Airports striving to become more customer-friendly

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Terri Langford / The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK – Need a book after the airport newsstand closes?

No problem. Insert your credit card in a vending machine and that New York Times bestseller is yours.

How about a manicure or a massage before catching your business connection?

Then step up to a nail kiosk or massage station next to your departure gate.

After decades of being considered mere buildings and tarmac, the nation's airports are in the middle of a renovation renaissance – remodeling their image to capture more business and grow in this age of the sophisticated traveler.

"There are certain things that we can leverage, that can make the journey less stressful," said Joe Lopano, executive vice president of marketing at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Parking, better signage, helpful employees, cleaner bathrooms in addition to a better retail offering are all within an airport's reach, he said.

"If you can de-stress the atmosphere at the airport, you've gone a long way to make it a better experience," Mr. Lopano said.

Airports – not just airlines – are fighting for customer loyalty and customer service is their best ammunition.

"We can't control the weather, we can't control the mechanical problems, we can't control the airline labor issues," said Tom Dunning, chairman of the D/FW Airport board, which oversees the airport's operations. "But what we can count on is having a clean airport, having concessions passengers want."

The nation's airport executives – more than 2,000 of them meeting in New York at the annual Airports Council International-North America conference – are hoping the consumer-friendly measures go far enough to soothe the frayed nerves of this year's airline passenger.

Customers' patience was pushed to the limit this year during a summer of massive delays and cancellations.

"Customer service is not a department, it's an attitude," said Scott O'Donnell, senior vice president for the consulting firm Sypher:Mueller International Inc.

In 1989, as head of Pittsburgh International, Mr. O'Donnell helped transform the airport terminal from its stoic military beginnings to a cheery retail outlet when he introduced a radical idea.

Instead of treating airline passengers as retail hostages, Mr. O'Donnell brought familiar name brands and retail outlets like Victoria's Secret, The Body Shop and Eckerd pharmacy – stores usually found in malls and strip centers – to the airport.

Mr. O'Donnell said he figured that passengers would rather see mall-type retail in an airport than overpriced "I Love Pittsburgh" souvenirs. Concession revenue at Pittsburgh jumped and an industry movement was born.

One of the most popular attractions at this year's ACI conference was a vending machine that dispenses books. Retailer WHSmith expects to set up shop in January at D/FW Airport where it will operate one of the machines.

The advantage, company officials say, is that no matter how late a passenger has to stay at the airport, he or she can have something to read.

In the works is a vending machine for magazines.

"It's perfect after the retail stores are closed and you need to read," said Laura Preston, a marketing manager for the company. "It's perfect for environments where you can't build out."

Another frequent stop for airport officials was the booth operated by Kristin Rhyne, president of Polished Inc. She's about to open her first massage/makeup/manicure store in Boston's Logan International Airport in November.

"It's not about putting paint on the nail," Ms. Rhyne said. "It's 'I want to feel good.'"

While the makings of a retail bonanza seem obvious now, most airports didn't have a clue. Now, more than 10 years after mall shopping was introduced, the concept is spreading to all areas of the airport – cleaner bathrooms, better parking, more ground transportation and, of course, better niche stores.

"It's what people want," said Hoyt Brown, deputy director of aviation for the Houston Airport System, which oversees Bush Intercontinental and Hobby. "It's all about being the complete customer service to the passenger, and it becomes even more important as passengers increase."

The biggest reason for this sea change?

"Money," said Michael Taylor, director of travel services for J.D. Power & Associates, the marketing firm that studies customer trends in the airline industry. "You can actually make money on it – on convenience."

The phenomenal rise in passenger numbers, even as airlines raise their prices, has airports scrambling to defuse the tension around gates to induce the waiting hordes to spend some money.

"There's so much that can happen to try to make it less stressful," said Mr. O'Donnell. "Whether you need it [or not], it's going to happen."

It's also a matter of something the airports can control in this era of uncertain airline schedules.

"I think the point is, you can do what you can do," said John "Jack" Graham, planning director for Los Angeles World Airports, which operates Los Angeles International Airport and three others in the Los Angeles area.

In today's market, it's not only airlines that are feeling the squeeze of competition.

Airports, once thought of as mere transit stations, are faced with a more sophisticated traveler who will not put up with bad service, or a $5 cup of plain coffee.

"What was once superior, is now standard," Mr. Taylor said. "Every airport will be compared to another. ... The airport is no longer just a transit station."

J.D. Power will release its annual survey of airline passengers on Nov. 14. A preliminary look at the findings, culled from 7,000 passengers at 29 of the nation's largest airports this summer, shows concession and retail offerings have a "dramatic" effect on the customer's view of the airport. Customer expectations are higher.

Still, some passengers question the frenzied emphasis on consumer goods in airports.

The husband of an airport vendor quipped at a reception:

"What are we doing in the airport at 2 a.m. that we need a book vending machine?" he asked while talking with his wife's colleagues. "That's the real question."