Boarding school

Airport passengers

How human factors techniques can improve the airport experience. Andrew Foulkes talks to Barry Davies of Lloyd’s Register Consulting

Even in this day and age, to experience the merest hint of anxiety while waiting to board a flight is to almost be in the majority.

An apprehensive traveller should look around fellow passengers gathered at the departure gate and take some comfort from the fact that numerous studies have concluded that as many as 40 per cent of people admit to some degree of aviophobia. Not present at all will be the seven per cent of people for whom the fear of being in flight is so crippling it keeps them away from aeroplanes altogether.

Given so many of its customers hold such apprehension about flying, you might think the aviation industry would long ago have mastered the art of at least getting you to your seat as efficiently as possible, and help relieve some of the stress.

But you would be wrong, for UK research also shows that a similarly large minority (42 per cent) find the entire the ‘airport experience’ stressful. And almost a quarter (23 per cent) suggest the prospect of delays, long queues, security searches, lost belongings and even just making it to the gate on time, is as equally stress inducing as a major life event such as moving house.

Fear and loathing in the departure lounge

But what is so surprising is that much of the anxiety associated with airports is man-made. Inclement weather, mechanical failures, even volcanic ash clouds, are obviously beyond our control, but bad planning, poor design and a lack of customer understanding can be addressed. And when you consider that the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority figures suggest that each minute of delay costs an airport anywhere between US$20 and US$200, there is no lack of financial incentive for getting a disoriented passenger through the system as efficiently as possible.

In truth, more recent terminal designs do enjoy the benefit of more thoughtful design. If you have been to a terminal that has opened in the past 10 years you might notice how the layout determines that passengers simply move forward: enter the airport having checked in online; then walk forwards to bag drop; then forward to passport and ticket check; then forward again to security, and so on. There is no queuing at one desk before turning around and walking against oncoming crowds over to a passport check located against a wall on the other side of the building.

Most airports must make do with their existing configuration. Even so, there are some relatively low-cost measures that can help send passengers on their way in a happier frame of mind.

Follow me

Finding relevant information is a regular passenger complaint. Barry Davies, Human Factors Technical Lead for Lloyd’s Register Consulting, was part of the team tasked by a major UK airport to look at this problem. The brief was to assess the existing visual environment with a view to developing a wayfinding solution that met passenger needs.

“The airport’s management team had acknowledged their public areas were suffering from an accumulation of signs, directions, instructions and advertising and asked us to see if we could help them rationalise their displays,” explains Davies. “We applied a concept that we developed, termed the cognitive model of passenger need (CMPN) which is based on a premise described by environmental psychologist Romedi Passini that ‘information is not seen because it is there, but because it is needed’. This essentially means you do not hang a sign where it is convenient to hang it; you put it where the user will need it.”

The team observed and interviewed passengers to build a ‘cognitive profile’ of how their mental goals and anxiety levels changed as they passed through the airport. The key findings were that passengers experienced most stress and mental workload on their immediate arrival and when trying to find their correct boarding gate in time. “During these moments passengers were most focused on primary tasks such as navigation” says Davies, “any other information at this time was a distraction. Whereas, even for the most infrequent flyer, the airside lounges were associated with reduced anxiety, meaning passengers were more receptive to secondary tasks such eating and shopping.” 

The team then helped to divide the terminal by primary activity: decision- making, navigation, dwell and browse. Passenger information was then prioritised accordingly so that it met the requirements for each area.

The next step was to establish new ‘house rules’ for visual displays. “As with many businesses, airports liked to differentiate themselves with distinctive displays and typography. But this meant their signage sometimes lost sight of its initial purpose, with branding often taking priority over clarity. So rules were agreed around information being consistent with areas and presented in a clear, unambiguous and easy-to-read manner,” says Davies.

Though passengers have often suspected airports of seeing themselves as shopping centres rather than transport hubs, as a result of the cognitive mapping and modelling, the airport in question took the bold decision to move all retail and catering airside. It then worked with the retailers to position goods in accordance to passenger need, for example moving more aspirational items further away from the security areas and clustered in areas where they could capitalise on lower anxiety levels.

Following the introduction of this new approach, the airport noted a 15 per cent increase in revenue. The Lloyd’s Register Consulting team has since taken these techniques to a number of other airports in the UK and abroad, and an increasing number of rail station developments.

Secure in the knowledge

A similar modelling exercise was also used to tackle pinch points like the security screening area, a notorious bottleneck for some airports. “Another airport asked us to look at the layout of the halls where they screen passengers and in-flight bags. No matter what they tried, queues would quickly build during peak periods,” explains Davies.

“The problem we found was not the number of security lanes in operation, it was the way in which passengers were corralled into them. Under the previous layout, with the tables directly adjacent to the scanners, people naturally formed a queue that often stretched out of the room, until they eventually met the security staff at the front who told them what they needed to do about separating liquids, removing shoes and belts or emptying pockets.

“But by carefully reconfiguring the area in front of the machines to support the behaviour required, we could create a preparation area where assistants could help people further down the queue. By bringing the staff interaction forward people approached the scanners ready for screening. We didn‘t need more staff or space, just a gentle nudge on passenger behaviours.”

Back of house

Better use of information can also improve operational performance. A recent study conducted by Lloyd’s Register Consulting for one of the UK’s smaller, regional airports helped halve the average delay per aircraft during the peak summer months, contributing to a dramatic improvement of overall punctuality at the airport.

Having analysed the flow of operational information between various airside operations – including traffic control, gate management, and baggage collection – information gaps and duplications were identified that had a surprising impact on the smooth running of the entire airport. Overall the team uncovered 74 items of information that impeded on-time performance. Once corrective measures were taken, the average departure delay dropped, saving a total of 124,000 minutes in June, July and August alone.

For instance, the majority of passengers were bussed to their aircraft. The bus manager was dependent on radio contact from handling agents to find out when and where to dispatch his resources.

Yet all the information that the manager needed about stand allocation and passenger numbers was already available on the airport database. All that was required was a simple bespoke screen providing all the information the manager required to act proactively.

Put the human first

“Human factors is about ensuring human needs and limitations are accommodated for in the environments we create,” says Davies. “A direct benefit is, of course, reduced human and organisational error, that leads to improved safety performance. But it is also about helping businesses understand how their customers behave at key decision points and that can help them make adjustments that can have a profound impact on commercial performance”.

Such techniques will not, unfortunately, help the many sufferers of aviophobia. But it will certainly release millions from the unnecessary dread of arriving at the airport, and avoid ‘fear of airports’ acquiring a phobia status of its own.