Redefining Level of Service

RENO -- At this year's Airport Planning, Design & Construction Symposium held here this spring, the key catch-phrase was sustainability - building facilities and putting process in place that make what we have sustainable in the long term. At the same time, it calls for designing facilities and creating processes that are more cost-effective in the long run while also providing more efficient, more customer oriented buildings and processes. For some, a central component for creating the sustainable airport environment requires defining level of service (LOS) standards.

Just prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration and a core group of lead consultants were taking on the initiative to more clearly define level of service standards for airports. The primary driver at that time was the capacity issue and the constraints that dramatic increases in air service were having on the airport and aviation system.

The project was spearheaded by Zale Anis of The Volpe Center, a think tank within the Department of Transportation that performs studies for DOT and other governmental agencies. Areas of focus include safety, mobility, global connectivity, environmental stewardship, and organizational excellence, according to The Volpe Center website (www.volpe.gov).

Recalls Eric Miller, vice president with TransSolutions, a Ft. Worth-based consulting firm involved with the pre-9/11 initiative, "They were collecting a series of white papers from industry experts on various topics and covered things like customer service. The idea was to then put these white papers into a reference document.

"The initiative called for going out and researching the existing level of service. They were actually taking photographs and videos in areas like baggage claim and trying to redefine what level of service meant. And they're still trying to redefine it."

According to Gloria Bender, managing principal of TransSolutions, the level of service initiative is again gaining momentum now that the post-9/11 security rush has calmed. Much of what has been gathered to date, she says, is expected to be included in the revised FAA Advisory Circular 150/5360-13 Planning and Design Guidelines for Airport Terminal Facilities.

The role and impact of TSA

Bender explains that the concept of level of service is not a new one, and in fact has been around since the 1970s and has been incorporated in guidance documents for highways as well as airports. She cites the book Pedestrian Planning and Design [revised 1987, Elevator World, Inc., Educational Services Division, Mobile, AL] by John J. Fruin, Ph.D., as one of the original drivers of the concept.

While capacity concerns were the initial driver for the current LOS initiative, the post-9/11 focus on security and the associated constraints put on terminal buildings in the aftermath have broadened the scope and brought into play another governmental agency, the Transportation Security Administration. It has made the need for new LOS standards even more imperative, says Bender.

"We've got the situation with the TSA in which there is no level of service," she says. "Each city I've gone to, I heard a different metric about what's the metric for success. I really believe we need to have a common metric for what is a good system. And that's what we need to be designing to."

Echoes Miller, "TSA has no standards for level of service. Somebody asked Tom Blank (associate administrator / chief support systems officer, TSA) at a conference, 'What are you doing regarding standardization, kind of meaning how are you ensuring that we have some common level of service?' And he started talking about eliminating overtime.

"They're looking at it in terms of what is their staffing. They weren't focused on the customer perspective, which is how we're always looking at it, from the airport's perspective, from the air carrier's perspective, from the passenger's perspective."

Bender relates that in fact just getting the TSA to initially recognize the uniqueness of airports was an obstacle.

"That phrase that we've now heard them say over and over - when you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport - took a breakthrough for them to see it. Airports are different because they serve individual, local markets.

"Every airport in the country has to report their wait times at security screening checkpoints. At least they're trying to collect those metrics. But I believe they're all over the map in terms of their objective."

Miller says that TSA has handicapped airports because of the Congressional mandate for fixed headcounts. "With fixed headcounts," he explains, "they can only do so much in terms of trying to spread those people in the smartest way possible to reduce the wait times and have a good level of service."

TransSolutions is currently working with DFW International Airport and TSA to determine ways to provide the best level of service while putting in new screening systems. It involves looking at the overall security approach being implemented at the airport.

Explains Miller, "They're starting to identify where the shortages are, so they can explain that to the people back in Washington. It also gives them a plan to say, if I only have this many people, how can I utilize the staff in such a way that we do the best job in serving the customers and not having those long lines."

Inherent in such analyses, he says, is determining a performance standard for passengers and their baggage. For example, requiring bags to be checked 30 minutes prior to departure for all the pieces to fall into place for the bag to be safely on the aircraft at departure.

Adds Bender, "If you don't have a facility that provides a good enough level of service that you end up not being able to keep your aircraft turntimes to a reasonably short period of time, then there's a greater cost to the airlines. To keep their costs in line, the airlines have to keep the airplanes in the air, which means they have to be putting customers and bags on the plane in a timely fashion."

Design standards

Central to creating level of service standards, says Bender, other than getting TSA on board and studying what currently exists, is getting all parties involved in the process. At any airport, that will include designers, architects, planners.

"It has to be up to the local design team; that's where it starts," she explains. "I'm not an architect but I know there's a school that says, form should follow function. So, you need to look at the business that needs to happen at the airport, and then come up with a facility that will support the smooth-flowing process of that business. That might be thought of as your base design.

"Then you need to work into it an understanding of the operation. What will come of it is determining where concessions should be, etc."

Besides the impact of TSA and security on design, she says, the revolution in e-ticketing and pre-check in via the Internet is playing a major role in what the new level of service standard should be. She relates that current thinking says that only 20 percent of passengers will need ticketing counter assistance in the coming years, which will definitely impact design of facilities.

"That gives us an opportunity to take that back wall down [behind the counters] to let people see where they're going," says Bender. "People being able to see where they need to go" is a level of service issue.

Miller explains that determining a standard for an airport is a starting point, a guide, that a design team can build upon to ultimately determine the right balance for a facility.

"People don't need to get through the checkpoint in a minute," he explains, "but expecting a half hour or hour wait every time you go to the airport isn't right either. It's striking the right balance between a reasonable level of service and a reasonable cost of the facilities, and then having TSA operate it."

For Bender, LOS ultimately is a productivity issue for the customer, particularly the business traveler. As one who uses the system, she says that she sees the impact the process flow at airports today has affected her own productivity. Expand that out to the entire economy, she says, and it's easy to see why a higher level of service is not only a convenience issue but an economic one as well.

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