ISO 9000 - A Plus For Airports

March 3, 2006
Airport veteran Steve Irwin offers his insights on why airports should take a serious look at adopting ISO 9000 standards at their operations.

Creating a quality standard at your airport may seem easy enough — hire the right people, give them some direction and the resources necessary to do their jobs, and let them go. But what is “quality” and how do you know when you’ve achieved it? And how do you maintain it once you’re there? The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded in 1946 to promote the development of international standards and related activities and to facilitate the exchange of goods and services worldwide.

ISO is composed of member bodies from over 110 countries. The standard setting body in the United States is ANSI (American National Standards Institute). The quality system as defined by ISO in its 9000 series of standards was developed in response to the challenges of increasing market globalization. One of the unique features of the ISO 9000 standard is third-party certification of an organization’s quality system.

Total Quality Management, or TQM, popularized the concept of an organization having a quality culture, though it didn’t provide a specific, quantifiable measurement tool for achieving and maintaining it. TQM’s focus is on the individual within the organization. Originally conceived as a quality system for manufacturing, ISO quality assurance standards have evolved and now include organizations whose “product” is service. The basic ISO methodology begins with an organization documenting its business practices through the certification (or registration) process, and culminating in certification and recognition as meeting one of the international standards.

Service as a “Product”

ISO treats the delivery of services like any other product. Services can be designed, delivered, and managed for consistency, which then translates into a quality upon which the public can rely. This ‘quality guarantee’ could then become a key element of an airport’s brand marketing program. Consistent, high quality service should become synonymous with an ISO-certified airport.

The service “product” can be considered unsatisfactory when it fails to meet customer expectations.

ISO and Brand Management

Airports work increasingly to differentiate themselves from one another by offering unique or improved programs and services. Success in a highly competitive environment requires the perception of consistent standards in the customer’s mind.

Haphazard or erratic service detracts from brand loyalty. Building brand equity through ISO increases the perceived value, improves the customer experience, and permits an airport to dominate its market area.

ISO - What it is Not

ISO certification is not a one-time event. You must earn it every day. You do not become ‘certified’ and then set your program aside on a shelf. Adoption of ISO processes represents an organization’s continuing commitment to quality. Periodic external program audits verify that commitment to the world.

ISO is not about being perfect all of the time. Perfect organizations have no need for benchmarks — nor a process for maintaining them. ISO exists so that less than quality performance can be identified and corrected as quickly as possible, at the lowest level possible.

ISO is not a criterion-based standard but rather a process-based one. Organizations develop their own unique quality benchmarks or objectives and then utilize an ISO process to maintain these objectives.

ISO quality standards are not standards in the sense that they mandate strict compliance with some generic quality program. Rather, ISO quality assurance standards are a total quality system for your overall organizational processes.

ISO standards are not a measure of an organization’s efficiency, per se, but rather an indication of both how well and how consistently that organization meets the needs of all its customers. If some higher level of efficiency is achieved as a result, so much the better.

For the airport operator, ISO is not a static, inflexible international standard imposed on widely differing organizations; instead, ISO provides a standardized process that makes quality systems an integral part of the organization. A successful ISO organization is one that grows, evolves, and adapts to customer needs at an airport.

ISO is not a marketing gimmick based on a hollow commitment to quality standards. ISO certification, if viewed simply as a “square” to fill in order to achieve some perceived level of status in the industry, ultimately undermines the standard and achieves nothing.

Internal, External Customers

ISO acknowledges the importance of satisfying the quality expectations of both internal and external customers. Whether ensuring prompt, high quality repair of facility work orders or consistent delivery of superior services to passengers and tenants, the ISO process can perform equally well Properly executed, ISO understands the relationship between interdepartmental quality performance and the end user. ISO 9000 standards are a total quality system for your organization.

What’s it Have to do With Airports?

In terms of quality, anything that can be measured can be managed: customer satisfaction surveys, bond ratings, environmental compliance, certification inspections, risk management, and utility costs are just a few areas that lend themselves to quality measurement.

Airport operators are well aware of the need for standards, as evidenced by the acceptance of the Accredited Airport Executive designation.

In a sense, ISO certification of an airport, like accreditation of an individual, is a symbol of professionalism and an internationally recognized symbol of commitment to quality. Airports will discover that benchmarking based on industry best practices is the first step in performance measurement.

An excellent data source for inclusion in an ISO program is the IATA/ACI-developed AETRA program. Member airports provide passenger feedback questionnaires to a representative sample of travelers at departure gates; the resulting data is then analyzed, compared to industry benchmarks, and reports provided to airport management quarterly.

Safety Management System

Much of the ISO process centers around documenting what you do then conducting internal and external audits to ensure you’re maintaining your quality goals. Empowering staff to promptly take corrective action to ‘fix’ slipping quality is essential to maintaining an organization’s quality credibility.

An added benefit of applying ISO at your airport is its relevance to an impending ICAO requirement for implementation of a Safety Management System, or SMS. SMS is a fundamentally new way of managing aviation safety. An SMS parallels the ISO process in a number of ways, from detailed written procedures, assessment of deficiencies, and periodic audits to ensure compliance.

Safety Management Systems are based on the premise that there will always be hazards and risks, so proactive management is needed to identify and control them before they lead to accidents. SMS requires creation of an internal system of oversight to ensure the safe provision of aerodrome services. The expected result: Fostering a stronger safety culture within the civil aviation industry through this requirement resulting in the improvement of safety practices and reduced risk and the human and financial costs associated with them.

The basic elements of an SMS include:

  • Plan

  • Identify Hazards

  • Analyze Risk

  • Categorize, Communicate Risk

  • Decide Mitigation Path

ICAO has mandated that, effective November 2005, all signatory States Civil Aviation Authorities put into place a safety management system at certificated aerodromes under their control, with a view to ensuring that operations are carried out in a demonstrably controlled way and are improved where necessary. Periodic audits would be required.

Managing safety through creation of and compliance with an SMS could either be part of or an extension of an airport’s ISO program.

Finally, ISO permits an airport operator to get a handle on that sometimes nebulous quality called ‘service’ and take action to affect positive change. For more information, visit or