The primary focus of Airports Council International’s (ACI) Airport Service Quality (ASQ) program is to identify and disseminate best practices in quality customer service from the world’s top-performing airports. Nancy Gautier, ACI World director of communications, says ASQ is driving two things specifically: cooperation among service providers; and cooperation among airports. Meanwhile, after recent recognition for ASQ Assured certification, AIRPORT BUSINESS speaks with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport executive director Jim Smith.
The ASQ program consists of four modules, each of which can be utilized individually. The first module, also the initial module when the program began four years ago, is the ASQ survey.
“Before that, we had been doing a passenger survey with the International Air Transport Association (IATA)…a joint airline/airport type of survey,” says Gautier.
When the contract for that survey ended in 2005, the ACI board decided to do something that was specifically airport oriented, relates Gautier.
“We wanted to do something designed for airports, by airports, and executed by airports,” says Gautier. “The program is confidential, and the information gathered is not shared publicly. All airports sign a confidentiality agreement; they can see other airport information … it is really a benchmarking tool; it was never meant to be an airport popularity survey.”
Know your passengers
More than 130 airports around the globe participate in the ASQ Survey module. All airports use the same questionnaire and follow the same methodology; ASQ’s highly detailed sample plan tailored to each airport’s traffic ensures comparable results, according to ACI.
The core of the survey is based on a questionnaire developed by ACI and expanded on during the past four years. The questionnaire has some 30 parameters, comments Gautier, and airports are required to complete the questionnaires at certain times of the day each quarter. If an airport skips a questionnaire, they can continue to participate in the program but they can’t be ranked among the other participating airports.
“It’s a program designed to help airports benchmark and metric themselves against similar like-sized airports,” remarks Gautier.
Airports utilize impartial third parties who are responsible for distributing and collecting the questionnaires, she says. The questionnaires are distributed at gates and completed by passengers upon arrival. “There is a very strict environment that is specified; an airport must execute the surveys in that particular context,” says Gautier.
The survey covers key parameters of the passenger experience: check-in, security, getting to the gate, signage, cleanliness, and amenities. Passengers rank on a scale of one to five what they think about a particular service element; they also rank the parameters by importance.
“That gives managers a cross-cut on service that is very telling,” says Gautier. “It helps weight the results and gives a fair estimation of the importance of a particular service to a particular customer.”
The survey module offers an array of deliverables available within weeks of the end of each calendar quarter. The deliverables include management summaries and interactive data mining and analysis tools as well as individually tailored reports, panels, and raw data.
Gautier relates that there are two main elements as to why airports should take a vested interest in the passenger experience: one is that airports are increasingly competitive, particularly the airports that have a good number of transit passengers; and two, service quality helps airports hold onto airlines because carriers want good connection possibilities, and because airlines are cutting costs where they can, sometimes negatively affecting their passenger service delivery.
Airports can also compete locally as a destination, she explains. “Many European airports compete for the North American public; airports want their destination to be an attractive gateway to their communities … to draw people back,” says Gautier. “This is why there are often good and healthy alliances between airports and local travel bureaus ... a form of community brand-building.
“Even in tough economic times, passengers remain very demanding of service; if anything, they are more demanding because they are more aware of their choices.
“The best way to build loyalty is to make sure the passenger experience is a good one,” says Gautier.
In terms of identifying what is most important to the airport user, “It has become very clear in our survey that passengers care most about the general ambiance of an airport: temperature; lightness; openess; overall atmosphere; and properly working technology,” says Gautier. “People want the airport experience to be fast and easy; as streamlined as possible.”
The ASQ Assured module looks at another parameter: management commitment. According to Gautier, this consists of an evaluation of an airport’s existing programs for improving performance and service delivery, and to determine if the airport has the right kind of management structure/personnel structure for making sure improvements are taking place.
“Certification recognizes an airport’s commitment to service quality, and that systems and processes are in place to constantly improve customer service,” says Gautier.
Furthermore, she relates, airports need to be community players; “that’s something that really spurs development; airports must have a service mentality to be a true part of the community.
“More and more, what ASQ is doing is driving the concept that we are not a bunch of individual service providers; we are all in this together.
“It’s making airlines and airports realize that they may need to make some joint investments; to see if those investments could be cheaper for all involved, including the end customer. I think IT will drive a lot of this ability to consolidate.”
The program also encourages and facilitates cooperation among airports as well as among the different service entities at the airport.
“Airports can learn best practices from each other by looking at what they need to improve upon and contacting an airport that is doing well in a particular service aspect,” comments Gautier.
“Airports are increasingly realizing that survival will depend on passenger satisfaction; that’s a reality.”
The austin effort
Jim Smith, executive director for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA), has found ACI’s ASQ program to be of great value, especially in terms of motivating employees to provide improved customer service.
ABIA has participated in the ASQ Survey since it began, distributing it on a quarterly basis, and interviewing some 350 passengers each time.
“We get a score among some 130 airports worldwide, as well as the ability to compare our score against the other participating airports,” says Smith. “It’s a very good tool for trying to improve the quality of service to passengers because it can be monitored on a regular basis.
“It is a great benchmarking tool because you can find out how well other airports of your similar class are doing; and how you compare to them.”
Smith says ABIA focuses on four specific questions given in the questionnaire…those that the passengers feel strongest about: overall satisfaction, cleanliness of the terminal, cleanliness of the washrooms, and courtesy and helpfulness of the airport staff.
“We actually tie our employee bonus programs to those four particular questions on the survey,” comments Smith. “We put it out at the beginning of the year … what our goals are for each of those scores, and we average them over the four calendar quarters. There is a bonus at the end of the year if we hit those target scores.”
In addition, to help incentivize Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees, the airport charges TSA a discounted monthly parking rate. “We agreed with them that depending on the score they received for helpfulness on the survey, we would [reduce] the parking rate by either 50 percent or 100 percent,” says Smith. In other words, the parking fee could be waived completely depending on the customer service improvement made by TSA employees, he says.
More recently, ABIA has participated in the ASQ Assured module. Smith describes it as a sort of “overall map” for determining if the airport is doing the right things to run an efficient and effective organization.
Auditors are sent to evaluate the management practices of the airport to determine how close to the standard the airport is performing, relates Smith.
“It’s a good tool to measure yourself against your vulnerabilities; and it helps locate gaps in performance,” says Smith. ABIA was the third airport in the world to receive ASQ Assured certification; the airport was recognized for the achievement at last year’s ACI-North America annual conference.
“ASQ has been very valuable to us in terms of improving our customer service as well as improving the management approach we take to running the airport,” remarks Smith.
“The program is something that really drives our employees; we have been very fortunate in scoring high each year … most of the time higher than many North American airports.
“As a result of that, our employees like being winners, and they like to see that we are getting better scores than most airports; it definitely helps with the morale and the motivation of our employees here.”