Reducing queue times at airports

13 October 2017

At the Q1 2017 Future Airport briefing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, held in partnership with eezeetags, Thomas Doogan, ground operations customer experience manager at easyJet, discussed how airports could reduce queue times, and create an easier pre-security experience in order to increase customer satisfaction and revenue. Kimberley Hackett reports.

As passenger numbers increase, airport capacity is becoming tighter and queues are getting longer, resulting in an unpleasant customer experience. Swift pre-security time will contribute to the hassle-free journey that passengers crave, and new technology may make it possible to please passengers, airports and their stakeholders. Meeting this challenge was the main topic at Future Airport’s roundtable dinner, which was hosted in partnership with eezeetags on 13 March at Hotel De L’Europe, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

With the strapline, ‘A fine balance: How can airports, airlines and supplier partners maximise increasing passenger numbers while lowering operational costs without compromising on service and passenger experience?’, the gathering brought together senior managers from across Europe, who were treated to an evening of fine dining alongside the discussion.

Thomas Doogan, ground operations customer experience manager at easyJet, and the evening’s keynote speaker, made the opening speech.

He emphasised the need to focus on the consumer experience, recognising that airports, airlines and stakeholders reaped the financial benefits of happy customers. Creating a positive experience is no easy task, however.

No compromise

“Years ago, it was all about cost,” said Doogan. “Now, it’s very much about the innovation being part of the customer experience. What’s really important is that customers are telling us that they want an easy and affordable experience.

“Passengers will not compromise; they don’t want to pay more for the services we offer. In fact, they want to pay less.” But how has easyJet made it possible to make changes to the way its check-in process is run?

“When I was the ground operation manager at Gatwick, during Christmas and summer there would be about 3,000 passengers going through the pre-security stage,” explained Doogan.

“They would wait around an hour in pre-security. It was a disaster, but it was the best we could do. Our customers told us we needed to do better and, as a result, easyJet’s target was to reduce the queue to five minutes. In the past six months, there was only one passenger who had to wait more than six minutes.”

Three-point plan

According to Doogan, easyJet achieved this in three ways. First, by making sure signage was clear. Passengers with cabin baggage were directed straight to security; people with speedy boarding were directed to the premium end. The remaining customers – which are sometimes split into family areas in peak holiday periods – were in a different section.

I want to be able to walk through an airport and not have to talk to anyone.

The second part of the investment was to assess the way ground crew was used. Focusing exclusively on technology was not the only option.

As technology has enabled passengers to use automated check-ins, much of the ground staff has been replaced. However, as Doogan said, “Their role is to be welcoming, friendly and to give confidence to the customer using the new technology.”

Third, the aim was to make sure that the technology was simple to use for customers. “Think about those who acquire assistance,” said Doogan. “The elderly, wheelchair users, or the single parent travelling with children. The stag parties and the hen dos. How can we make everybody’s journeys easy?

“easyJet has done a lot of research. Its customers overwhelmingly end up telling it that a one-step process is the way forward for them, because it’s the most customer-friendly experience. They say they are satisfied when they can walk to one place and get everything done.”

The budget airline’s vision goes beyond using technology in the airport. Doogan played a video depicting the way easyJet aimed to develop its technology. It began with customers taking selfies with the easyJet app at home.

These were matched to biometric passport information, and permanent bag tags allowed customers to transfer information instantly from their smartphone to their luggage.

At the airport, bags were then placed on a drop while facial recognition confirmed their identity. The same technology was also used to pass through security, and laser technology checked hand luggage size.

The video continued with the boarding of a full aircraft using auto scanning at the gates, eliminating the need to queue and be checked in by staff. The idea was that it would only take eight minutes for all passengers to board – each one could be ‘processed’ every six seconds.

Finally, passengers would receive a text while on board the plane saying their baggage had been loaded on to the aircraft.

This vision that easyJet wants to realise is the way Doogan would like to travel. “I want to be able to walk through an airport and not have to talk to anyone,” he stated. “My mother, who is in her 70s, on the other hand, wants to be welcomed and speak to people. She’s happy to use technology, but wants it to be simple.”

Passengers first

Borry Vrieling, founder and managing director of eezeetags, also spoke during the evening. The company produces easy-to-use labels that are solely for self-check-in systems. He echoed Doogan’s point on the importance of placing passengers at the centre of all operations.

“As airports, your operation has changed over the past 20 years,” he observed. “You need to look after all these passengers, or they might decide to use another airport. If you can make the process faster and quicker, the passengers are happier, and so are the airport and stakeholders.

“Look at the non-aeronautical revenue of the passengers. If you can make your process faster and quicker, a customer doesn’t need to spend enormous amounts, but just one extra cup of coffee at $3.45 could double the revenue.”

As the evening progressed, the delegates from airports across Europe voiced their views. The discussion covered other areas in which efficiency could be improved at airports.

One delegate’s controversial view created differing opinions from across the room. He said: “More than one airline should use the same bagdrop check-in desk. That should be the future of airports. This is essential, as space is limited and there is an increase in passenger numbers.”

Doogan agreed. “A huge part of airports’ problems is to challenge the concept that each airline has its own area, he said. “This is extremely inefficient. It’s a thing of the past. Technology allows you to make digital signage so that an hour and a half belongs to one airline, then to another for the following hour. It makes much better sense in terms of infrastructure use.

“Could Air France, Air Italia, easyJet and Lufthansa all use the same machine at the same time? I think they would be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. At Warsaw, every airline operates at the same desk; it has been that way for years because there is so little space. It means everyone has to be trained on every airline’s policies.”

Reason to believe

Another delegate questioned how realistic Doogan’s view was. “Our customer, the airline, would not want this,” he said.

“You haven’t given them a reason,” countered Doogan. “One reason is affordability and using space.”

The conversation continued, with more advice being offered from around the room. “It’s how to get round it,” argued another attendee. “For example, if you want to put an app on your Apple product, the company says, ‘these are the circumstances in which you can run your app in my environment’.”

Doogan, who represented the only airline in the room, said: “Over the past three months, easyJet has been sharing with British Airways, and it’s been fine. If different carriers’ systems don’t all integrate into the same bagdrop system, then it can never work. You have to make sure everything is adaptable.”

Once again, technology was the go-to idea for helping to make changes that will ultimately enhance passengers’ journeys, and thus increase revenue for airports and stakeholders.

This must be supported by ground staff, who can assist passengers. Materials and equipment – such as eezeetags’ bag tags – have to be adaptable and as up to date as the technology they work with.

The event finished with Doogan’s closing remarks. He reminded attendees to put themselves in customers’ shoes and think about what can be done to help them. “It’s about making it easier and more affordable,” he stressed.

“When you are looking at automation, keep your customers at the heart of the decision-making process.”

Coping with rising passenger numbers while driving down costs was the main conversation topic.
Smartphones will play an integral part in the automation of the check-in process.
The debate was lively, but all agreed that helping customers should be airports’ prime concern.
A dinner guest gets to grips with a roll of eezeetags, which are designed for self-check-in systems.

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