has set records for the past four years, and this year is no exception. With increases currently trending in the double digits, 2013 is expected to be the biggest year yet for MCO's international passenger traffic. More than 3.8 million people are expected to pass through its CBP facilities.
Warming the Welcome
Project: Automated Passport Control Systems
Location: Orlando Int'l Airport
Funding: Airport Research & Development
System Design & Manufacture: SITA
Components: 10 Free-Standing Kiosks
Size: 300 mm long, 300 mm wide, 1,900 mm tall
Weight: Up to 150 Kg
Administration & Mgmt: U.S. Customs & Border Protection
In April, airport and CBP officials announced that MCO would be the first airport in the nation to automate I-94 forms. The new process pulls in information already input into international travelers' records, shaving off at least 20 seconds per passenger, say CBP officials. The change is expected to save millions of dollars for both CBP and the travel and tourism industry.
MCO was also previously at the forefront of using technology to expedite security procedures for domestic passengers through the CLEAR and TSA Pre-check programs.
More recently, the airport was designated to participate in the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. State Department's Model Port initiative. As such, it was challenged to develop a "warmer welcome to travelers and provide a more intuitive process by improving signage, communications, and using technology to facilitate entry." One of the program's specific goals is to "create a calm, pleasant Customs waiting area and streamline the customs process."
MCO chose to answer the challenge with new technology and services.
R & D Pays Off
In "The Psychology of Waiting Lines," Maister points out a powerful source of line anxiety -that "unfair waits" seem longer than "fair waits."
Even though it's commonly accepted that citizens of a port country have much shorter lines than international entrants, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority is working to make those lines more equitable. Executive Director Phil Brown is investing $500,000 from MCO's research and development fund to streamline non-U.S. residents' experience in Customs.
While Brown would have preferred to secure federal funding for the project, he acknowledges that there are "enormous benefits" for the airport in developing a system that will shorten wait times for international passengers and save money in the process.
"It's three-pronged: move personnel, improve the ability to process, allow more people to be processed," he explains.
The result of the aviation authority's initiative was dubbed Automated Passport Control (APC). SITA, an air transport communications and information technology company, developed the new system, working in concert with CBP. MCO will become the first airport in the United States to incorporate this self-service technology into its international arrival process.
In the coming weeks, crews are scheduled install 10 APC kiosk prototypes in the U.S. Customs area of MCO satellite terminals 1 and 4. For users, the process is similar to the Global Entry program currently available to U.S. residents. Individuals are vetted in advance, and interview questions are not required at the airport.
"Wait time can be a serious issue," says Sean Farrell, SITA's product portfolio director. "The sooner you can get passengers through Customs the better, as no one wants travelers kept on the airplane."
Extended waits, Farrell adds, affect everyone - passengers, the airport, airlines and CBP.
The freestanding APC kiosks will scan non-U.S. residents' passports, take their photographs, read biometric data such as fingerprints and transmit the data to CBP. After the information is captured, the kiosks print a bar-coded receipt, which passengers present to a CBP officer. The officer scans the bar code and completes the immigration process.
Customer service representatives from SITA will be on hand initially to help users through the learning curve associated with using the new APC kiosks. MCO will also post multilingual ambassadors to help passengers.
Beyond saving time and money, MCO may have one other compelling reason for expediting international travelers through Customs: for thousands of children, it's one of the last things between them and "the happiest place on Earth." That might be the best reason to keep lines moving.