Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Thu December 17 2015

How Do Travelers Feel About Airports? The Answer May Surprise You.

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | December 17, 2015

How Do Travelers Feel About Airports? The Answer May Surprise You.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

According to the J.D. Power 2015 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, fliers' satisfaction with their overall airport experience has risen dramatically. What has changed? It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that airports were considered places that you had to put up with when traveling rather than places you could enjoy. Any "fun" came from the exciting buzz of travel, not from anything you found in the terminal.   

According to Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power, the new appreciation that travelers have displayed in the recent survey comes from a change in focus by airports: “Most airports have really made a tremendous shift over the past six years and are now focused on managing the end-to-end experience for their travelers. It’s no longer just about getting travelers from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible; it’s about making the airport experience enjoyable.”

Formula for success: more retail and restaurants

Is there a formula for creating this kind of "end-to-end experience?" It starts with offering more variety and higher quality. JD Power VP Jeff Conklin points out that the results of the survey show that more is better:  “Travelers now are substantially more satisfied with retail experiences in their airport. Airports that have responded to this demand by offering a variety of food, beverage, merchandise, and other attractive services and amenities are realizing significant gains in overall customer satisfaction.” 

Is making customers happy vital to airports' bottom line? Yes and no. It is not an option for most travelers to choose a different airport because the like it better. They are going to go to whatever airport their ticket tells them to go to. At the same time, airports get a significant amount of their revenue from amenities like shops, restaurants and other airside services. So-called landing fees paid by airlines are not enough to cover operational costs at most hubs. So giving people an attractive menu of retail options - places where they will actually want to make purchases or sit down and have a meal - can increase the likelihood of them spending before they got on their flight.

Breaking down the numbers

Exactly how much happier are fliers with their airport experiences this year? On JD Power’s 1,000-point scale, airports in general earned a satisfaction score of 725, which is up from 690 in the 2010 survey. The change in fliers’ attitudes is much more evident when the airports are broken down according to size. Five years ago, the score for major hubs was 665. This year, it is at 719. Medium-size airports scored 752. These scores are for North America hubs. Asia Pacific airports (761) and European airports (740) both scored higher than their North American peers on an international version of the survey. 

The survey also looked at individual airports in North America. Dallas Love Field and Southwest Florida International, both considered medium-size airports, scored the highest with 792 points each. Portland International was the best large airport with 791. Other top major hubs include Tampa Int’l (776) and Las Vegas McCarran (759).

The fundamentals still matter

The survey’s findings show that the basics still matter. People were likely to give an airport a higher score if security and check-in lines were short and if gates were clean and well maintained. Also, younger travelers were more likely to give higher scores than older travelers (perhaps they are less jaded when it comes to air travel). 

While some people might complain about airports being turned into shopping malls, the silent majority seems to approve of this change, and it also could work wonders for airports’ business models and income streams. 


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