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What Travelers Want From Their Airports

Earlier this week, I was on a panel at the Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) conference down in San Diego talking about airports. The panel was called “The Air Travel Experience-Is This As Good As It Gets?” The general answer was “no” but everyone talked about different aspects of the experience. What do people care about when it comes to airports? Here’s what I told them.

Good Airport Construction Along with Bad

Though I had my own ideas, I decided to head to Twitter to get opinions, and you guys delivered. There were more than 60 responses, so thank you very much. If you had to guess what the top two responses were from a tech-savvy, Twitter-using crowd, what do you think they would be? You probably guessed wi-fi and power outlets, and you’re right. Those were the most popular requests.

For many, the wi-fi request was really for FREE wi-fi, of course. Someone from Boingo, a provider of paid (and other) wi-fi services, came up after to discuss. He talked about all the technical issues and the fact that the free wi-fi experience isn’t as good and tends to be slow due to all the users. That may be true, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still what people want, so the airports need to figure it out.

When it comes to power outlets, that’s even more important now as many airlines have continued to refuse to install power on airplanes. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that travelers would be happy to see airport carpet replaced with wall-to-wall power outlets just to make grabbing a quick charge easy.

The third biggest issue was a broader one: food. People want good, healthy, and cheap dining options. I don’t think by “cheap,” that means the dollar value meal but rather having it closer to street pricing. If the food is better, people will pay for it. They just don’t want a $20 turkey sandwich. Food becomes even more important now with airlines offering buy-on-board. You never know if they’ll have what you want, or if they do, whether they’ll run out before they get to your row on the airplane. Many people prefer to play it safe and buy grub in the airport.

Food is a good story because some airlines and airports are getting it right. I look at Delta’s efforts at JFK and La Guardia as perfect examples of how this should work. They’ve put food right into the gate areas without reducing the seat count. Now there are plenty of seats that have power outlets and iPad ordering stations so you can wait for your flight and order food from where you sit. That’s the kind of thing that benefits everyone.

Of course, many of the things that you guys want aren’t really something the airport can control. People want shorter security lines, but that requires the TSA to provide more security staff. And you don’t want rude gate agents, but that’s controlled more by the airline than the airport in most cases. Still, there are things airports can do to help in those situations.

But let’s back up here. Sure, you want wi-fi and you want good food, but those are little things. What do you really want from your airport? You want to get out of it as quickly as you can. If you’re flying into a city, you want to get in your car, bus, train, whatever as quickly as you can so you can get to your destination. That’s why people hate those big rental car facilities that require long bus or train rides from the terminal. It just takes up time.

If you’re flying out of a city, you want your flights to be on time and frequently departing for the city to which you need to go. Airports can help with the on time piece by having a good runway/taxiway design (for new airports, as few as there are today) and by clearing snow quickly to keep things moving.

But to ensure that there are frequent flights to as many destinations as possible, it’s important for airports to keep their costs down. I’ve said it many times before (and I can already guess some of the comments that will come in, as usual), but a lot of airports throw money away on things that don’t really matter to the passenger experience. If you’re going to spend money, spend it on things that really improve the travel experience like spacious gate areas with ample seating and power along with short walking distances and good food outlets. Save the architectural flair for something else, some place where it won’t negatively impact the ability of the airport to keep a full schedule flights, just as people want.

[SMF photo via Sacramento Airport]
[LAX photo via Los Angeles World Airports]
[Goldilocks image via Hiro Sheridan/CC 2.0]

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