Autonomy at the airport

23 August 2012 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2012 18:30)

Ensuring a smooth and comfortable experience for passengers has long been the key for major airports looking to differentiate themselves. But what does this entail exactly? Ross Davies talks to Marianne van Scherpenzeel of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol – long considered a front runner in the field – to learn more about the initiatives it has in place to slake the demands of the modern traveller.

Autonomy at the airport

It might be the length of the queue at the check-in desk, the speed of the Wi-Fi connection, the number of boutiques or even the softness of the seat in the departure lounge, but the gamut of metrics that constitute passenger satisfaction at the world's busiest airports is steadily becoming more complex.

The days when an airport simply represented a transient transportation hub are long gone. By dint of the burgeoning airport city concept - identified by TIME magazine in 2011 as one of the "ten ideas that will change the world" - today's terminals are just as likely to house offices, hotels and high-end restaurants as they are standard currency exchange and car rental desks.

Today's customer-service-savvy passengers are also a lot more exacting when it comes to expectations of what a desirable airport experience should entail. While a swift check-in and shorter wait at the baggage carousel remain paramount, comfort and leisure facilities are arguably just as highly valued by passengers, particularly as a means of offsetting the potential itchy feet and lengthy waiting times synonymous with air travel.

Do-it-yourself check-in

Often described as the gateway to Europe, with a turnover of approximately 50 million passengers each year, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has long been considered something of a pioneer: it is set on shifting the image of a modern airport away from a necessary evil and towards a situation in which passengers are actually happy to spend prolonged periods of time.

This year alone, it has been declared Europe's best airport at both the Skytrax World Airport Awards and ACI Europe Best Airport Awards. Manager policy and projects Marianne van Scherpenzeel argues that these accolades have come about as a result of ongoing efforts to improve passenger processes and experience, such as the revamp of one of its departure lounges and the roll-out of self-service technology in its check-in areas.

"We have installed self-service drop-off points for several airlines so passengers can check in their baggage independently."

"We have done several things over the latest period," she says. "One of those was to update lounge three, behind passport control, which was opened in September 2011. The addition of new shops and refurbishments has completely transformed the waiting experience. We have also installed self-service drop-off points for several airlines so passengers can check in their baggage independently."

Self-service at airports is a trend that has gathered speed in recent years. As a well-known exponent, Schiphol currently has 86 check-in kiosks, the usage of which has grown steadily in recent years due to their manifest popularity with passengers, according to van Scherpenzeel.

"We've seen a great reaction, particularly to the baggage drop-off machines," she claims. "As well as adding speed and mitigating waiting times, the advantage of self-service is that passengers can remain in control of their own baggage processes. This is something they really like."

An indispensable asset

Schiphol has long valued technology as an indispensable asset in facilitating various passenger procedures. In 2006, it became one of the first airports in the world to introduce millimetre-wave security scanners - eschewing arduous metal detection gates - while it has also made use of iris scan technology at its border passage since 2001.

"It's really important to pursue innovation, especially if it helps us to add more speed, comfort and control to passenger processes such as checking in and baggage drop-off," says van Scherpenzeel. "We are still looking to develop even more self-service processes, as well as improving the 'no-queue' concept, which is an automated border control passage developed in collaboration with the government. We also have a mobile app through which passengers can check their flight information."

"It’s important to pursue innovation, especially if it helps to add more speed, comfort and control to passenger processes such as checking in."

In a similar vein to any modern business, airports such as Schiphol have also ramped up their interaction with passengers in order to gauge overall satisfaction levels. In addition to questionnaires, the airport is appreciative of the rising influence of social media as a forum where passengers propagate opinion and word of mouth - both positive and unfavourable.

"We still conduct a bi-monthly survey, using a broad passenger questionnaire on a number of quality items in order to gauge their overall perception of the airport," explains van Scherpenzeel. "But we also monitor Twitter and Facebook to see what is being said about us and how we can improve our quality."

Schiphol will undoubtedly have been buoyed by the aforementioned accolades that have been bestowed upon it this year - "it's an indication that we are on the right track and motivates us to continue making passengers feel welcome," confirms van Scherpenzeel.

A major contributing factor to the airport's passenger experience offering remains its impressive folio of amenities - in 2011 it also opened a 200m² park, which serves as a waiting area and is complemented by a connecting rooftop terrace.

"The area represents somewhere nice where passengers can relax during their stay, especially if they have a longer transfer time between flights," says van Scherpenzeel. "Adding more comfort is certainly a major driver for us."

Technology vs the human touch

While Schiphol's colourful, tourist-friendly facilities - it also has a library and a Dutch-themed museum - make it a stand-alone airport in many ways, they clearly cannot come at the expense of efficiency.

That said, technology, while essential to the smooth running of operations, is not the be all and end all. Airports are still defined and represented by the staff that work across their array of public service areas. In Schiphol's case, training is required to bolster both hard and soft skills, as van Scherpenzeel explains.

"In 2011 Schiphol opened a 200m² park, which serves as a waiting area and is complemented by a connecting rooftop terrace."

"With hard skills, it is really dependent on the situation," she says. "For example, a security agent will receive a different kind of training from one of our floor managers as it's a different kind of job. In terms of soft skills, hospitality remains the central focus for our staff. Consequently, a number of masterclasses are provided for them."

Despite being the fourth-busiest airport in Europe, Schiphol currently has the highest peak-hour capacity on the continent owing to its status as a major transit hub. And with passenger volumes expected to increase in the future, there will be an onus on the airport to maintain the high levels of satisfaction to which passengers have become accustomed.

This, van Scherpenzeel explains, will necessitate a creative and far-sighted approach. "We will try and stay as innovative as possible," she says. "This will require us to keep abreast of what passengers want and continually improve the overall process. As a result, we hope to remain Europe's preferred airport."

Given the developments over the last year - recognised by passengers and the industry alike - this goal would appear to be more than achievable.