J.D. Power and Associates recently announced that Dallas Love Field, which is owned by the City of Dallas, is the top airport for Customer Satisfaction in the 2006 North American Airport Satisfaction Study. The study was based on responses from more than 9,800 passengers who took a flight between January and May 2006. Kenneth Gwyn outlines steps taken by the city and the airport to bring about the third-party recognition.
Passengers evaluated up to two different airports - their departing and arriving airport - for a total of more than 17,000 evaluations. Love Field rated "Among the Best" in four of five categories: airport accessibility, check-in process, terminal facilities, and baggage claim. Love rated "Better than Most" in the fifth area, security check-in. The award represents one of the first successes in an overall citywide initiative to improve customer service.
This recognition prompted the question, What actions taken by the airport resulted in Love Field being singled out? How was customer service measured? What does quality customer service mean to the Love Field customer? Was there ownership for providing quality customer service on the part of employees and businesses at the airport?
It became clear that the answers to two basic questions were at the heart of the airport's success: 1) Who was the customer? and 2) What were their basic expectations for the airport experience?
WHO IS THE CUSTOMER?
While all airports have similarities, each has unique qualities in terms of the types of travelers or the physical layout of the airport. Both have an impact on customer service. Love Field is a medium size airport with over 5.6 million passengers in 2005. It's a short-haul airport with an overwhelming majority of the routes averaging 60 minutes. Over 80 percent of the passengers use the airport for business travel, with the average length of stay less than a day.
These statistics have a direct relationship to the traveler's expectation. When I arrived at the airport in 1996, it became readily apparent that the typical Love Field traveler generally arrives close to the airplane's departure time. Dwell time is minimal.
Given the somewhat unique customer service expectations of the Love Field traveler, staff recognized that convenience was paramount. Anything that caused delay, confusion, or interfered in any way with a direct, non-stop trip from the entrance road of the airport to the airplane boarding gate, was a customer service failure. As a result, very close attention was paid to such things as parking availability, traffic flow and traffic control - both on the access road and in front of the terminal, wayfaring signage, length of passenger lines, and other factors that impact the length of time that a person spends getting to the airplane. The goal: save time while at the airport.
Several methods were used to validate staff's understanding of what customer service means to a typical traveler. Many of the standard feedback techniques were used (customer service cards; mystery shopper program). Customer service was also discussed in speeches given by airport staff, whether to an employee group meeting or to a local Chamber of Commerce, these opportunities were used to test staff's understanding of customer preferences.
Based upon all of the feedback tools used, staff was very confident that they had good understanding of traveler expectations.
The next challenge was to clearly articulate customer expectations to employees and others who interact with airport customers. The message had to be succinct, yet clearly describe the type of unique experience that Love Field passengers expect. The phrase "A Hassle Free Experience - From When You Turn on Cedar Springs until You Reach the Gate" was created internally to capture what the goal or expectation for the traveler was to be. (Cedar Springs is the airport entrance road.)
MAKING IT "HASSLE FREE"
The final step was to develop and implement concrete plans and policies to make the Love Field experience as "hassle free" as possible. After 9/11 it didn't take long to identify a list of projects that airport staff felt was critical to improving the customer service experience at the airport. This list was compiled from a number of sources: customer feedback cards, discussions with air carriers and other stakeholders, mystery shopping programs, and consultant studies.
The primary feedback method, however, was via observations from the staff as they interacted with the traveling public. Staff was encouraged to spend time listening to customers and to sense firsthand the "hassles" that customers were experiencing as they traversed through the airport. Initiatives that were implemented included:
- Improved availability of parking. The No. 1 customer service complaint prior to 2003 was the availability of close and convenient parking. Remember, the Love Field traveler arrived at the airport literally minutes before the plane was to depart. In 2003, the airport began to phase in additional parking spaces. In all, 4000 new spaces (almost doubling capacity) were added between 2001 and 2003. Included was an air-conditioned pedestrian walkway with moving sidewalk and public art to enhance the travel experience.
- Consolidated passenger screening checkpoint. Post-9/11, increased screening resulted in longer lines getting through security. The short-haul market that is served by Love Field was acutely impacted, and it became clear that the airport faced competition from the automobile if something was not done to reduce the amount to time spent getting through security. Why would a traveler wait 60 to 90 minutes to get through security for a 60-minute flight?
In response, the airport, airlines, and TSA embarked on a project that consolidated the majority of the security checkpoints into one area of the terminal lobby that was capable of handling large volumes of travelers. Previous checkpoints were too small to handle the increased crowds brought on by added security. As a result, the processing times for passenger screening at Love Field remains one of the shortest in the country, averaging three to five minutes.
- Improve Wayfaring signage. One factor that frustrated Love Field travelers was an inability to find their way around the airport. In response, the Aviation Department undertook an in-depth analysis of wayfaring signs both in and outside of the building. The result was two major sign projects to provide clear and visible directions to major points on the airport and inside the terminal.
- Toll Tag Payment for Parking Fees. In 2005, Love Field implemented its Toll Tag parking program in partnership with the North Texas Tollway Authority. The program eliminates manual payment of parking fees through attended toll booths.It's received widespread attention from other airports for its use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.
- Improved Traffic Control. One initiative that provided for ease of passenger flow on and around the airport was the emphasis on traffic control. Many customers became frustrated when they weren't able to readily make it to the terminal due to the road system not being able to accommodate traffic during peak hours. The Love Field Police unit was asked to facilitate the flow of traffic in front of the terminal building. Customers who needed to park were directed to the garage or to a waiting area away from the terminal, reducing traffic in front of the terminal.
- Love Helpers. In October 2005, the airport staff implemented a traveler assistance program with volunteers - our Love Helpers. The Love Helpers accumulated over 2,600 hours since the inception of the program. (You'll know them by the big red hearts on their jackets!)