Evolving Customer Expectations

Evolving Customer Expectations

Reading Time: 6 minutes


How can airports meet evolving customer expectations?

As customer service standards continue to rise, people understandably expect outstanding products and services that cater to their expectations, in any – and every – setting.

At airports, attention has rapidly shifted in recent years to improving the customer experience, as travellers see efficient and enjoyable airport environment as a point of difference.

Connecting airports with their customers

As aviation consultants, we are often asked by our airport clients ‘how can we effectively connect with our customers?’. This question affects many aspects of the airport’s design, operations and management, including the airport brand identity, spatial design, processing, commercial strategy and digital transformation – among other critical aspects.

Historically, air carriers have been focusing on Customer Experience, to build customer loyalty and competitive advantage. Airports are now increasingly active in this domain, due to evolving passenger expectations but also to new technologies making it possible for airports to improve their customer engagement. In addition, the acceleration of new technologies enabling digital travel documents and touchless passenger processing, partly triggered by the Covid-19-related measures, provides a new context for airport to rethink their customer experience approach.

To increase connectivity with customers, we believe there are three main questions that each airport should explore:

  1. Who are the airport’s customers?
    • Start from the customer perspective to understand the various segments and their attributes. This covers not only passengers, but also visitors, meet & greeters, airport employees and other categories as applicable.


  1. What are their respective journeys?
    • By mapping the customer journey, key touchpoints can be identified where and how the airport can engage with its customers. Mapping can cover not only the physical journey , but also aspects before and after the airport experience, such as parking, public transport and access.


  1. What is the expected level of service?
    • For each customer touchpoint, there are options ranging from Required (i.e. minimum service), Expected (known standards that customers look for) and Valued (extra features that create a ‘wow-factor’)


The combination of the three objectives forms the successful customer experience formula. Naturally, the outcome largely depends on the airport, its vision and ambition levels.

Identifying customer personas

The first step to enhancing your customer experience is to establish who your customers are and their share of the airport’s customer base. Your main customer types will usually fall into a few ‘personas’. While some personas are well-known (e.g. business travellers vs. holidaymakers; demographics…), additional personas may be required to represent unique segments or hybrid demographics.

A deep understanding of the various (sub-)segments allows airport operators to define tailored experiences aligned to each persona.  For instance, business travellers expect access to amenities for frequent fliers, convenient shopping for last minute essentials, or meal options suitable to take on board. Meanwhile, holidaymakers may dwell longer in the shopping areas, or be led by their curiosity to engaging features such as showrooms, pop-up stores, or other diversions during their waiting time. Airports that are successful in shaping their customer experience have managed to balance these various expectations, in a way that matches the make-up of the airport’s customer base.

Over the years, airlines have greatly improved their understanding and use of traveller data, moving beyond the traditional categories driven by demographics and travel class. Indeed, with a wealth of data available to them, airlines are able to build a picture of their customers at a granular level. Such segmentation informs pricing, ancillary products, and moves them towards a modern “loyalty + engagement” model of customer interaction.

Airports, on the other hand, often lack a unified view of the customer, given that data is typically scarce and disjointed. While the airport may control certain data sources, such as parking data and passenger volume, other aspects are outside of its scope or simply not effectively measured. This is where technology comes into the picture.

Monitoring customer journeys

The advent of sensor technology, in particular Wi-Fi or Bluetooth ‘sniffers’, have made it possible for airports to measure passenger density. In addition, breakthroughs in computer vision algorithms helped to leverage camera data for passenger counting and object/event detection.

Each of these technologies are far from perfect. Wi-Fi sniffers may not always a strong coverage and thus may generate misleading data. Using cameras already deployed in the airport premises may not provide a ‘complete picture’ of passenger behaviour either, as security cameras may not always be at the best angle and often provide poor quality images. Sensors can be a cheaper, more effective option to augment what is already available.

In our experience we have found that combining multiple technologies is a helpful in mitigating these drawbacks. Using re-deployable sensors is also important to test the data generated based on a pilot and adjust as required, until the data generated is reliable.

Building the right monitoring solution allows airports to measure the full customer journey, and not only each processing point. For instance, counting passengers in a security line might give an indication of the service level at this particular point, but identifying unique passengers flowing through the various processing points will unlock new type of insights.

As an example, it might indicate that improving the security waiting time by X minutes might result in a commercial revenue increase of Y% on average. Indeed, analysing historical data of processing points, passenger satisfaction, retail revenue… can generate insights on the customer behaviour.

This type of information allows airports to manage occupancy, flows and keep queue times to acceptable levels. And, as mentioned above, these data can be extrapolated to correlate queue times and footfall to commercial revenues. However, if airports want to provide a more personalised and tailored experience, more granular data is required, which will be explained in our next article.

Exploring customers’ needs

Customer’s needs vary significantly at an aggregate level and by segments or personas. In order to organise these needs, ACI (Airport Council International) developed a hierarchy tool in which passenger needs can be examined and weighted. The hierarchy consists of three levels:

  • The lowest level addresses all the “required” services and amenities. The topics in this level do not create a core passenger satisfaction, but if something is missing from this level, it will create passenger dissatisfaction. It is therefore of great importance in establishing the foundation of customer experience. Examples include priority lanes at check-in, dedicated PRM service desk, intuitive way finding and flight information, etc.
  • The middle level is the “expected” level, which includes the services and amenities which are not required, but are expected by passengers. For example, Wifi, modern retail and food & beverage outlets, lounges, prayer rooms, mother & child areas, etc.
  • The highest- level addresses all the “valued” topics. This is the level which surprises the passengers, creates a positive memory and makes them more loyal to the airport. These elements could include a strong local sense of place and history matched with local service providers in food and beverage, retail, duty free etc.; customised services and facilities that reflect the specific input of the passenger, and an iconic interior design that caters to different customer groups’ expectations.


Specific hierarchy trees by persona can be developed around their needs, wants and wishes. These might include:

  • Predictability: Most customers want to know what to expect from their airport experience. They need to know where to go, how long things will take and that the process is standardised – with no surprises.  For example, several airports now include additional information on their websites, promoted by the COVID crisis, to inform their passenger on what to expect and how they should prepared before coming to the airport.
  • Speed and convenience: Frequent fliers and business travellers will want to minimise queuing and waiting, to catch up on work and to arrive on time. Dedicated drop-off zones, separate terminal entrances, premium check-in zones, dedicated security lanes and direct boarding from airlines lounges are just some of the features airports offer to their premium and business customers.
  • A leisure experience: Leisure travellers see the airport as part of their holiday and look for shopping, eating and entertainment. For examples, Hong Kong airport has introduced an Imax Cinema, and Changi Airport has provided several platforms for entertainment, such as event stages in its terminals.
  • Relaxation: Some customers find the airport environment stressful and appreciate calm spaces away from the crowds. Some airports now have wellbeing offerings such as massage and yoga. For examples Sydney Airport has introduced a yoga studio in partnership with one of the local activewear brands.
  • Personalisation: Consumers are already used to personal service and choice over their experiences. Technology presents the opportunity for airports to offer the same, as further explored in our next article.

Clearly there are real opportunities for airports to better understand and meet their customers’ needs, ultimately delivering commercial advantages.

Yet there are also some big challenges to customer satisfaction in an airport environment. We look at these in our next article The role of technology in customer experience – and explore how technology can help to overcome them.