MOMENTUM

What America’s Top 20 Busiest Airports Tell Us About the Importance of Customer Experience

Meagan Gleason

January 3, 2019

If you want to get The Wall Street Journal’s readership riled up, attempt to rank the nation’s 20 busiest airports from best to worst.

That’s what travel editor Scott McCartney discovered after publishing the results of the paper’s first annual survey and becoming the focus of heated discussion — receiving reader comments such as “I think there must have been a misprint. These are the 10 worst airports.” Reader Patrick Hallinan offered a wry take: “Like judging the prettiest horse at the glue factory. Almost all of these airports are dreadful on more than one significant dimension.”

But while it seems unlikely that any ranking would have garnered universal approval, what interested us most about the results wasn’t the position of any particular airport. Instead, it was the factors that made the top ranked airports stand out — and what that says about the importance of customer experience (CX), and why effortlessness and enjoyment are so critical to purchase decisions, customer satisfaction and, ultimately, loyalty.

 

Understanding the WSJ Study

Though plenty of unofficial votes were left as comments by subscribers for favorites such as Portland and Tampa, McCartney’s survey considered only the top 20 busiest airports by passenger traffic, resulting in the following list:

  1. Denver (DEN)
  2. Orlando (MCO)
  3. Phoenix (PHX)
  4. Atlanta (ATL)
  5. Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
  6. Las Vegas (LAS)
  7. Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
  8. Charlotte (CLT)
  9. Los Angeles (LAX)
  10. Boston (BOS)
  11. Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP)
  12. Houston Bush (IAH)
  13. Miami (MIA)
  14. Detroit (DTW)
  15. Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  16. San Francisco (SFO)
  17. Philadelphia (PHL)
  18. New York LaGuardia (LGA)
  19. New York Kennedy (JFK)
  20. Newark (EWR)

In total, the airports were judged on 15 criteria across three categories:

 

Convenience

  1. A WSJ reader survey taking airport preferences and CX into consideration.
  2. The total number of non-stop cities served.
  3. Average speed of free Wi-Fi.
  4. Longest possible walk from the curb of the terminal to the farthest gate.
  5. Yelp restaurant ratings for all restaurants at each airport.

 

Reliability

  1. On-time arrivals, based on the percentage of flights arriving at gates within 14 minutes of scheduled time.
  2. Percentage of flights canceled.
  3. Average arrival delay.
  4. Aircraft taxi-out times.
  5. TSA wait times in standard lanes (subject to manager discretion).

 

Value

  1. Average domestic fare.
  2. Largest airline’s market share, revealing how much competition exists at the airport.
  3. Cheapest on-site parking.
  4. Rental car taxes and fees.
  5. Average UberX fare to the city’s main convention center.

 

The Missing Element

Examining the list of factors above makes it clear why some readers pushed back on the rankings of McCartney and his team. Of the 15 different elements up for consideration, 10 reflect airport performance metrics — while only five speak to customer experience, including:

  • The results of the WSJ reader survey
  • The average speed of the free Wi-Fi
  • The longest possible walk within the airport
  • Yelp restaurant reviews
  • TSA wait times

But people are passionate about their travel experiences — understandably so, given how stressful travel can be and how that stress heightens sensitivity to personal experiences. As one commenter noted, travel “affects our lives,” and that goes double for business travelers who live the airport experience so frequently.

It’s also worth considering that consumers of air travel make purchase decisions — not carriers. Once people have decided to fly, they’ve accepted the reality of on-time percentages, potential delays, weather-related challenges and pricing. These things are necessary evils that may vary slightly from airport to airport, but they likely don’t significantly affect traveler behavior, since the customer has already accepted them as a given part of air travel.

In contrast, it’s when they’re deciding which airports to go into and out of that the question of personal experience may enter the equation. Since early recommended arrival times mean travelers will spend a meaningful amount of time there, the experience occurring within its terminals is what makes a real impression.

Can the airport be navigated easily? Are good restaurants and shopping available? How clean are the restrooms? As reader Vito Fortunato — who agreed with the WSJ rankings for the most part — described, “Clean bathrooms play a big part in how I view an airport. I still vividly remember the worst airport I’ve been to….But quite frankly I didn’t mind the airport, just the nightmare of a bathroom which is seared into my memory.”

 

The Case of Denver International Airport

At the risk of making an overly simplistic argument in favor of investment in CX, it’s worth noting that — although travelers might appreciate a good customer experience — they can’t frequent airports where airlines aren’t flying. So should airports invest in attracting airlines first, or people?

Denver International Airport — which topped the WSJ list — offers interesting insight into this question. As McCartney noted in a separate article on the airport’s win, its opening in 1995 was far from promising. “It was isolated on the prairie, miles from the middle of town,” he describes. “It was more than $2 billion over budget. Per-passenger costs ran so high Southwest Airlines refused to land there. And its high-tech baggage system didn’t work, a lemon that became a national joke.”

That all began to change when airport CEO Kim Day shifted course seven years ago to focus entirely on passenger experience, noting in McCartney’s article that, “It has been the No. 1 thing we talk about, the No. 1 thing we fund.” Improvements in airport Wi-Fi, the addition of new restaurants, and changes made to speed up TSA checkpoints — among others — increased per-passenger spending at the airport to $12.37 in 2017 from $10.82 in 2013.

As a result, the airport was able to lower fees billed to airlines, making it more attractive for carriers to fly into and out of the airport, improving both the customer experience and high-level airline metrics.

 

Benchmarking Airport Customer Experience

The changes made by Ms. Day didn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, Ms. Day suggests that Denver drew inspiration not just from other U.S. airports but from international hubs such as Singapore’s Changi, Tokyo’s Narita, Zurich, and Seoul’s Incheon — all of which seem to have solved the customer experience puzzle long before their American counterparts.

She’s not alone. A separate article by Mr. McCartney quotes Sean Donohue, chief executive officer at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), who explains, “Our competitive data set is not O’Hare, Atlanta and L.A. Our competitive data set now is Singapore and Dubai and Frankfurt. We have to be able to compete on the global stage.” In the case of DFW, that has meant improvements such as the addition of duty-free stores in an effort to lure international travelers.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is often held up as the gold standard against which other airports are judged. That’s no surprise, given that — on top of its already impressive facilities — the airport plans to open a 10-story indoor oasis next year called Jewel Changi Airport, which will feature “hiking trails, a shrub maze, slides, a 44-yard indoor waterfall and everything from a two-story Nike store to a Shake Shack among the warehouse-size 579,000 square feet of retail and restaurants.”

Despite Changi Airport’s massive $1.2 billion investment in the space, it won’t have a single airplane gate, serving instead as an attraction for both local residents and global travelers. It is this investment in experience that earned the airport an average $29 in per-passenger spending — nearly three times the revenue generated by the top U.S. airport.

 

Customer Experience: The Heart of Success

The big takeaway here is that traveler experience matters. It isn’t just a passing fad or the latest trend — it’s clear that customer experience actually does translate into greater satisfaction, into in-airport purchases, and into loyalty. As WSJ subscriber Regana Wills noted, “Most of us base our opinions on our experiences, not numbers of nonstop destinations, market-share of the largest carrier, parking rates or rental car taxes.”

The success of Denver, in particular, has come down to their leadership’s ability to understand travelers’ journey throughout the airport and pinpoint the moments of truth that matter to them as opportunities to really move the needle. From walking into the airport, to getting through security, grabbing a meal, using the restroom or passing time during a layover, these are the moments where opinions are formed and lasting impressions are made. The results of investing in their improvement have been clear.

At Savoya, we see the same dynamic in ground transportation. Picking up, driving and dropping off travelers isn’t rocket science. But like the airports that focus on travelers’ experience instead of the carriers’, the companies that get it right are those that focus heavily on the experience of the passengers — not just the drivers or garages.

Ground has its own moments of truth, one of which is the point at which the traveler first meets their driver. For us, investing in improving that experience has meant developing positive identification protocols and tools that make meetings seamless and effortless, such as GPS tracking, advance driver and vehicle details, and staging notes that allow drivers to communicate specific positioning details via On Location notifications.

These customer experience improvement efforts also extend to the teams supporting our travelers as well. As logistics liaisons and sourcing decision-makers, convenience, reliability and ease of use for these stakeholders cannot be overlooked. Making their lives easier with tools like customizable stakeholder notifications, saved locations and mobile app portal access bring CX objectives to life for all of those involved in successfully executing ground travel experiences.

 

Now, we want to hear from you. How big of a role does experience play in the travel vendors you choose? Do you agree or disagree with the WSJ airport rankings? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts.

Meagan Gleason

Savoya’s longest tenured employee next to founder Robert Dobrient, Ms. Gleason currently serves as Savoya’s Chief Operating Officer. As a thought leader in the travel industry, she shares high-level insight into research, trends and other new developments affecting the space.