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Passenger Terminal Expo: Missing the Mark on Real Passenger Experience?

By: David Watts | Tags: Service Design, Customer Insight, Behavioural Design

Passenger Terminal Expo is a lightning conductor for the aviation industry as it draws together so many operators and experts together under one roof. However, meeting the industry's evolving demands and expectations is a challenge and having spent time at this year's event, here are the key areas that we believe were missed...

What is “passenger experience”?

The first is thinking about the nature of passenger experience and what airports think they are doing to improve it. From some of the presentations, one might imagine that throwing AI, machine learning and biometrics at the problem will be enough to transform experience. We think this is a misplaced perspective - technologies like AI clearly have a significant role to play in experience improvements, although we didn’t see much talk of specific use cases, but only if they are implemented in a humanised way and used to solve the right problems.

We were struck, as in previous years, at how the term “passenger experience” is used in a wide and generic way with everyone promising they can improve it. Clearly, no airport doesn’t want to provide a good experience in the same way they wouldn’t want to duck something like safety. But there was a lack of detail on and any attempt to articulate what they mean by ‘experience’. What kind of experience are they trying to deliver for their different passengers? How are they understanding and responding to their different needs? What do they want people to feel? We felt that was a missing piece to coherently define this. If you don’t know what you want to create and aim at, then it is impossible to make all the stages in the journey join up and work coherently to create that desired experience.

A photo taken from beneath of a plane directly above emerging from multi coloured clouds
A photo taken from beneath of a plane directly above emerging from multi coloured clouds

Owning the customer

At the heart of some of thinking about the experience is the interesting question of who “owns” the customer? There has perhaps been a transition from the airline owning this to a situation where it is somewhat more shared between airlines and airports. But what kind of experience should the airport really be aiming for?

There is still persistent talk about airports being a “destination” with a marketing spin that suggests people are travelling largely just to visit the airport. This is folly. Airports are a gateway for the journey we are making. We feel that airports have much to do to focus on their role to make that step as stress-free, relaxing and easy as possible. We want customers to want to travel through an airport and regard it as a positive part of their trip. They can be a great place to wait, they can even create some wow moments but get back to the experience and meet the real needs of the passenger. Let’s stop kidding ourselves that airports are a “destination” in their own right.

Designing the ‘bad’ experience

The final component of passenger experience that was seemingly entirely absent from the conversation at PTE was about when things go wrong. Airports, consultants and vendors focus very much on improving the general experience for when things are going OK. No one was talking about designing the experience when flights are delayed or the technology fails. As we saw just this week when the e-gates across UK airports failed, there were the same old customer complaints: “no information”, “we weren’t told how long it would take”, or “they did nothing to help like providing water”.

We think there is a need for balance in thinking from airports where we certainly need to keep working on the day to day experience, but delays and problems are the acid test of how you really work for your customers. As we have explored recently in a blog, it may be that climate change increases the frequency of weather related delays so airports had better be ready.


It's clear there are critical areas that need more focus in the aviation industry: defining and articulating what "passenger experience" truly means, recognising the shared responsibility of airlines and airports in customer experience, and preparing for disruptions are essential. By addressing these gaps, airports can enhance their role in making travel more seamless and enjoyable. As the industry evolves, a more holistic and realistic approach to passenger experience will be key to future success.


If you work in the airport sector and you want to find out how we can improve passenger experience and drive revenue. email me: david.watts@mimagroup.com

Written by:

Photo of David Watts

David Watts
Managing Director

David is our Managing Director with over 20 years of practice as a Human Factors and design consultant. He has delivered projects across sectors including rail, O&G, airports, utilities and the emergency services. He has worked with clients such as Network Rail, Siemens, easyJet, WSP, National Express, TfL and HS2.