Friday, August 27, 2010

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports

The Usability of the Travel Experience

At the end of my last post of travel pet peeves, I made the observation that many of the snafus happen because different aspects of travel are coordinated by different organizations, and no one has responsibility for the “big picture,” that is, the end-to-end travel experience.

As a result, the interfaces among these experiences are often clunky—between air travel and ground transport, subway and train station.  Rummler and Brache noticed that, when organizations fall down, the cracks are the interfaces between different groups within the organization—the kitchen and the wait staff in a restaurant, manufacturing and distribution in a plant, sales and set-up in a marketing organization.

This type of problem seems especially true in the travel experience—air, train, and metro.  It’s as if the people who work in them are especially oblivious to the experiences of the travelling public.  Furthermore, no one seems to have responsibility for the end-to-end experiences in each of these modes of travel.  Traveling as much as I did during the sabbatical last year provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on these interface issues—and in the next several posts, I share some of the issues that arose:

  • Experience, usability, airlines, and airports
  • Usability of train stations and trains
  • Usability of metro (subway) systems

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports
My dad used to say that half of the fun of travel was the experience of getting there.

He died in 1965, and never lived to see the state of travel to day.  Its primary role seems to be selling prescriptions for Xanex and other tranquilizers.

In theory, airports serve as centers of welcome and fond farewell for their communities and airplanes are the means of building up to these experiences.  But I wonder what words travellers would use if asked to describe the nature of the welcome and farewell they received.

More specifically, designers of the air travel experience seem to overlook the welcoming role played by planes and airports because they tend to overlook or, worse, callously ignore, key specific aspects of the travel experience.  In this post, I’ll look at some of the issues that seem most visible to me.  In the Comments section, you might add to the list.

The Airline Experience
The concerns with the end-to-end design of the air experience of airline travel begins with the process of making reservations.

More specifically, the issues start with ticket prices. Although a la carte pricing seems to have rankled most air travelers, since I compared an a la carte price on Air Canada that was loaded with extras (seat selection coming and going, pre-paid meal, and the admittedly rip-off “On Your Way” service) and still cheaper than the prices on Expedia and Travelocity, I have no issue with it.

My concerns, instead, focus on issues that clearly suggest that airlines are, at best, indifferent to the experiences of their customers.  Here are some specific issues, from the beginning to the end of the experience:

Grossly misleading advertised prices.  This is primarily a problem in Canada, where airport taxes are admittedly exceptionally high.  But it’s also a problem elsewhere.

But airlines don’t make the problem any better by advertising one-way ticket prices sans taxes.  They know that most travellers make round-trips, and that want to make these decisions based on total price, not the pre-tax price on a one-way fare.  (And the fine print always says that the fare is only applicable to a round trip anyway.)

Airlines in Canada claim that consumers want to know how much they’re paying in taxes.

Perhaps—but only after they know what the entire ticket price is.  And when a trip whose teaser price is $79 actually balloons to something like $369 (I’m not exaggerating), these practices seem all the more deceitful.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that consumers don’t really read this type of information so carefully so they’re not likely to process the details anyway.

If airlines really want to raise consumer awareness of taxes, more effective—and less deceitful—practices exist.  They could print them on receipts (as they already do) as well as boarding passes and other check-in documentation.

Furthermore, the documentation of taxes could be visual—a pie chart (taking a lead from gas stations, which already do this).

Consumer groups have raised awareness of the problem, but the Canadian government seems listless in addressing the problem.  They said they’re working on it, but that’s a euphemism for hoping the issue is going to go away.

But on a more practical level, if the initial conversation with consumers is based on misleading information, how can the trust that builds true consumer loyalty ever develop?

Charges for making reservations by telephone.  On the one hand, I recognize that, when customers make their reservations online, they save staff and airlines want to pass the savings along to customers.  On the other hand, there are times when this seems to be a self-defeating proposition.  Some people have exceptional difficulty making reservations online—like those who don’t have, or are uncomfortable using, computers.  Two of the groups  can ill afford unnecessary additional charges.  Elderly people—many of whom are good airline customers—are one group.  Low-income flyers, some of whom do not have home internet service or computers, are another.

A third group is people who have tried to make reservations online but, for reasons that usually have to do with glitches in the airline’s own computer system, can’t.  In such instances, airlines should pay customers for their diligence rather than penalizing them.

Dis-loyalty programs: While airlines have ratcheted up opportunities to earn frequent flyer points through credit cards, dining partners, shopping on their website, they’ve decreased opportunities to earn them the traditional way—by flying.  For example, Air Canada only awards full credit for flying when paying full fare.  Otherwise, customers receive about half the points.  To be honest, the points aren’t worth the differential in price.  But at least, Air Canada is up-front about its reduced mileage.

In contrast, Delta hides some of its new practices.  A tradition among “partner” airlines like Delta’s SkyTeam is that miles flown on one airline earn mileage in a partner’s frequent flyer program, even if the original airline issued the ticket.  Apparently, no more.  I bought a ticket on Air France through Expedia and tried to receive credit on Delta.  They wouldn’t offer it, identifying the flight as “free.”  (At $1,000 a ticket, it most definitely was not free.)  When I inquired, they the fare wasn’t eligible for the transfer.

Naturally, Expedia did not inform me of this either.

Grumpy service.  Years ago, I heard an executive from Southwest Airlines explain their personnel philosophy:  “Treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers.”

A lightbulb went off; I understood why Northwest was so horrible to its customers.  During that particular year, the pilots had gone on strike, the machinists were taking work actions, and the flight attendants were threatening to strike.

Unhappiness is more contagious than the Avian flu.

Admittedly, remaining enthusiastic in the flying environment isn’t easy.  But that’s the service that airlines are paid to provide all the same; their management has a responsibility to inspire their workers, not only to ensure safety but to ensure a pleasant flying experience.

Mis-communication about flight status:  Although airlines resisted it, frequent flyers  applauded U.S. government intervention when airlines showed continued indifference to excessive wait times on tarmacs when flights were delayed. Even in the face of exceptionally poor publicity that bordered on communicating incompetence, airlines refused to improve their practices.

But those are merely extreme situations.  Mis-communication and unrealistic expectations about flight operations seem endemic to airline operations.  When airlines delay flights, they are almost never forthcoming with information.  At the least, if they know nothing, airlines could communicate that to waiting passengers and tell them they’ll give an update in 30 minutes.  If they still know nothing, they can communicate that.  Instead, gate staff rarely communicate anything, and the not knowing only enrages passengers—and unnecessarily so.

This flies in the face of crisis communications strategy.

But airlines must be willing to endure this for a reason: if the flight delay is caused by the airline, they’re responsible for assisting passengers, including giving them a hotel room if needed.  If passengers don’t know what’s going on, they can’t ask for the services that consumer laws provide.

Or perhaps airlines are simply so deaf that they can’t hear how foolish they sound.  Something I overheard in Baltimore’s airport sheds light on this.  Two Northwest flights at adjacent gates were both delayed: one for weather, one for mechanical reasons.  A Northwest gate agent made an announcement, telling passengers on the flight delayed by mechanical failure that they would be given some sort of meal voucher and those on the weather-delayed flight that they would receive nothing.

Mis-handling their own ground operations.  Although this level of mis-communication would be embarrassing to any other type of organization, mis-communication seems to be de rigeaur for most airlines.  Consider the situation when a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago arrives early, and the plane waits at the gate for 15 minutes because there’s no one to open the gangplank.

Seriously, how can the arrival of a 747 that’s been flying for 15 hours and in constant communication with air traffic control be such a surprise that no one is ready for its arrival?

And given that these planes fly the highest profit routes, wouldn’t they be of such a high priority that the company would redirect resources their way? Although it’s against the rules, one can easily understand how passengers who have been cooped up on the plane are anxious to depart and might even work on it.

These are just four examples of mis-communication in the airline experience that creates mis-trust, anxiety, and frustration. This persistent, institutionalized, and systemic mis-communication elevates these activities from a simple communication problem to a user experience issue, and affects the ways that passengers feel about—and respond to—the wait for flights.

But have no fear; most airlines are matched by their closest partners, the airports, for creating an unnecessarily frustrating customer experience.

The Airport Experience
As I mentioned, the airport is supposed to be the welcome and departure point for visitors.  But many offer something short of a warm welcome or a heartfelt farewell.  Here are some specific areas where the experience can be improved.

In Winter, Provide Heat at Charles de Gaulle Airport:  We had a 3-hour layover at the airport in February. Even with hot coffees in our systems, we had to wear our coats in the terminal to try to stay warm, and that really didn’t do the best job.  I’ve been told that the temperatures in August are sweltering.

Stop the Price Gouging at European Airports:   $5.00 for a can of coke?  That’s the price at Charles de Gaulle.  Coke wasn’t much cheaper at Schipol airport.  Although some of the more durable merchandise was sold at prices competitive with those in local stores, food at European airports (and train stations) seemed a bit on the high side—as if the operators know that they have a captive audience and want to take advantage of it.

These airports could learn from Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, which have had “best price guarantees” to prevent airport businesses from over-charging.

Better link airports with subways.  In some instances, link between an airport and a subway or intra-city train is nearly seamless, like the links the airport and subways in Atlanta, Schipol and Reagan National airports.  Atlanta’s subway and the entire railroad system of the Netherlands literally come into their respective airports, and Reagan’s comes up right along side the airport, with central access to it.

But linking to subways and trains at other airports is a separate journey of its own, with the link itself often eating up an extra 15 to 30 minutes of travel time between the baggage claim and the train.  Boston’s airport stop actually is about a mile away from the airport, requiring a special shuttle bus.  The Amtrak station at Newark’s airport is even further away.  Technically, there’s an O’Hare stop on the Chicago subway system, but it’s quite a hike from any of the terminals—and directions to the and from the terminals aren’t particularly well marked along the way.  It suffers, like the similar odyssey from the baggage claim to the Light Rail station at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport—from the creation of a transportation hub (which will be discussed later).  And the Amtrak link from downtown Ft. Worth and Dallas to the DFW airport runs so rarely and is far enough from the terminal that,  as a ground transportation option, it has little practical value.  (It’s not even on the intra-airport train system; reaching it requires a special shuttle that does not leave from every terminal.)

A number of reasons exist for the poor links between subways and airports, but they often come down to a core issue:  different groups need to work together in the best interests of the passengers and, in the end, the passengers’ experience rates lower than other considerations—sometimes within the control of all parties, sometimes not.

Although the stated goals of linking airports and high-speed rail is to encourage travelers to take public transit, the “link” must be easy to traverse for people to actually use it.

As long as  I’m complaining: If you need to transfer lines when taking the subway to the airport, many travelers quickly find that the transfer is a challenge in its own right. Subway systems built before the 1970s typically do not have escalators at exchange lines, and almost always require going up a staircase—which not only builds weight lifting muscles, but also slows the passenger down and, at times, infuriates other travelers behind them who are also slowed down in their climb up the stairs, as no escalators or elevators are available.
This issue is admittedly not an airport issue, but it’s just one other minor frustration in travel.   Except where court-mandated to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities, the costly renovations to these stations to simplify the interchange is unlikely to occur.

The next time they remodel, many airports should seriously explore ways to shorten distances.  Admittedly, larger airports need to accommodate an ever-larger number of gates and have limited space to grow or, even just remodel.  Moreover, some of these airports are working with designs that little flexibility to grow.  For example, Montreal’s airport is space constrained as are Chicago, Newark, Minneapolis-St-Paul’s, and Los Angeles’ (just to name a few).

When they do expand, many of these airports simply extend their jetties further out—and further away from terminal services, like immigration, baggage claim, and ground transportation.  That’s great for those interested in a workout, but most arriving passengers aren’t really interested in that.  Lugging suitcases, laptops, handbags—often with diminished energy from an overnight or overseas flight—an extra-long walk isn’t what they’re interested in.  The walks in some airports is especially lengthy, such as those in Minneapolis St-Paul’s Terminals A and B, and Newark’s Terminal C.

Some airports have installed walkways, but these walkways are often outside of arrivals areas.

Others have installed trains to ferry passengers from the gates to baggage claim, but unless those trains were part of the original design, the distance between the gate and the train is so far, that the train nearly loses its value.  Some particularly questionable intra-airport trains are the  ones at the Newark, Dallas-Fort-Worth, and San Francisco airports.

The intra-airport train in San Francisco is especially bothersome for arriving passengers.  It is not well-connected to the terminals (and its stops are particularly inconvenient for some airlines that do not have hubs at the airport). And, in some instances, requires that travelers walk up stairs—sometimes with hefty loads of luggage—to get to the train.

In contrast, to these retrofits, the Atlanta airport was designed to handle large volumes of passengers, and to grow easily as volumes increased.  Denver adopted the same design as is Dulles airport (though it’s the longest renovation I’ve ever seen).

Provide a Ground Transportation Solution to Reaching Ground Transportation Hubs: Designed and implemented to free up some airport space for other purposes and accommodate growth in demand for ground transportation, ground transportation hubs have created new inconveniences for arriving passengers.

On paper, the hubs at the Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis-St-Paul airports both probably looked good.  Ground transportation hubs would be located in a central facility that’s accessible to all of the terminals in the airport.  In reality, both resulted in hikes guaranteed to help arriving passengers lose 5 pounds (OK, I might exaggerate but…)  In the case of O’Hare, the pathway to the hub to the terminals isn’t particularly well marked.  The hub is well marked in Minneapolis-St.Paul, it’s just plain far and adds unnecessary steps.  For example, to get a rental car, arriving passengers must hike to the transportation hub, then pick up an intra-airport shuttle, then take an elevator up to the rental car area.

Atlanta and Baltimore-Washington have tried to eliminate those unnecessary steps—but do so by literally shipping  passengers miles way to not just off-site, but way-off-site car rental facilities.  Atlanta’s is connected by a high-speed train, Baltimore-Washington’s by a shuttle bus.  Although the spacious facilities are touted as a benefit to customers, getting to and from these car rental facilities adds 15 to 30 minutes to a trip that weren’t there before.  

One Last Problem that Needs Addressing:  When arriving in Los Angeles on certain airlines, passengers need to literally leave the airport terminal to catch a stair or escalator downstairs to the baggage claim.  That seems like poorly thought-out traffic design.

Some Additional Thoughts: Individually, expanding airport capacity, linking airports and cities by subway or intra-city train, providing transportation hubs, and similar measures were meant to accommodate increasing numbers of passengers and demands for services.  But rather than adding convenience, these measures have made some airports more complicated and time consuming to traverse, and added to an already frustrating experience.

Experience designers—airports offer plenty of opportunity.  

But more opportunity exists.
Next post:  The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations.

No comments: