The challenge of airport passenger experience

The greatest barrier to rethinking airline experience - and bringing digital tools to bear - is the sheer number of people involved.

This is the second of two posts on this subject. If you missed yesterday’s post – you might want to read it first…

There are days when Stanstead Airport, which is north of London, seems like one of the circles of hell. On a recent trip to France, my family and I, despite having checking in online days beforehand, had to queue for over an hour, just to drop our bags. The online checkin had become meaningless, because the process at the airport was not meaningfully different. We still had to queue, we still had paper boarding passes, we’d just printed them ourselves.

This is not disruption – or even evolution.

In fact, nothing has been done at all to improve the passenger user-experience. Just a little bit of the airline’s work has been transferred to us. This is the situation that a design thinking approach promises to rectify.

That’s not to say that design thinking is a non-commercial discipline – quite the reverse, in fact. It holds that if you can make customer and business needs more closely align, you gain a competitive advantage over those who have not designed their services as well. Your service becomes the product you’re selling as much as the underlying functional issue of taking a living human body and getting it from point A to point B via the stratosphere while keeping it alive.

The five elements of good service

The authors of the textbook This Is Service Design Thinking identify five major elements of service design:

  • It’s user-centered – decisions are made for the benefit of the customer, not the service provider
  • It’s co-creative – all the different departments or people in the service provider work together to create the perfect experience
  • It’s sequenced – the provider understands the sequence of customer contact points and the customer’s journey with the service, and understands how to provide a good experience at each step
  • It’s evidenced – it’s brought to tangible life at every point of contact
  • It’s holistic – it involves the whole of the service ecosystem

For complex services like an airport journey, the process doesn’t try to take in everything at once. You start to break down the passenger journey into “touchpoints” that are points of interaction – and, at times, literal touch – between the customer and your service. That starts when they start looking for flights – most likely online these days – and finishes when they exit the airport and into the tender care of other transport systems.

This is, of course, where it grows complex if we turn our mind to aviation. Any passenger journey through an airport is not entirely under the control of any one company. There’s the airline, the airport operators, and any number of sub-contractors who delivery anything from security to the software that runs the departures board. Any service design project in the aviation space would need to be cross-company. To use the earlier example of push notifications of a boarding gate announcement or, critically, change, would require co-operation between the airline, whose app is being used, and the airport operator who systems have that information. The process would need to be automated – a change in one system triggering a change in another, which in turn causes the push notification to be sent to customers’ phones.

From service to digital service

That sort of interaction is where service design begins to morph into digital service design. We’ve long-since passed the point where just having a website or an app is a compelling differentiator for a business. They’ve become de rigour. The digital service design mindset suggests that you stop thinking of an app or website as a product, but as an element of your service offering – additional touchpoints along that developing customer journey we’re talking about. If service design is a difficult concept for many businesses to embrace, digital service design is a challenge to the underpinnings of much of the tech industry. It’s structured in such as way as to regard everything as a product – with product management one of the core functions, in fact.

That thinking has to be broken, though. The number of devices we’re using is proliferating all the time, from desktops to laptops, to phone and now tablets, with wearable computing lurking on the horizon. Treating each of those as a separate product is going to be expensive and time consuming. Treating them each as a mean of expressing the service process is more practical – and potentially a path to a much better user experience.


Here’s a confession: when I set out to write this post, I had a very different end product in mind. I wanted to quote several prominent service designers on what the process would bring to the airline experience, throw around some suggestions as to how a digital service designed passenger journey might look. As they gently, but firmly, told me, that was rather missing the point. Digital service design is a process, and a collaborative one. Service designers don’t just spout ideas off the top of their heads, they bring together groups of people, and help them form the ideas together. It takes courage, involvement and a degree of humility. And it doesn’t lend itself well to a snappy soundbite in a blog post.

The best I could do, they suggested, was make the process plain and the benefits clear – and hope that someone would be inspired enough by it to find the courage to experiment with the idea.

I wonder if anyone will?