I am fascinated by airport design. It is interesting that airports require so much walking to reach a plane. While waiting for my flight, I'll study how the travel flow in an airport is mapped - where you check in, where security is and its experience, which restaurants are available near the gate or outside security, and what it's like to wait for a flight. I think about the airport and air travel experience every single trip, always wondering if there is a better way to design it.
- You go to a general area to find the airline your are traveling on
- You check in (yourself and your luggage)
- You go up an escalator to a concourse with restaurants and stores
- You go through security in various wings of the airport
- You then go on another concourse with restaurants and stores, but there are gates in-between
It is a very different approach for an airport - it requires a lot of walking, but there is always somewhere to eat or a way to pick up something you forgot.
It is a little more convenient than this more traditional design:
- You enter the appropriate terminal door that has ticket counters for your airline
- You check in (yourself and your luggage)
- You go through the security screening for that part of the terminal, near your airline's ticket counters
- You access a plethora of restaurants and stores inside the terminal or the area of the terminal you are in, near the gates
Examples of this: Boston's Logan Airport, SFO and DFW. So to compare PHX to other airports is a little silly - its equal is Vegas or Denver. But Denver is massive - it has a train, some really cool restaurants, and is probably more comparable to Atlanta's airport. Yes, Vegas has a train, but not like Denver or Atlanta. I think Vegas and PHX are about the same size - PHX a little smaller - but they share more similarities than differences.
Generally, Vegas succeeds when it comes to lines. I don't think I have waited in any line in Vegas for more than 15-20 minutes - even TSA lines with scores of people. Vegas lines are managed in an incredibly efficient way and optimized for peak times. It's pretty amazing to see.
Sky Harbor Airport is a little different. I was able to move through the airport pretty easily, except for the TSA line. I thought I was thrown back to 2002, when you had to get to the airport more than 2 hours before your flight because the line would take forever to get screened. Then, the TSA was still figuring out how to best run screenings and determine the staffing requirements. Recently at most airports, I haven't waited longer than 20-30 minutes in peak travel times to get through security with a number of lines open. It's really not that bad.
However, it took me an hour to go through the TSA line at PHX.
What made this customer experience so bad?
- The stress of the wait. Waiting in a TSA line puts everyone at risk of missing their flight if they didn't plan. Again, lines haven't been like that in a while in other airports across America - so to expect a traveler to plan for that is a little unreasonable. It should be expected that such a long line would cause extreme anxiety.
- The wait occurred around lunchtime. When I'm hungry, time passes very slowly. Lines feel longer because I'm not just waiting to get through the checkpoint - I'm waiting for the checkpoint AND lunch...which could be eaten like right now if the line wasn't so long...or maybe I should have eaten somewhere on the concourse before the wait...but then would I have missed my flight with this line? When is lunch? (I'm sure I'm not alone here.)
- Tired and stressed TSA people. How can someone be effective looking at dozens of bag scans without a break, knowing how many people need to get through the line to make a flight? I'm sure those people were exhausted. The agent checking our IDs and tickets already seemed a little cranky and unfriendly - and he just started his shift (the guy before him was obviously beat). Tired staff isn't effective staff.
- Travelers realizing that the line wasn't being managed properly. I overheard a number of people comment that only 1 TSA station with 2 bag scanners was being used for us. There was 1 TSA station being used for the more select group first class and pre-screened group. Typically, +60% travelers are in standard coach; 20-30% maybe are in first class or pre-screened categories. Of course their line will be faster! If there were double or triple the number of people in the regular line, why not open a couple of more stations to support us and allow our lines to flow better?
What I think Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) should do:
- Obviously - activate more TSA lines - maybe 2 more bag scanning stations and another ticket/ID scanner. That should help keep things moving and help people feel better about being in a line. If TSA was trying to be more customer-centric, I bet travelers would be more likely to have patience and not mind the line. And I'm sure the TSA staff would feel like they could do a better job and not be so overwhelmed.
- Charge travelers coming to PHX to add these new lines. I'm sure they wouldn't complain once noticing how fast it is to get through PHX. It would be worth the fee. And it could be baked into airfare so no one would notice the $25 ticket increase.
- Even better - charge the airlines for these new lines. I'm sure it wouldn't cost that much more money to support another set of lines each day - and split between 10 airlines, what's a couple of thousand dollars per day if there are happy customers?
What disturbed me the most about the entire flight experience was listening to colleagues saying that air travel has become such a commodity that the airlines don't care how a customer is treated. In other words - there is no customer experience for flights (Virgin America and other Virgin airlines excluded - they are in a class of their own). And the airlines wonder why people don't like to fly!
Airlines also wonder why customers give them a hard time. What do the airlines and airports give their customers? Air travel isn't a privilege; individuals pay for a ticket. Once someone pays for something - that person becomes a customer. Giving customers a hard time won't win them over. A hard time includes fees for luggage, food, snacks, needlessly long lines, and being nit-picked about something small. Why not charge a price that covers 1 checked-in piece of luggage and a sandwich and maybe a movie? Why do airlines allow TSA lines to be so long? Why not fund more lines to make the process easier? That may make the experience a little more elegant. Air travel is a necessity for long-distances - it would be nice if it was a treat rather than a chore.
After the TSA screening, I finally made it to lunch. After I ravenously attacked my food like I haven't eaten in a year, I asked the person sitting next to me about the line. He said that it was probably due to spring break. Unfortunately, I remember long lines at Sky Harbor 3-4 years ago, so I'm not too sure about his assessment with the line being unique to that day. I think it is time for PHX to change.