The mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, took some heat recently for the unexpected firing of the general manager of the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Why would Miguel Southwell, who arrived just two years ago, be out so soon?
The answer surprised me. I met Reed at a luncheon on Monday where he explained that the decision was in part about customer experience. “It’s not enough to have the world’s busiest airport,” Reed said, “We need to have the best passenger experience.”
As an Atlanta-based frequent traveler I found it heartening to learn that the public sector is starting to catch on to that fact that what’s good for people (in this case passengers) is good for business, too.
Being a passenger-friendly airport not only helps airlines and airport concessionaires earn more, it helps local businesses. They benefit from easy access for visiting customers as well as reduced stress on their traveling employees and greater efficiency when people can get places faster and arrive refreshed.
What Does a Good Passenger Experience Look Like?
The pain of air travel is often blamed on things like delays, canceled flights, surly flight attendants, and tight seats, most of which are the purview of the airlines. While airports are frequently an afterthought in passenger experience, they actually play a pivotal role.
- For arriving and departing passengers, ease of access is paramount. Can you find convenient parking and get to the terminal quickly? Is it easy to get to baggage claim and exit the terminal when you arrive?
- While navigating at the airport, are signs prominent, clear and there when you need them? No one who’s running late for a flight or is worried about a gate change or cancellation needs the added anxiety of hunting for a sign to show where they should be when.
- Are facilities like bathrooms, waiting areas, and lounges clean, spacious, and comfortable? Do they include conveniences like extra outlets and ample seating?
- Does foot traffic flow easily without being blocked by slow or confused passengers? Are people boarding flights blocking access to walkways or shops?
- Is support staff of all kinds friendly and helpful? Do they do jobs like cleaning restrooms and emptying trash without imposing on passengers?
- Does checked baggage arrive quickly, securely, when and where it should? Do passengers know where to pick it up and who to see when there’s a problem?
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to keep an airport running. Many people who work at the airport don’t personally interact with travelers, but their jobs still have an impact on passenger experience. On top of that, there are numerous employers that must work together, and they all have different priorities.
That’s part of the reason I tend to favor small airports. Everything is simpler, closer and generally, more friendly. It’s like the different between working with a small business and a Fortune 500 company. Scale changes everything, and Hartsfield is huge.
Change Can Be a Problem
Change for the better frequently involves some pain along the way, and passengers bear the brunt of it. Hartsfield has been in a constant state of transition in recent years and it’s about to launch a new $6 billion expansion project that includes updates to the domestic terminals, adding a hotel and building another runway (the airport’s 6th).
While preparing for all this, the airport has suffered like many others from growing lines at TSA (Transportation Security Administration) checkpoints. Passengers, myself included, have missed flights and expressed increasing frustration over the situation. Those who have the option may route around Atlanta to avoid the chaos, choosing other airports instead.
Flow through the airport is an important part of the passenger experience, one I would say trumps all others. If you can’t get to your gate, you certainly aren’t worried about which restaurants are there or whether the bathrooms are clean. Flow comes first, and the TSA hasn’t helped Hartsfield in that department.
Lines are so bad right now that people are now advised to arrive three hours before a domestic flight, making driving anywhere less than six hours away a viable alternative. The AJC reported that the “Southwell and his team decided to change the airport’s tagline from ‘world’s busiest’ to ‘world’s most traveled’ — saying ‘busy’ had a negative connotation.”
Mere wordsmithing won’t solve Hartsfield’s problems. More needs to change, and that’s likely why Reed decided to replace Southwell. I certainly don’t know all the details, but I can say that seeing Reed but a priority on passenger experience is refreshing.
Transforming the travel experience at the world’s busiest airport won’t be easy, but focusing on the people who use it daily is a pretty good start.
Airport photo by Lee Adcock via FreeImages.com