What Makes a Great Website?

San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP)
Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

These days, the internet is the first place many passengers check when looking for information about parking, concessions and other ground-based details regarding air travel. Good or bad, an airport’s website acts as its face and leaves an impression on customers. 

“We wanted to make our site the primary source of information for our customers,” says Kevin Bumen, director of airports for San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP). “We’ve tried to put everything on the site that we can think of, like where to park, or if the flight is on time. We want it to be completely comprehensive when planning, traveling or picking up a passenger.”

The website proved especially important when SBP started construction on a new terminal in 2015. Bumen and his team wanted the site to be a repository of useful information and used the landing page to keep travelers updated about the project. Before tweaking the website, the airport received a significant number of phone calls with questions. Now, many travelers find the information they need online.  


Project: Website Development/Improvements

Location: Vancouver Int’l Airport

Site Designer: Habanero Consulting Group 

Platform: Sitecore 

Location: Mojave Air and Space Port

Consultant: Internal staff

Platform: Weebly 

Location: San Luis Obispo
County (CA)
Regional Airport 

Site Map Design: Sixel (no longer in business)

Platform: WordPress 

Ongoing Management & Maintenance:
Airport personnel

“Because of construction, parking and circulation were the primary areas for which people needed information,” says Bumen. 

All airport websites should include weather, official Notice to Airmen updates (NOTAMs) for incoming and outgoing pilots, and flight information, says Jason Buck, director of technology for Mojave Air and Space Port (MHV). Aside from that, each airport has a responsibility to include information pertinent to the unique needs of its community, he adds. 

“Mojave was the first facility to be licensed as an inland spaceport and we have a unique set of information on our site,” says Buck. “The community likes to know what is going on. We encourage everyone to attend board meetings and participate, and the information must be kept up to date on our site.” 

The most important topics to passengers at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) are flight information and details about shops and restaurants, says Senior Communications Specialist Jon Rees. The airport uses color-coded bars on the homepage to clearly display critical information such as NOTAMs. 

Governance Structure Matters

The team at SBP looked at a variety of websites from small, medium and large airports for inspiration, and found that site quality doesn’t necessarily correlate to the size of the airport. 

Bumen was particularly impressed with the user-friendly nature of San Francisco International’s site. “We saw some airport sites that had less intuitive navigation, and we thought it was important to have a two-click goal to get where customers wanted,” he says.

In his opinion, the empowerment and flexibility of the website team in regard to governance structure is a crucial factor in website quality. In part, Bumen’s perspective is based on his previous experience developing a website at Truckee Tahoe Airport, a bi-district general aviation airport that gave staff the broad independence to create a site that would serve the airport and its customers.

“At San Luis Obispo, our site is not hosted within the county’s website, so we have more autonomy to do what we wanted to do,” he adds. 

In late 2015, the site was finalized by SBP’s consultants at Sixel (now defunct) and turned over to the airport. Currently, one operations specialist and an administrative staffer share responsibility for updating the website with new information. Typically, they manage the site six days a week during business hours. 

“Between the web and social channels, that’s a lot to manage for a small staff,” Bumen remarks. “During our terminal opening, we had people monitoring the social channels all day, and now it ebbs and flows. We are an airport that offers service 22 hours a day, but we don’t monitor the social channels 22 hours a day.”  

Rees agrees that governance structure matters when it comes to creating a website that mirrors the needs of an airport’s customers. YVR’s site was ranked No.1 in North America by Airports Council International—North America (ACI-NA) last year. 

“Vancouver International Airport is unique, just like the region surrounding it—not just in terms of its award-winning reputation, but in the way that the airport is operated,” says Rees. “As a community-focused and financially independent company, the way in which our airport operates and governs allows us to support and reinvest in our communities, which includes investing in emerging technologies.”

Mirroring a Sense of Place 

As a general aviation airport and FAA-certified spaceport, MHV has extra requirements for its website. Formerly known as the civilian aerospace test center, MHV was the first U.S. inland airport to be licensed for horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft. In addition, the airport can be used for commercial jet storage because of its arid weather conditions. 

“Nobody really knew what we were doing out here and what we had to offer, and we wanted to bring that out on our site,” explains Buck. “We are both a general aviation airport and spaceport, which many Californians don’t realize. We have 3,000 acres of property to accommodate flight test and operations.”

Three private space companies using aircraft for horizontal launch intend to operate from Mojave, and Buck wanted to highlight that. Civilian flight testing is another area the website addresses. 

“Anyone can come out here, build an airplane, and test it in our airspace,” he says. “We have an unusual airspace. If you can dream it and construct it, you can fly it out here.” 

Buck and his team capture most of the imagery for the website themselves, collaborating with the rest of the staff to ensure they are representing the most current aspects of the facility. “I think our photography makes us stand out,” he says. “We try to take great pictures, and that’s the first thing people see on our site. If a homepage is boring, viewers will move on. But if they see something that is ‘Whoa, amazing!’ they will stay and come back.”  

On SBP’s site, most of the facility images, especially those of the new terminal, are professional photos provided by project partners. Staff members capture images for day-to-day updates to save time and money. 

The visuals on YVR’s website reflect the pride that the airport and city take in their local history and people. “Our top two objectives were to convey a sense of place and provide our passengers with easy access to desired information,” says YVR Senior Communication Specialist Chris Devauld. “We incorporate art and colors, connecting British Columbia to the world. Our imagery is matched to the region and our native tribes, and we change out the visuals regularly.”

The site also highlights that Skytrax has ranked YVR the best airport in North American for nine consecutive years.

Choosing a Platform, Staying Current

A plethora of platforms are available for website creation, with new players entering the game regularly; PC Magazine identifies up-and-comers Wix, Squarespace and Simvoly as strong options. Deciding which is the best fit can be intimidating. 

SBP worked with website project manager/designer Kyle Elliot from Sixel to design its site map in conjunction with the airport team. The ability to maintain and manage the site in-house was a key priority. Bumen and the project team chose to build the new site on WordPress, an open-source platform often used by bloggers for its simplicity and all-in-one interface.  

 “On our previous website, the content management system was very difficult to work with, and it was outdated,” says Bumen. “With limited staff resources, putting the right amount of input for the right amount of output is important. As soon as you start falling behind on content, it snowballs pretty quickly. If you go months without updating it, it can be very difficult to catch up.”

MHV started to build its new site about three years ago. Personnel opted to steer away from the WordPress platform, which they had been using for several years, in favor of Weebly. The Weebly platform, often used by teachers and schools, is known as a WYSIWYG editor—short for “what you see is what you get.” The portal features drag-and-drop interface instead of manual coding, which requires more technical skills. 

“We found a template in Weebly that matched our color scheme and built it ourselves,” Buck reports. 

While happy with MHV’s current site, the team is also open to finding new ways to make it easier for customers. 

“The only foreseeable change is updating graphics and logos,” says Buck. “I registered with Google and Bing and added key words to search engines to make our site easier to find. Customer feedback has been positive. When we get critiques, we tweak things accordingly, as appropriate.” 

YVR chose Sitecore, a customer experience management platform based on Microsoft’s ASP.NET framework. Flexibility, functionality and integration capabilities were key selection criteria. The project team also focused on finding a platform that was adept at serving cellphones and tablets, as more than half of YVR’s website traffic comes from mobile devices.  

 “It had been a good chunk of time since we had updated our site, and we wanted something more intuitive,” says Rees. “We wanted a site based on how the passengers actually use the airport, including what they search for and what they need. Then, we created a hierarchy in Sitecore and made it mobile compatible.”

Devauld was responsible for implementing the new site in 2015, and worked closely with the design firm, Habanero. “We consulted with every department to ensure all needs were met and tried to understand the website from different perspectives,” he says. “The team created an information hierarchy and based the list of features on priority.”

The result is a site that includes real-time flight information, options to book various airport amenities such as parking and lounges, and other passenger information in English, French and Mandarin. The airport has received very positive feedback about the site’s multi-language capabilities, reports Devauld. 

In addition to fully optimizing the site for mobile use, the communications team at YVR is proactively addressing recent worldwide controversies about user privacy. “We are adding [European Union] regulations on information gathering now,” says Rees. “It’s not mandatory, but we feel it’s important to be the best we can be. We’re always trying to improve the passenger experience, like updating the passenger guide and looking at analytics to prioritize.”


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