Are Airports What’s Wrong With Travel — And A Symbol of What’s Wrong Everywhere?

Seth Godin writes about 10 things organizations can learn from airports.

The lessons for organizations may be right, or more right than wrong in many cases, but the underlying understanding of airports seems off the mark to me.

Godin seems not to like (1) commodity products, whose production is (2) intertwined with several bureaucracies (FAA, TSA, airports authority) in conjunction with highly a regulated industry (commercial aviation).

But I find that airports are surprising diverse, and while many remain soulless places run by bureaucrats and featuring little innovation there is tremendous variation — geographically (there are some amazingly impressive airports in Asia, like Singapore and Seoul-Incheon) and in terms of innovation (Dallas Fort Worth is trying to do a lot to make their experience more pleasant, Miami is making a ton of infrastructure investments without regard to cost, and some airports like LAX mostly just remain a pit).

There’s a lot wrong with the flying experience, from airline operations to air traffic control, airports are only one thing and most of the time a minor one at that. So I cannot agree with the claim, “I realized that I don’t dislike flying–I dislike airports.”

No one is in charge. The airport doesn’t appear to have a CEO, and if it does, you never see her, hear about her or interact with her in any way. When the person at the top doesn’t care, it filters down.

Commercial air travel is, for the most part, a commodity product. That’s not the sort of business I want to be in unless I’m the low cost provider. But it seems to me most of the issues identified are issues related to (1) commodity products rather than differentiated products aimed at a more niche clientele, that are (2) managed by governments.

And many of the diagnoses, especially attributions of problems to the airports, are overreaches.

For instance, airport authorities certainly have CEOs and they vary a great deal in effectiveness. Some are borderline corrupt or worse.

But how would the CEO’s presence in the terminal help the airport’s operations or bottom-line?

Problems persist because organizations defend their turf instead of embrace the problem. The TSA blames the facilities people, who blame someone else, and around and around. Only when the user’s problem is the driver of behavior (as opposed to maintaining power or the status quo) things change.

The biggest problem with the TSA isn’t a lack of facilities. And even so, airport authorities don’t get to do a lot about what the TSA chooses to do. Staffing at the checkpoints isn’t determined by the airports authority. Nude-o-scopes aren’t procured by the airport. We don’t take off our shoes because the airport tells us to. It seems like, to fit into the narrative of a top 10 lists about airports, lots of complaints about the flying experience get shoved into the airports box where they don’t belong.

The food is aimed squarely at the (disappearing) middle of the market. People who like steamed meat and bags of chips never have a problem finding something to eat at an airport. Apparently, profit-maximizing vendors haven’t realized that we’re all a lot weirder than we used to be.

For the most part food options aren’t determined by the ‘middle of the market’ to any greater extent than actually exists in terms of driving revenue.

Now, with competing proposals for limited use of space at some airports (at other airports, there’s plenty of empty concession space which an entrepreneur could grab and under Godin’s theory make a killing) the airport authority does make choices amongst competing options about whom to lease to.

But increasingly there are some decent food options! The B concourse at Dulles, as terrible an airport as that is, has at least Chipotle and Five Guys and a wine bar. Austin has an outpost of Salt Lick BBQ. Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera at O’Hare is decent. Beaudevin is a pretty good wine bar that just happens to be in the Miami airport.

Look outside the U.S. and I’ve had some pretty good meals — even fast food — in airports.

From the domestic terminal at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport:

And from the domestic terminal in Kuala Lumpur:

Not to mention the wiener schnitzel in Frankfurt.

Then there’s this:

Like colleges, airports see customers as powerless transients. Hey, you’re going to be gone tomorrow, but they’ll still be here.

Well… maybe. But again most of the interaction you have at the airport is with the airline (checkin, gate, possibly lounge) or security (TSA).

What would an airport look like that didn’t see ‘customers as powerless transients’? In other words, how would we know whether this claim was true or not?

Certainly the trend towards putting in complimentary wireless internet… or more comfortable seating… belies the notions that airports ignore the interests of passengers. Although sometimes there’s quite a high bar to cross before they’re ale to do much for those passengers.

By removing slack, airlines create failure. In order to increase profit, airlines work hard to get the maximum number of flights out of each plane, each day. As a result, there are no spares, no downtime and no resilience. By assuming that their customer base prefers to save money, not anxiety, they create an anxiety-filled system.

Again, nothing to do with airports. And on the whole, customer behavior suggests they do care more about price than anything else.

Except that the very idea of a hub is in contrast to this claim. Airlines bank flights for the convenience of passengers, to maximize connecting opportunities with reasonable layovers. They lose money when flights delay, and when customers misconnect.

Not all airlines behave this way. Prior to its acquisition by Southwest, Airtran was known for making customers wait on planes rather than having planes wait around for customers.

The mainline legacy carrier model, though, is to have a fully staffed airport throughout the day — a bank of flights comes in, turns around, staffers wait around quite a bit for the next. It’s high labor cost to provide that level of convenience.

Some airports are over-scheduled, but that’s as much an air traffic control constraint than an airport constraint. And airports have little control over modernizing inefficient air traffic control…

The TSA is ruled by superstition, not fact. They act without data and put on a quite serious but ultimately useless bit of theater. Ten years later, the theater is now becoming an entrenched status quo, one that gets ever worse

Agreed for the most part, though it’s not an airport issue.

The ad hoc is forbidden. Imagine an airplane employee bringing in an extension cord and a power strip to deal with the daily occurrence of travelers hunched in the corner around a single outlet. Impossible. There is a bias toward permanent and improved, not quick and effective.

Some airports are better than others responding to crises, such as weather events with mass cancellations, such as offering blankets and pillows to stranded passengers. But on the whole this claim is more right than wrong.

Everyone is treated the same. Effective organizations treat different people differently. While there’s some window dressing at the edges (I’m thinking of slightly faster first class lines and slightly more convenient motorized cars for seniors), in general, airports insist that the one size they’ve chosen to offer fit all.

But there’s competition across airports, whether private airports vs. commercial or connecting airports. And I choose to connect in Dallas rather than at O’Hare when possible and not just because of weather.

First class lines, first class boarding, airport lounges including first class lounges, and a variety of food options plus wireless internet can differentiate the experience.

But what would treating different customers differently mean in the airport context? It might mean a trend away from rather than towards shared rental car facilities (almost always massively over budget, and further away from the airport so while there are fewer bus trips they take longer and burn fuel and often involve oversized empty buses).

We get one-size fits all security, but that’s not an airport’s fault..

There are plenty of potential bad surprises, but no good ones. You can have a flight be cancelled, be strip searched or even go to the wrong airport. But all possibility for delight has been removed. It wouldn’t take much to completely transform the experience from a chore to a delight.

Oh I don’t know, I was rather delighted earlier in the month when I walked into the American Airlines club in Miami — having cleared immigration and re-cleared security (PreCheck) quite quickly such that I could get on an earlier flight that I didn’t book because it wasn’t a ‘legal connection’. I had them stick me on the waitlist for an oversold, earlier flight in to a different airport. I cleared, got a bulkhead aisle seat, and made it home much earlier than expected. Surprised, and delighted!

But the claim “It wouldn’t take much to completely transform the experience from a chore to a delight” leaves me clueless, do I just have a failure of imagination, what simple steps would make a big difference?

They are sterile. Everyone who passes through leaves no trace, every morning starts anew. There are no connections between people, either fellow passengers or the staff. No one says, “welcome back,” and that’s honest, because no one feels particularly welcome.

If you’re an infrequent traveler, nobody knows you. But I get ‘welcome backs’ all the time.

And I meet fellow passengers all the time, in lounges and on planes.

No one is having any fun. Most people who work at airports have precisely the same demeanor as people who work at a cemetery. The system has become so industrialized that personal expression is apparently forbidden.

It does seem that friendly employees – who are not as uncommon as Godin suggests — are the exception. Just as they are at the DMV. But what’s the lesson here, exactly? I have my thoughts but for sure Godin doesn’t spell them out.

And I don’t know, I actually feel sort of at home in some airports…

    Thai Airways First Class Spa

(HT: Tyler Cowen)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Spending some time at the shops at PDX is a pleasure. There are branches of LOCAL, highly rated coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants, bookstores, clothing and gift shops. It can really give you a mini-taste of the Pacific Northwest. And prices are no higher than in these stores in the city. If you have a stopover at PDX, don’t miss Coffee People, Made in Oregon, Powell’s Books, Pendleton, and the Beaverton Bakery, just to name a few. A deliberate effort was made to create this NW marketplace, and it works.

  2. “Commercial air travel is, for the most part, a commodity product. That’s not the sort of business I want to be in unless I’m the low cost provider.”

    That’s so 2003 thinking, Gary. Being the “low cost provider” is actually not the best path to sustained profitability for a USA airline these days. Like do you really think Spirit is going to conquer the world? What you want is a monopoly on your routes, or at least a comfortable oligopoly. That’s what the USA airline industry is quickly becoming — and why they can comfortably provide a “commodity product.” It’s why the USA airline industry is expected to reap about $2.5 billion in profits this year, with a tepid economy and absurdly high fuel prices.

  3. Gary, while I agree with a lot in this post, you really are peddling the airlines’ own propaganda by blaming the FAA’s air traffic services. They’re extremely good in the US, and as a pilot I can tell you that they almost always do an excellent job. “ATC Delays” or whatever the airlines like to call them almost never are actually ATC’s own fault – generally, they are the result of congestion, which is of course produced by the airlines themselves. In a lot of flying, I’ve never seen ATC produce delays.

    And lest you think they aren’t accountable – the FAA is a very accountable (to the end users) government agency. I’ve only once made a serious complaint in writing. A few days (!) later, I was contacted by a supervisor, who discussed the situation, reviewed the recordings with the employee in question, and then called me back to discuss the outcome and what their actions would be to prevent the same thing happening again. I also received a note from the employee.

    Anyways, there are lots more tales like that. The FAA really mostly is a scapegoat for the airlines and the uninformed public here.

  4. I missed the whole reason for this article. Who is Seth Godin? and why should I care about his article? There are a lot of ppl writing about a lot of things. Should your average reader know who Seth Godin is?

  5. @Mike Smith -not intended to scapegoat, FAA would say current system is antiquated which is why they want big investments in NextGen, I believe more fundamentally that centralized air traffic control as a system is dated and that ultimately technology will allow planes to be driven by cars.

  6. @Zz Google or search on Amazon. You’ll see you’re ignorant of a very successful & highly regarded business author.

  7. yet another reason why the time it takes to read Seth Godin is nothing more than time you’ll never get back

  8. I actually did get a “welcome back” and an “I thought I remembered you!” from a United check-in agent at the impossible low-key Hilo airport. It was my birthday the next day, and I got a nice little hand-written note on a blank United greeting card: “Happy Birthday, Mr. X, from your Hilo airport United crew!” The only downside is that these flights only end up in the black hole of crappy $9 burritos that is LAX.

  9. I had a friend come to visit and the lowest airfare was from CMH-LGB. $280ai. I agree that LAX is a ‘pit” (not PIT which is a nice airport). For AA, we prefer to fly in/out of SNA which is a much nicer, new airport.

    LGB is only 3 miles from our house so it was very easy to pickup/drop off my long time college friend from the mid 1970’s that was visiting me.

    We only fly in/out of LAX when SNA isn’t available on AA award or not inexpensive. Of course, we will take the nonstop LAX-JFK over a 1 stop SNA-DFW-LGA.

    The food choices @LAX are overpriced & lack of choices–especially AA Terminal 4 plus my wife brings food with us. (I have my own medical food that I bring with me).

    I like PDX for their food selection and “street” pricing of airport restaurants!

  10. The new Delta terminal at LGA is very nice. I think it shows that with with the right business partner you can sell decent food and make the experience that much better. They offer hundreds of IPADS for travelers waiting, charging stations at each one for your cell phones and laptops. You can order food throughout the entire termimal and they will bring it to you. Considering 2 hotdogs nathans/fires/drink is something like 12.00+ in MIA, prices are not bad for NY.

  11. Perhaps I missed it in your article, but competition and age of facilities are probably the two main factors here. Airports and cities that see themselves in a competitive environment will work to improve themselves. Places like LAX or the NYC airports don’t really have any competition. They are large cities with many businesses, and people will go to them regardless of how bad the airport is. The three big NYC airports are near capacity and don’t really compete with each other. But people (or airlines) could chose not to go through DXB, SIN or ICN if they were horrible. They are nice because they decided they are competing against other hubs and want to grab a piece of the business. Their facilities are also newer so it’s not fair to compare with most U.S. airports. Who here wants to pay a $50 PFC for a much nicer airport? Not gonna happen. Places like MIA want to attract more businesses, tourists, cultural institutions and therefore are upgrading their infrastructure. Places like LA or NYC are already at capacity and don’t really need to attract more businesses or people. So there you have it, competition and age of infrastructure. Another thing, so called “innovation” or “imagination” is not needed. Such things imply thinking up something new that no one else is doing. The U.S. airports can just learn from other airports and copy some of what makes them good.

  12. I frequently have to travel to London, which has the benefit of a heap of airports serving the city:

    -London City
    -London Heathrow
    -London Gatwick
    -London Stansted
    -London Luton

    I genuinely enjoy using London City airport, and make a point of arranging flights to/from there because of it. They have good food options, well built and efficient security, and a really pleasant environment with free wi-fi.

  13. Gary, I don’t know why you’ve spent so much time responding to this Godin character’s rant. He is obviously a hipster wannabe who has no idea about the economics and workings of airports and the aviation industry in general, and just posted generic criticism of some popular views to generate traffic for his site.

  14. Seth Godin, moron No1.

    Typical large U.S. Airport has a throughput of 40-80 million people a year. Can you imagine what Seth’s deep whine would amount to if enacted on that scale. My Family and i’s life is in the hands of the Airport and the airlines. I’m not interested in experimentation and creativity.

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