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What Makes an Airport Great? We Asked a Travel Expert

Frills like great shopping are nice, but for most passengers it comes down to getting the basics right, says airport consultant James Ingram

People prone to frequent travel tend to play favourites when it comes to airports. In Europe, Copenhagen airport is welcoming and inviting with its luxe hardwood floors and enviable interior design. Travellers to Asia often rhapsodize about Singapore’s Changi airport with its soaring ceilings, luxury services, abundance of tropical plant life, and rooftop pool!

By contrast, a poor airport experience can elicit fountains of vitriol, like an airport where the only food option past 8 p.m. is Burger King (we’re looking at you, Orlando), or where the feeling of being in a retro-futuristic concrete parking structure accentuates the lack of anything to eat or do (ahem, terminal 1 at Charles De Gaulle).

But it’s not just an excess of amenities that engender feelings of goodwill toward an airport. How else would facilities like Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which most certainly does not boast a rooftop pool, keep winning best airport honours?

Today, March 15, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport was named one of the best in North America by Skytrax for the fourth time. Earlier this month, Billy Bishop was named best airport in North America (over two million passenger category) by Airports Council International’s (ACI) 2016 Airport Service Quality Awards. The airport was also named best airport in North America (2 to 5 million passenger category) and tied for second place for best airport in the world (2 to 5 million passenger category). And last fall, in October 2016, Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards placed Billy Bishop fourth among the top 10 most favoured airports internationally, alongside super-airports like Singapore, Seoul and Doha, Qatar. 

So, what makes an airport great? Experts say certain common traits and best practices are shared between huge airports (ones that are practically cities unto themselves, like Changi) all the way down to small commuter hubs like Billy Bishop – and, in between, award-winning medium-sized regional airports like Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier and Stanfield in Halifax.


Singapore's Changi Airport looks so healthy it's probably good for your skin

James Ingram is a director at DKMA, an international airport market research and advisory firm. Based in Switzerland, Ingram has worked with airports large and small on improving service quality. He says greatness in an airport comes down to three factors: the overall atmosphere, which encompasses the ambience, cleanliness, staff courtesy and washrooms; essential processes such as check-in, security, waiting areas and wayfinding; and commercial activities, including shopping and dining.

While Ingram says the relative importance of these factors depends on each individual airport, the most important thing for any facility to nail is the basics. “The best airports in the world get the top level of satisfaction for the first factors,” he says. In other words, if bathrooms are dirty, people will notice. And judge.


Ah, Paris in the spring … (Charles De Gaulle's Terminal 1 doesn't look nice on the inside or out)

It’s not just bathrooms that impress at first sight. Natural light, or, perhaps, a stellar view of Canada’s largest city can have a positive effect, as can comfortable seating.

In terms of processes, the best airports make them intuitive enough that they go virtually unnoticed. Sure, everyone knows they need to go through security – so when it’s smooth, it just becomes another requirement of travel. But conversely, when security is a gong show, people get very unhappy.

“The key to those processes is that they’re major causes of dissatisfaction. When there’s no queue, it’s taken for granted. When there is a queue and people aren’t expecting it, especially in a smaller airport, it becomes a big deal,” Ingram says.

He says the best airports manage their peaks by making sure their processes are good all the time – not great sometimes and awful at other times.

“What we’ve found as well with smaller airports, the more convenient airports, especially those located near cities, is that if you’re able to get your processes down well you can overtake better airports on the strength of being the convenient choice.”

Finally, Ingram says commercial activity, an all-important stream of non-aeronautical revenue for airports, stands third in level of importance to passengers. “Those [services] only work well if the rest is doing well. If the toilets are dirty and the lines were really long, [passengers] won’t forgive an airport and go buy in its shops.”

Similarly, business travellers tend to value process over commercial activity, which smaller airports can use to their advantage, Ingram says. “We work with smaller airports with no commercial offerings and they make up for it with good processes and small touches. Small touches can go a long way. If you make it super comfortable and super friendly, people forgive less commercial activity.

“So it’s all about managing those three levels of service. That’s what makes a really great airport.”

Published Wednesday, March 15th 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy Ports Toronto



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