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Why It’s Important to Airports That You Love Your Travel Shopping Experience

by Tom Hagy for HappyOrNot

You’re early for your flight because the Transportation Security Association recommends it. It’s also common sense. You’re relaxed with time to spare. Maybe you pick up the latest issue of The New Yorker. Maybe you grab a bite. Wait, is that a Bose shop? I love Bose.

This is music to the ears of airport operators everywhere, because the stuff you purchase at airports now makes up nearly 40% of their revenues.

According to Airports Council International (ACI), roughly a quarter of that revenue comes from parking and another quarter from concessions. Not only are these purchases – from buying a Coke to renting a car – a large part of what airports make, they also produce higher profit margins than your ticket to Dublin. (See the article by Stephanie Levy, Marketing Communications and PR Manager at HappyOrNot in the Special Report: Innovations in Aviation Customer Experience and Satisfaction Solutions published by Global Business Media.)

Safety is First; Happiness is a Close Second

Travelers have many moods. We are excited about our vacations. We are stressed about our business meeting. We might be happy to see family or dread the thought of waking up to them every day for an entire week. We are traveling for reasons that align with the full spectrum of emotion, from horribly sad to wildly celebratory. In other words, not all of our baggage looks alike, nor can it be seen with the naked eye.

Travelers’ expectations are also changing. We expect cheaper airfares, but better service. We expect tight security, but we prefer to be free-range humans. Stories can add to our trepidation. Like how many barred objects slip by security. Or how that guy was dragged off a plane because he wouldn’t surrender his seat to someone with more reward points. Or that time our dirty laundry was literally aired to the public due to an oversized shampoo bottle.

Once we get there – despite knowing our great grandparents endured month-long transport by ship, rail or stagecoach – we pass through a gauntlet of potential irritations and humiliations and stressors, both inflicted and self-inflicted.  Lost documents. Rude people. Speeding golf carts. Crowded or late shuttles. Wrong gates. Indecipherable announcements and what’s that infernal beeping? Boorish line cutters. Donning and doffing while balancing on one foot. Waiting for your luggage to be reborn at baggage claim only to be disappointed. Being marched through the elites in first class while humping your carry-on back to a middle seat in what might as well be row 528. Oblivious people standing in your way. Getting bumped as you stand obliviously in someone’s way. And everyone’s favorite: the security pat down.

Once in the familiar and yet not familiar airport world a traveler’s experience can modulate dramatically for any number of reasons. The cleanliness of a restroom: Did it sparkle or nauseate? The attitude of a ticket agent: Did she seem to care or could she not have cared less? How fast did your fajitas arrive? How long did it take to catch a shuttle from the parking lot? Was the rate you secured online for a rental car honored when you asked for the keys?  

Happy Spending People

Why should an airport care about your emotions? I mean, how else are you going to cover 3,000 miles in just a few hours? And if you’re not happy it’s not like you can do anything about it. Right?


Besides it being a nice thing to do, when an airport operator cares about traveler happiness it has a direct impact on their bottom line. Unhappy people – their complaints now weaponized thanks to social media – can bad mouth you far and wide for years. Conversely, people you treat well will go out of their way to come back to you. In fact, you may just have them for life.

Customer satisfaction matters because airports often do compete with other airports and other modes of transportation. Travelers do plot their course based on the reputation of an airport. Airport employees look forward to seeing how much they are loved compared to their rivals.

Concession operators benefit from one little known fact: Happy people buy more stuff. In fact, they spend 45% more.

That means the secret to an airport’s success includes efficiency and happy people. If people move quickly through an airport they have more time. According to airport expert Nigel Colby, the average time spent in an airport is 133 minutes, with only 30 minutes of free time. If travelers aren’t stuck or delayed they are happy and will have a look around. If they emerge from backed-up checkpoint cranky and late for their flight, they aren’t buying anything.  (See the Aviation Customer Experience report.)

Happy people with time. That’s half the ticket.

How do they make it all work? “Airport operations are made up of a large network of stakeholders from varying service types … these service providers combine to create the overall airport that will be received by visiting travelers,” writes Stephanie Levy, Marketing Communications and PR Manager at HappyOrNot in the Aviation Customer Experience Report.  “Whether the service providers are performing at a level which contributes to passenger satisfaction cannot be known without continuously measuring their satisfaction levels.”

Unfortunately, traditional methods of gathering customer feedback are not serving businesses or customers very well. If we were to rate traditional methods of rating, they would rate very low.

What good does it do to learn that your restrooms were disgusting five days ago? What good does it do to know you have a surly ticket clerk after he has irritated 500 fliers? What good does it do if you’re asking the wrong questions? Worse yet, are we annoying customers with too many surveys asking too many questions? It turns out we are being a little too needy. We are irritating our customers and that’s just not a good brand strategy. In any case, open rates for email surveys are low. Single-digit low.     

The Easy and Reliable Feedback Loop

If happy people with time is half the ticket, making it easy for them to tell you and reliably knowing their level of satisfaction in real time – when you can do something about it – is the other half.

“When you can look at your performance with certainty and pinpoint exact places and times of dips in satisfaction, you can be confident in making changes that your visitor will value,” Levy writes.

That’s the inspiration – and success – behind CX improvement solutions like HappyOrNot which delivers meaningful and actionable data in real time.

Maureen Kelly, a Seattle-based photographer, is a friend of mine. Her husband is from Ireland. They have flown in and out of the Dublin Airport dozens of times. I called her and asked her what it was like. The first things she mentioned – after first sharing her irritation with an online rental car service in the U.S. (a story for another day) – were the many wonderful shops, restaurants and bars. The whole vibe of the place was that it was “friendly, fast and clean,” she said. As for the people, they were consistently “really, really nice.” Not just really nice. Really, really nice. She didn’t even mention her flight. Not surprisingly, you can find Smiley Terminals throughout the Dublin Airport.

John Seely, Technology Projects Manager of Dublin Airport has been a key player in the airport’s journey from the bottom of the list of great airports of its size to the top in 2016. The airport’s commitment continues to pay dividends. Just this month, on March 6, Airports Council International (ACI) World revealed the winners of its coveted Airport Service Quality Awards, listing Dublin Airport among the airports winning their first.

In a 2017 post on, Seeley wrote that “technology combined with personal attention to, and for, passengers fits perfectly with Dublin Airport’s philosophy of going beyond in delivering a quality travel experience for all our customers.”  The feedback collected with the Smiley Terminals is transformed into visual, actionable data analytics that supports the management, development, and improvement of all airport functions.

Dublin’s Seely is speaking at Passenger Terminal Expo 2019 in London about how they use HappyOrNot’s instant passenger feedback system to improve their airport experience and passenger satisfaction. The presentation will take place on the first day of the conference, March 26.

In addition to Dublin Airport, Smiley Terminals greet you at Heathrow, London Luton Airport, Sydney Airport, Newcastle International, Aena, Toronto Airports Authority, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, etc. United Airlines and Scandinavian security company Securitas also seek feedback through the Smileys.

Bottom Line

Securing immediate, meaningful and actionable customer satisfaction while in the airport – where an airport’s most profitable services are found – will improve their bottom line. Also, airport employees will get to serve a much happier crowd of people. And who doesn’t want that?

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