By: Keith Hunter, Partner, Hunter Palmer   •   email:

I admit to being somewhat spoilt of late in terms of my travelling experiences. Through a combination of luck and circumstances, I have managed to pass through some fantastic airports and avoid the travel misery that I read about all too often in tales of lengthy queues (particularly at immigration), rude staff, stupidly over-priced car parking charges, trolley charges, passenger drop-off charges, unclean toilets, lack of seating, over-priced duty free shops, cafes and restaurants (usually with no seating), invasive security checks and delayed flights. The sad fact is that most, if not all, of these shortcomings are perfectly avoidable.

It seems that some airports forgot to prioritise the customer experience, or simply fail to appreciate its value.

Thankfully, in some locations around the world, improvements are on the rise. In fact the Middle East in particular continues to display a voracious appetite for innovation and experience within its airports – particularly within Duty Free. This is reflected in the ACI ASQ scores for overall customer satisfaction in Q3 2018, below, where the Middle East (ranked second) showed the largest gain/improvement when compared to the same time last year (Q3 2017).

Even though the more mature Asia Pacific region achieved the highest overall customer satisfaction score, the Middle East has proved that global passengers appreciate their world class airport facilities.

Investment in the region’s airports remains unabated, with a real focus on developing premier hubs – not just through the design of architecturally ambitious terminals, but also through the technological innovation created to meet, and often exceed, the needs and expectations of today’s travellers.

By incorporating cutting edge technology, Hamad International Airport aims to give passengers more independence and greater control over their journey. Through self-service check-in and bag drop, the efficiency of passenger processing through the airport is enhanced substantially (achieving an estimated 40% reduction in processing times), significantly lessening wait times and queues and allowing everyone more time to to take advantage of the services on offer. This has a huge impact on time available to customers to shop and dine and, subsequently, on the commercial potential of the airport. Hamad is even looking at trialling and evaluating the effectiveness of robotics for passenger facilitation and is exploring block-chain technology to realise rapid and secure sharing of data across multiple stakeholders.

Along a similar vein, Dubai Airports has launched the DXB Plus program, aiming to use innovation and technology to increase the hub’s capacity in order to meet airline demand and ensure a world class customer experience from ‘cloud to curb’. As well as introducing multiple airport apps for passengers to help them take advantage of all airport services, DXB have also deployed Smart Gates to speed up passport control procedures, facilitating smooth and swift entry and exit. In October 2018, Smart Immigration Tunnels were introduced, using facial recognition to identify passengers as they walk through a covered passage-way, with no human intervention – including in the stamping of passports – needed for the standard passenger. All this facilitates the UAE Ministry of Interior’s aim to phase out immigration officers at airports by 2020 through the adoption of Artificial Intelligence systems.

In Saudi Arabia, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) has selected global IT provider, SITA, to support the modernisation of the country’s biggest airports, implementing a transformation of airport and communication technology across 26 airports in order to improve the overall experience of over 92 million passengers through self-service, state-of-the-art baggage management and other cutting-edge solutions.

Whilst it would be fair to say that many larger airports around the world are also investing in these types of technology, the Middle East has set a blistering pace to facilitate their ambition of being recognised amongst the world’s best airports.

So now that airport queues are on their way of being a thing of the past, what do they do with this opportunity?

Rather than leaving passengers to their own devices (if you will excuse the pun), airports in the Middle East are capitalising on the commercial experiences possible in duty frees, restaurants, lounges, hotels, spas and other clever uses of space throughout the terminal buildings.

A major success in capturing the attention of the customer in order to drive more commercial transactions has been through the retail pull of the experiential zones. These have been set up in partnership with some of the world’s leading brands, such as L’Oreal, Dior, Shiseido, Toblerone and Mars, to name but a few. These installations have massively increased in popularity – both in terms of quantity and number of transactions generated. An experiential pop-up can more than treble the revenue achieved for a single product when compared to its total sales in core (mixed) duty free locations.

To reinforce this reality, the Duty Free World Council (DFWC) Quarterly KPI Monitor for Q3 2018, produced in conjunction with Swiss research and consultancy agency, m1ndset, showed that a growing number of duty free shoppers state that having ‘ a truly different experience’ is among their main satisfaction drivers.

The message is clear. Passenger experience is at the very top of the agenda for Middle East airports, and their success will only further highlight the shortcomings of those who do not share the same vision.

Peter Marshall

Founder: Arts
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