A simple way to improve airport queuing still remains a ‘holy grail’. Despite lots of technology and mountains of data to help operators measure and improve passenger experience and flow, many of us will still experience the misery of long airport queues this Christmas.
This summer, passengers at major airports across Europe missed their flights or were forced to queue for up to four hours whilst departing or arriving for their holiday. Photos circulated on social media show queues of weary travellers snaking around the airport, out of exits, into drop off zones and even across airbridges, with some passengers unable to get off their planes. In Europe this year things got worse for British citizens. Regulation, which came into effect on 7th April 2017, now requires every British passport holder to be checked when they move through the “Schengen Area”.
And, if last year is anything to go by, the outlook for queuing at airports this Xmas looks grim!
Using Observation to Improve Airport Queuing
We believe that the only way to improve queuing for passengers at airports is to spend time in the field observing and measuring what’s really happening.
Observation gives you insight that systems can’t
Airport systems provide accurate passenger numbers and people counting technologies footfall data – providing inaccuracies are known and adjusted for. However, the only way to reliably measure the flow of passengers is by direct observation. Watching passengers in real situations will also uncover opportunities that your existing systems cannot measure or see.
Technology can tell you how passengers move through airports as well as dwell times, waiting times and serving times, but it won’t tell you why passengers (and staff) do what they do or why queuing problems occur. Only observing and then talking to passengers (and staff), can provide a complete picture of the experience, what passengers feel about it and help you get to the root cause.
Likewise, the only way to identify and decode different types of passenger journeys is to observe and count them in the actual settings where they are performed. For example, at Manchester Airport passport control, we observed many different passenger journeys other than the familiar ‘EU’ and ‘Non-EU’ pathways. There are landing card passengers, groups of students, young families with children, dual nationals, E-Chip passengers and passengers with disabilities – to name just a few.
Without real insight into passenger demand, experiences and journeys, any measures to respond to problems are likely be reactive and ineffective, resulting in unexpected costs and lots of complaints.
Observation is relatively inexpensive and easy to carry out
Although some resource and effort would be needed to perform the various research activities, including data collection, analysis and evaluation, observations would only be carried out at peak times and would use ‘low-tech’ tools and techniques, which require little financial investment.
Targeting observations in one area first would also be more insightful and cost effective, than installing and maintaining the complex whole airport system architecture required for continuous automatic data collection, let alone the effort to correct and interpret the masses of information it would provide – (more information about this in this SITA blog and report).
Observation can help you uncover ‘non-tech’ solutions
Observing passengers in real situations, will help you get to the root cause of why queuing problems occur and uncover opportunities that are often non-technological – (see our Xmas queuing post for some simple queue management strategies). Structuring observations to review and develop a set of tactics that are only deployed at peak times, would help reduce passenger stress and chaos significantly, without huge financial investment.
How to Start Observational Research at an Airport
Start with ‘Discovery’
We always start with ‘Discovery’ to decode the problems customers face and quantify opportunities for improvement. Discovery is centred round a targeted observational study of the customer experience, carried out at a select location and timed to take place when problems are most likely to occur.
One of the worst and most affected areas for queuing at busy airports is the immigration hall. At a study we conducted for Manchester Airport most passengers we surveyed felt that ‘waiting at passport control’ was by far the worst stage of their journey. Some passengers even said it had impacted their decision to use the airport again in the future. As well as passenger dissatisfaction, our study confirmed other negative business effects of queueing such as reduced passenger spending, low staff productivity and poor utilisation of resources.
Based on our project at Manchester Airport, the following is an example of the core ‘Discovery’ activities we would carry out to review and develop a set of simple tactics to improve the passenger experience and flow through passport control at busy airports:
Activity 1 – Passenger Demand Analysis
Equipped with a tally counter, observers can easily capture the number of passengers entering and leaving the immigration hall and record in regular time intervals. Observers would need to be strategically located at entrances and exits to the hall or where passengers make their onward journey. In addition to overall flow, observations could be captured on which queue passengers enter, group sizes as well as any problems they face such as deliberating where to go or what to do.
Capturing passenger demand during busiest times, would provide airport operators with a true reflection of how peak levels in demand present themselves to the immigration hall and its supporting facilities, as well as how well they are being managed.
Activity 2 – Passenger Journey Tracking
To gain a deeper understanding of how passengers interact with passport control, it’s important to capture observations about their journey from the moment they arrive at the hall until they leave. It may take some time to ensure every journey has been counted, but failure to do so can result in creating an experience, which does not fully support all your passenger needs.
Timings and observations can be taken at each stage of the passenger journey, including the time they enter the hall, when they join the queue, time in the queue, walk time (to counter), serving time and time to leave. Observers should pay attention to ‘waste’ or activities passengers would not be willing to pay for. Examples of waste can be passengers queuing, deliberating where to go, presenting information more than once, problems with self-service or any visible constraint which is impacting processing times and queue lengths.
Identifying and removing waste in passenger journeys, will ultimately help airport operators increase passenger satisfaction, throughputs and save money.
Activity 3 – Passenger Activities and Use of Facilities
In preparation, the immigration hall should be divided into zones for reporting purposes and a list of facilities taken. Snapshots would be made by observers at regular intervals on the utilisation of facilities within each zone as well as the types of activities performed by passengers and staff.
Facilities measured would include service desks, self-serving points, seating as well as use of telephones, form filling tables and non-allocated space such as holding areas.
Activities measured would include waiting, serving, form filling or behaviours driven by stress such as complaining.
Activity 4 – Passenger Experience Surveys
The best time and place to talk to passport control passengers is when they have directly experienced it. Observing and then talking to them, will also help to develop a complete picture of not only what they do, but what they think and feel whilst doing it. At Manchester Airport over 90% of passengers we tracked and then interviewed felt that the wait time was longer than what we observed. Perceptions would increase exponentially for some passengers.
Passengers at Manchester Airport also raised a broad range of issues relating to the process, signage, visual stimulation, reliability of E-Pass, quality of service and functional comfort.
Activity 5 – Staff Perception Surveys
It’s important to talk to staff too and compare what they say with passenger feelings and perceptions. Engaging staff in the conversation helps to place the passenger journey firmly into focus and ensures that everyone is on the same page about what the problems are, why they occur and how to solve them.
At Manchester Airport we asked staff about their perceptions on passenger flow, measures to respond to it (working practices) as well as what they felt about the overall passenger experience including waiting times. Staff raised issues relating to flight schedules, bottlenecks caused by service provision, barrier layout, staffing levels, directional signage, reliability of self-service and communication.
Develop ‘Break Glass’ Activities – ‘No-Tech’ Tactics to Improve Passenger Experience
Using insights from our structured observations the next step would be to develop a set of planning and response activities that can be deployed at peak times. We call such tactics ‘break glass’.
Focus should initially be given to activities that do not require huge financial investment and have the biggest impact on passenger experience and flow. Careful consideration should also be given to managing the many different passenger journeys other than the familiar ‘EU’ and ‘Non-EU’ pathways as well as matching staffing to predicted peaks in demand.
Effective break glass tactics could involve the use of buffer zones to prepare passengers, optimising barrier layout, pro-active signposting, better manning of E-Pass facilities and staff actively directing passengers to counters. Simple changes to improve functional comfort, such as adjusting lighting levels, improving audio and providing drinking water facilities would also make a significant difference to waiting passengers.
Trial ‘Break Glass’ at Less Busy Times
Steps to trial ‘break glass’ activities should be made during less busy times so that staff become familiar with the roles, and changes can be tested in a real situation.
This would also allow observers time to develop a set of meaningful KPI’s and metrics, which they can use to monitor and refine improvements when tactics are deployed at busier times. KPI’s could include passenger throughput, deliberation times, waiting times, walk-times, serving times, facilities utilisation as well as other baseline measures such as ‘right first time’, wait time perceptions and overall passenger satisfaction.
Review Successes and Failures
Not every tactic is likely to work, and you certainly won’t develop an effective ‘break glass’ strategy at your first attempt. Airports are complex environments and passenger behaviour is unpredictable, so what works in one area may not in another. There is always trial and error when developing Q-busting tactics whatever the environment.
However, by reviewing what has been achieved, iterative improvements can still be made. As successes mount up, business cases can be developed for further trials, providing proof of concept data for any technological solution that may now prove worthy of investment.
If you have any non-technological solutions or ideas to improve airport queuing we’d love to hear from you.
Konrad is Principal Consultant at Konvergence, a field based research and consultancy group, with a mission to solve real problems, for real customers going about their business in the real world – like airport queuing!
If you think we can help you review and develop your Q-busting tactics then please get in touch.