Survey Says: It Pays to Know What Customers Are Thinking

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

As competition for passengers grows fierce, some airports are turning into freestanding, amenity-filled cities in their own right. Those actively engaged in the "amenities/service race" often consult survey data to guide their ongoing improvement efforts. 

J.D. Power, a mainstay in consumer satisfaction research, offered this observation in its latest North American study: "Airports have undergone a major cultural shift, as traveler experience has become the focal point of airports' strategy to improve overall passenger satisfaction." The firm also notes a widespread emphasis on terminal facilities-the factor its research indicates has greatest impact on overall airport satisfaction.

Project: Measuring Customer Satisfaction
Data Sources: Airport Service Quality program; in-house surveys on iPads; ad hoc research; comments via social media 
Volume: 4,000-5,000 surveys/yr
Project: Measuring Customer Satisfaction
Data Sources: Airline surveys; social media posts
Volume: 1,000 surveys/quarter
Project: Measuring Customer Satisfaction
Data Sources: Multiple-choice questions during Wi-Fi log-in; social media responses; focus groups; Airport Service Quality program; third-party surveys
Volume: 2,500 surveys/day
Est. Total Surveys: 920,000/yr
Research Staff: 2
Research Budget: $225,000/yr (excluding personnel costs)

This year, Portland International ranked highest in satisfaction among large airports on the J.D. Power survey, followed by Tampa International. Dallas Love Field and Southwest Florida International tied for the top nod among medium-sized airports. 

What sets these airports apart? Clearly, they all strive to learn what their customers are thinking, and not just through the annual J.D. Power survey. Top-performing facilities use many methods to track and improve their performance: in-house and third-party research; customer comments on social media; and results from Airport Service Quality, the global benchmarking program administered by Airports Council International.  

Leveraging Wi-Fi 
In addition to recent wins on the J.D. Power survey, Tampa International Airport (TPA) has been recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the top three U.S. airports since 2013. Readers describe the Florida facility as "easy to navigate" and even "the model for all U.S. airports." With a reputation like that to preserve, TPA doesn't cut corners when it comes to gathering passenger data. 

The Airport Service Quality program is a key tool for the airport, but it also hires a third-party firm to survey departing passengers at random intervals. Additionally, it runs survey questions that pop up every time passengers log onto the airport's Wi-Fi network. In-house programmers created the system and template for the Wi-Fi survey, and TPA staff members administer it. Kenneth Strickland, senior manager of Research and Evaluation for the airport, compares the program and its results dashboard to SurveyMonkey, a mainstream online tool. 

"The Wi-Fi at TPA is free and has been since the beginning. It's one of the essential elements of our brand," advises Strickland. "We want airport visitors to be comfortable when they're here and feel like they're just hanging out in a great space. There's no advertising on our Wi-Fi, but we do ask guests to complete a quick survey before getting online, and most guests don't mind doing that in exchange for the free high-speed access. People can opt out easily, but most don't. Our response rate is 59 percent."

Each customer who logs on receives a maximum of five multiple-choice questions, which the airport team updates frequently. "We can collect about 2,500 surveys per day," Strickland reports. "With that much data, we can get very granular."

Typically, the airport runs three to five surveys at any given time, and questions are asked for a variety of purposes. Collecting zip code information, for instance, tells his team whether travelers 
are local. 

In July, a top priority was gauging how the $1 billion construction project currently underway is affecting traveler experience. "Tampa Bay's airport is beloved in the community, and we are well known for our commitment to customer service," says Strickland. "That didn't change just because we are under construction. Our mantra has been: We're an airport first, a construction zone second.

"By doing regular surveys, starting just after we broke ground in late 2014, we can measure how and if construction is impacting the passengers' trips. We want to be able to adjust quickly if needed. Fortunately, we have never exceeded 6% of passengers saying they are heavily or moderately impacted, and we trend closer to 3%." 

Through the Airport Service Quality program, officials discovered that ambiance is very important to TPA customers. In subsequent ad hoc and online surveys, the airport asks where passengers are located when answering particular questions, so staff can identify and improve areas that may need attention. Changes can include adding greenery for visual appeal, shifting noisy construction projects to off-peak hours and increasing janitorial staff during high-traffic periods, explains Strickland.  

"The data we collect sparks a lot of conversations with our construction team, janitorial team and operations team," he notes. "With 2,500 surveys per day, we can get a good cross section for even the smallest segments."

The airport uses Wi-Fi surveys when there is not enough time for a full-blown market survey. As TPA prepared to redevelop its concessions program, debate swirled internally about emphasizing local brands vs. national brands. Strickland's team consequently tested passenger opinions on the subject. With attention turning toward public transportation options between downtown and the airport, the team gathered enough data after a week or two to estimate the number of passengers interested in such service. 

When renderings of a consolidated rental car center began circulating, the team realized the future facility would be pivotal to the airport's brand; so it completed a large, in-house brand study with focus groups. Response from passengers indicated clear concerns about potential disruption, and the airport knew to tread carefully. "We're expanding to accommodate more passengers, and it's a delicate balance to ensure we keep our passengers happy," explains Strickland. 

Survey data also helps the airport serve particular populations of passengers. Knowing that 40% of its travelers are older than 55, TPA works to eliminate dark spaces and sharp corners in its facilities. As a result, designers have created cleaner sightlines for easier wayfinding.  

Overall, Strickland pegs the incremental value of TPA's survey program at more than $2 million. "Since we launched this program, we have received over 3 million surveys at no cost to us, and we can see via social media that our passengers appreciate the option," he advises. 

Using surveys and focus groups, Strickland estimates that TPA has completed $300,000 to $400,000 worth of brand work in-house for less than $20,000. Research results were used to create the airport's brand standards and a first-time brand manual. 

"One firm suggested a sand creation as a centerpiece in the terminal, and through focus groups we discovered that what gets passengers really excited is the visual stimulation of water," Strickland says. "The Florida experience starts in the air, when passengers are landing here. We need to embody that Florida feeling from the time they get off the plane to the time they leave."

The airport even used surveys to improve its already-popular spring Runway Run. Based on customer feedback, the team changed the shirts that promote the event and added more portable restrooms on race day. This year, they achieved a 22% survey response rate and a tough-to-beat 96% satisfaction rate.  

"We believe strongly in disclosing our survey results with other airports," says Strickland. "Not many airports have market research people on staff like we do; we share our tactics with other airports and I am contacted regularly with requests to share our process. Healthy airports and healthy airlines are good for everyone, so it's important to us to help out." 

We're Listening 
Passengers love Portland International Airport (PDX) so much that even its carpet has a hashtag: #pdxcarpet. When the airport replaced the iconic floorcovering last year, it also created a cubist collage in its honor.

But carpeting isn't the only thing passengers love about PDX. The Oregon airport is consistently lauded for its customer service, and it topped the large airport category in the 2015 J.D. Power survey. PDX keeps an even closer eye on customer satisfaction via a steady stream of in-house surveys

The airport's own research and strategic analysis team develops and administers the studies. Using iPads and a quantitative 10-point scale, onsite personnel ask visitors about facility cleanliness, staff courtesy, speed of service, and then drill down from there. In total, they survey 4,000 to 5,000 passengers annually, and social media channels funnel in other additional comments. 

"We want to be a place where passengers love to hang out," says Public Information Officer Kama Simonds. "The closest major airport is three hours away, and very few passengers complain about getting here."

The airport also conducts a terminal user survey five times per year to collect demographic and determine how its passenger base may be changing. The survey collects information such as age, gender, trip purpose, point of origin, checked bags, etc. 

"We're interested in the passenger experience and recommendations for improvement," says Walt Marchbanks, customer relations manager for the Port of Portland. Recent comments include requests for more comfortable seating and more power outlets in gate areas, reports Marchbanks. Feedback about baby changing tables and lighting helped prioritize previous projects, he adds. 

According to Simonds, it's all about heeding passenger requests whenever possible. "On Concourse A, passengers were routinely expressing frustration about our flight information display system (FIDS) screens," she relates. When the airport upgraded the concourse, passenger input influenced the decision to purchase bigger screens and where to place them. "Our surveys are a great source of data from our customers," says Simonds.

PDX also has an active customer information team that answers the white paging phone in the terminal and responds to emails in addition to monitoring feedback from surveys and social media. Everything is tracked and analyzed, notes Simonds. "We're not assuming, we're actively asking questions," she emphasizes.

When passengers click "contact us" on the Port of Portland website, their messages are sent to the airport, where personnel track and categorize the comments. The team captures metadata, and then aggregates and analyzes it. Results are used in annual reports and three-year collections.  

"As time changes, our tool changes," Marchbanks comments. "Now, we can reach customers through social media. You have to evolve through time and see which ways your customer wants to communicate. We're using Facebook and Twitter as well as our conventional methods."

Recognizing the powerful affect that passenger screening has on customer satisfaction, PDX includes local TSA personnel in its airport-wide customer service program. Marchbanks reports that the relationship is excellent on both sides. The PDX team monitors survey responses about the TSA checkpoint and has implemented various amenities to stave off undesirable scores. 

During the 2016 summer travel season, the Port of Portland hired 16 contract security officers for line management, to help free TSA officers for screening duties. The contract helpers worked eight hours per day from June 12 through Labor Day. "The Port has been working actively with the TSA to avoid adverse experiences, and I feel that we have the best TSA team in the nation," says Marchbanks.

Simonds agrees that it's important to take a holistic approach and survey passengers about specific details such as security, check-in and getting to the airport. "Sometimes, the airport team is not the only owner of that process, so we have to look at those comments carefully to see which elements are in our control or which we need to work on with our partners and vendors," she explains. "Our ultimate goal is to help our travelers."

Airline Info 
Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) was bursting at the seams before its new $438 million terminal opened in September 2005 with three concourses, 28 gates and the ability to expand to five concourses and 65 gates over time. As such, officials remember an important caveat when comparing survey results with other similar-sized airports: RSW is relatively new. 

"Our airport facility is only 10 years old and still has the 'new-car smell'," says Vicki Moreland, director of Communications and Marketing for the Lee County Port Authority Department. "Because it was the first terminal built since 9/11, we were designed in the post-9/11 environment. We have concessions before and after Security. We have the latest infrastructure, so when we benchmark with other airports our size, our wayfinding, customer amenities and cleanliness are off the charts because our facility is so new." 

The airport receives a windfall of customer satisfaction information from one of its largest airlines, which surveys passengers monthly. Data includes general satisfaction levels and specific feedback about security, concessions, cleanliness and parking. Quarterly reports provide customer demographics and allow RSW to see how it stacks up against other similar-sized airports. 

In one survey report, the RSW team noticed that the airport's cleanliness ratings declined slightly during the busy winter travel season. Feedback from customers via social media echoed the sentiment. The airport quickly shared the data with Triangle Services, its cleaning provider, and increased the maintenance budget to allow for more janitorial staff. 

In a similar vein, the airport regularly shares pertinent feedback with SP+, its parking vendor, and HMSHost and Paradies for concessions.

If scores decline in any area, the airport takes note and strives to proactively make improvements, notes Moreland. "For instance, RSW has met or exceeded the standards in satisfaction for our security wait times," she remarks. "But last season, we saw the scores slide down. Not alarmingly so, but it was a driving factor for us to budget additional funds to hire an outside firm to help manage the lines for the next winter travel season." 

When questions or comments arrive via social media or the airport's website, a trained team of five professionals work with Moreland to respond promptly. They also send copies of specific feedback to RSW executives and other partners. "We track all feedback so if we see a trend, we can do something about it," Moreland says. "Most of the information comes through email into one central location, which means we handle responses very quickly." 

RSW personnel also make a point to spend time out in the community, listening to what local residents say about the airport. "It's important to get specific feedback to make positive changes," says Moreland. "A citizen may not be looking at the parking the same way an infrequent traveler might. So if we survey approximately 800 people per quarter and determine whether they are visitors or residents, it helps from a problem-solving standpoint."

She cites Wi-Fi service and the cellphone lot as specific examples of amenities the airport has improved based on passenger survey data. 

"Customer care is important to us," she emphasizes. "If we are recommending that travelers arrive two to three hours prior to their flight departure, this means they will be in our airport for a considerable period of time, and we need to anticipate and meet their needs while they are here." 



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