It's All About Improvement

Paul Behnke
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Paul Behnke

Paul Behnke is the North American representative for Airports Council International's ASQ (Airport Service Quality) survey and AMPAP-ACI team leader for training. For many years, Behnke was responsible for developing and coordinating economics and security policies with ACI members and served as secretary to the economics and security standing committees and the air cargo sub-committee.

Before joining ACI, Behnke served as chief of transportation and environmental affairs at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels, with his final diplomatic post taking him to five continents. His career specialty was economics, with a special interest in aero-political affairs. As the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe in the mid-1980s, Behnke represented his government on a broad range of subjects, including East-West trade and energy policy issues. Previously, he served as special advisor on international affairs to the governor of Missouri.

If you ever want to get me really irritated, just throw me the statement: "Airports are monopoly service providers that need heavy government regulation." That drives me absolutely nuts, and I've been arguing to the contrary for 15 years.

My first counter argument is that if airports are truly monopolies, they would behave like monopolies. Why would virtually every airport enterprise have a marketing department? Why would hundreds of airports gather at the "routes" conference each year to interact with air carriers to attract new air services? This hardly seems like monopolistic behavior.

There's a lot more. Airports compete with each other for origin and destination passengers with airports near their catchment area, and they compete for low-cost air services as well. Indeed, in the United States, attracting Southwest Airlines to an airport is a cause for a major celebration. They also compete for transit passengers and cargo services. Dubai, for example, competes with other hubs including Seoul, Tokyo-Narita, Osaka-Kansai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok for European passengers going to and from Australia and New Zealand. It also competes on the same fronts with airports closer to home in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Airports also compete with alternative modes of transport, particularly rail and auto, on shorter flight segments. And finally, airports compete with local businesses for retail and food/beverage sales, for office space rentals and for hotel market share.

All of these competitive forces drive airports to be more efficient and to keep prices in check.

Benchmarking Drives Improvement

Customer service has taken on more importance for airport operators over the past decade. This, in turn, has led to the rapid growth of ASQ (airport service quality), ACI's quarterly survey that measures airport performance in 34 service items. In 2011, it will likely include more than 200 airports.

I believe there are four forces driving this trend:

1. The competitive marketplace discussed above puts a premium on a positive airport experience. It's tough to market your airport to carriers if it has poor customer service and substandard terminal and airside infrastructure.

2. The airport is the gateway to a community and region; the impression it leaves with business and leisure passengers is critical and has a direct impact in economic terms.

3. Airport operators increasingly look worldwide to evaluate best practices in customer service; ASQ provides that global scope.

4. With airlines drastically cutting service, the airport experience may well be the only positive aspect of a journey. Airport operators know that the airport is often blamed for factors it cannot control, such as unfriendly security personnel or misrouted baggage. Participating in ASQ is a way to measure how performance across a wide-range of parameters impacts passengers. It also provides solid factual evidence to share with stakeholders, encourages a spirit of accountability and helps drive improvements. At least two major U.S. airports have successfully used ASQ data to trigger better performance from TSA.

Friendly Competition

Every year, ACI presents awards to the airports that achieve the highest ASQ in each of five regions. These awards are a source of great pride, and some airports display banners in the terminal hailing the achievement. Awards are great, but only the top five in each category will win. For the vast majority of airports, ASQ is really more about improving and sustaining good performance over the long haul.

To keep the program fresh and encourage feedback from participating airports, ACI and DKMA, the company that runs the survey, hold annual evaluative forums. After attending the past three North American airport forums, I'm impressed with the way many airports have incorporated ASQ data into their strategic planning. When looking for ways to improve, they target service areas that will provide the maximum benefit to passengers.

Also noteworthy is the spirit of cooperation among ASQ airports. Airport operators freely share their experiences; there is no secrecy about best practices. In fact, there is an active network of ASQ "gurus" who regularly share information within the region.

ASQ starts with the premise that the most valuable airport to benchmark against is your own. Subsequent benchmarking against other airports then puts data in perspective against the best in class and shows where more resources are needed. The program is based on the credo: "If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it."

In the competitive aviation marketplace, airport operators worldwide are recognizing that good customer service is a pre-condition for success.

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