Customer Centricity : Heathrow Terminal 2 – Creating the ideal airport passenger experience?

Terminal 2

Photo courtesy Heathrow Airport Authority.

Post by Jonathan Mindell

When Terminal 2 opened at Heathrow Airport in June, it had undergone a rigorous pre-opening testing programme to ensure everything ‘works’ and there is no repeat of the debacle when Terminal 5 opened six years ago.  The focus of the trial was to test and get feedback on the new environment, the processes and the considerable technology that is required to operate an airport terminal. 

However, the best way of delivering a positive passenger experience is to ensure that at the point of customer engagement, front-line staff are prepared for whatever people and circumstances throw at them.  It is hard to plan for un-planned events, but there would have been real benefit gained from introducing more disruption into the trials to mirror the real-life experiences of modern-day flying.

The Passenger Experience – a series of ‘Moments of Truth’

Over 30 years ago Jan Carlzon led the turnaround of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) on the simple premise that in a customer-driven environment and economy, the key to success was the way in which he organised and empowered the company and its staff to manage the many millions of ‘Moments of Truth’ that customers experienced with the organisation.  His approach was to focus on the customer contact points (on average 5 per passenger per journey) and ensure that front-line staff could address each customer’s individual needs.  In this way customers would have a positive experience with the airline (largely through positive engagement with its people), prompting both loyalty and a more positive reputation.  This simple idea, through focussed execution on the ground, helped transform SAS to become a more customer-centric and profitable airline.

Thirty years on the concept of ‘Moments of Truth’ is still just as relevant to customer centric businesses, yet too often the focus on customer engagement remains a low priority. 

This coming month, London’s Heathrow Airport opens the doors to its new Terminal 2 (T2), with the promise that it will offer one of the world’s most pleasant travelling experiences. 

As the promotional material for the new terminal says, T2 is “central to Heathrow's vision of making every journey better. Partner airlines will move closer together to improve flight connections and there will be more natural light and space than you are used to seeing in an airport. It will be an extraordinary new space in its own right – great for airlines and the staff who work there and great for every single passenger”.  The emphasis of Heathrow’s vision seems to be focused on the significantly improved physical environment that the terminal will provide. However, the acid test as to how much better the passenger experience will be will come from the customer interaction and engagement and the level of interventions required by front-line staff.

Terminal 2 Proving trials – a comprehensive test of the infrastructure, if not the full customer experience

Recently, along with 2,500 others, I participated in a ‘trial’ at the nearly finished T2.  The aim was to simulate departing, connecting and arriving passenger experiences, to test the infrastructure, space and people that will handle over 10 million passengers in the first year of operation for the new terminal. 

The trial itself was extremely well organized and clearly a major part of the overall project plan – also learning from the less than sparkling opening of the (now award-winning) Terminal 5.  Everyone was given a series of ‘scripts’ to follow different scenarios, aimed at testing out likely real-life events at the airport. Once through check-in and security, I was into the main departure area where there was a party atmosphere, with games, competitions and even jugglers and magicians to keep the ‘trialists’ happy.  Granted that the other distractions in a regular airport, such as the shops, were not open, but this was far from the normal atmosphere found in an airport terminal.  In other senses as well, this day did not replicate the ‘norm’ that I experience in over 100 flights a year that I take – there were no flight delays, no broken down travellators, and no ‘grumpiness’ from either the trialists or the staff!

What I was able to experience and give feedback on was the physical infrastructure and layout of the terminal.  As one might expect it is a much lighter and brighter environment than the old T2.  There was some innovation too, for example the way check-in was laid out – I think some may find this initially confusing as premium class passengers have a separate area to check-in at, rather than being at a counter right next to economy passengers travelling on the same flight, which tends to be the norm elsewhere.  However, assuming it works, this could be the template for how check-in operates across other new-build terminals in the future.

Although about half the size of T5, there is still a lot of walking and taking escalators or lifts to/from different levels in the new terminal.  From check-in to departure gate, I had to descend one level to the main departures lounge, then down another level to take three sets of travellators to the satellite gates, then up two banks of escalators to the gate itself.  Compare this with, say Hong Kong, where from arriving off the plane to boarding the metro into Hong Kong itself it is all at the same level.  In this context T2, whilst a great improvement on what’s gone before, has obviously had to make some compromises given the space available and the design and build budget allowed.

On the day itself I reported how I felt about my experiences of the trial and about the airport via ‘feedback’ tablets.  Apparently at the time they had over 600 ‘snagging’ issues that they were working through to address, but I can’t help feeling that they will have been issues relating to the design and build of the terminal, rather than the passenger experience, resulting from true customer engagement.  I added a number of my own observations, but I was not able to give much feedback relating to the passenger experience, as, apart from the check-in process, security and passport control, I had very little direct contact with staff as I ‘journeyed’ through the terminal.

Service Delivery vs. Service Recovery

At the core of any customer-centric operation, world-class service organisations often differentiate themselves by the way in which they respond when things don’t go to plan.  On the trial day, there was little evidence of simulating things that go wrong at an airport.  These are the issues that get passengers worked up and stressed about and are the cause of so much dissatisfaction with the ‘moments of truth’ that make up the customer experience. (Think about the way that Gatwick Airport and its major airlines made a bad situation even worse on Christmas Eve last year and it is clear that forward planning as well as a focus on customer engagement are critical to the long-term success and reputation of an airport).

So how can you successfully simulate and prepare for the real passenger experience in a new terminal? 

On the day there was much evidence of testing the physical environment and layout.  For example, there was a script for the trialists to find business lounges (they weren’t open but there was a volunteer waiting there to measure successful ‘visits’ and take feedback).  It was also good to see that there were disabled and wheelchair-bound trialists in evidence, to assess how ‘user friendly’ the new terminal will be to this category of passenger.

However, to truly prepare for the passenger experience and as important, for the 24,000 staff, to get familiar with both the new environment and how to engage with customers, there could perhaps have been more simulation of the problems that cause customer dis-engagement. Perhaps one of my ‘trial flights’ could have picked up a 45-minute delay?   Or another one suffered a last minute gate change?  One of the arrivals could have been delayed, leading to missed connections. 

And how about some lost baggage on arrival? Some contingency plans were tested over the trial period, although I was slightly disappointed that I did not personally experience any of them on the trial day I attended. 

As with real life, in the trials both passengers and staff could have been ‘surprised’ by any of these incidents and their reactions appropriately managed and measured, with the learnings built into Business Interruption and Contingency plans for the terminal.  On the day of my trial the check-in system did break down for some of the airlines – this is exactly the type of issue to test the mettle of passengers and staff alike.  I would argue that this kind of unplanned event offered the most benefit in terms of preparing staff for the reality of an airport terminal operation.

Planning for the un-planned Customer Experience

When the terminal opens and goes live, the plan is that there are to be 50 Passenger Ambassadors whose sole focus will be to support the passenger experience.   This is quite an investment, but their value and contribution to the smooth running of the terminal (and its reputation) will surely be seen before too long.  No matter how gleaming, glossy and spacious the terminal is (and it is!), when flights get delayed or cancelled, equipment and technology breaks down and all the other issues that could disrupt the smooth running of the airport terminal happen, these individuals will be the main guardians of the terminal’s reputation.  It will be these people (and the other front-line passenger-facing staff) that will provide the ‘service recovery’ to passengers, rather than the quality of the physical environment of the new terminal, nice and spacious though it is.

By the time T2 opens, over 14,000 ‘triallists’ will have helped to test the processes, technology, and infrastructure of the new building.  Without question this will help to ensure that the first few weeks for the terminal go much more smoothly than when Terminal 5 was opened, six years ago.  But once beyond the opening euphoria, when the novelty has worn off, particularly once all the airlines get transferred over, the operation will be subject to all the usual unpredictable issues of everyday operation. 

Later in the year, for example, there will be the regular issues of fog, and maybe even snow.  When all around is ‘chaos’ it is direct engagement with the passengers that will be the key to ensuring the good reputation of the airport in general and Terminal 2 in particular is maintained and even enhanced. 

Jonathan Mindell

While it was fundamentally good to test the physical environment and infrastructure, the most value to be gained from the trial was the testing the readiness of the staff to deal with whatever is thrown at them, as well as their engagement with passengers as they experience those ‘Moments of Truth’.


Jonathan Mindell is a Senior Business Leader with a Passion for Service Excellence and Improving Customer Engagement. 

He has consistently delivered improved business performance, achieved by optimising the customer, client, business partner and employee 'experience' for service-based organisations that bring benefit to peoples' lives. 

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Copyright 2014 Jonathan Mindell

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