Our May breakfast panel on the topic of aviation was extremely well attended with approximately 170 guests who arrived bright and early for the event. The discussion tackled how airports are becoming more experiential and customer-service-centric spaces rather than strictly operational and functioning solely as transportation hubs. The panel was moderated by George Makrinos, AIA, AC Martin, who has 14 years of aviation design experience. Panelists included: Barbara Yamamoto, Chief Experience Officer of Los Angeles World Airports, the governing body for Los Angeles area airports; Katherine Goudreau, Managing Director of Facilities at American Airlines; and Kirk Demers, Airport Manager, Virgin Australia. All panelists come from different avenues of the aviation industry which are especially tailored to the customer experience aspect of traveling.
Moderator George Makrinos opened the panel with astonishing statistics highlighting the fact that aviation is experiencing a period of unprecedented growth. In this time of rapid expansion throughout the aviation sector, an estimated $1.5 trillion is needed for renovations and new construction in order to meet the demands of flying customers. Makrinos referenced 12 million passengers in the air daily on an estimated 128,000 flights. LAX, the world’s fourth busiest airport, saw 87.5 million passengers passing through their gates last year. Makrinos also pointed out that while highly utilized, LAX is currently planning up to 30 new gates at terminals 0 and 9, which is new construction of interest to many audience members.
LA Exceptional Experience Initiative
Barbara Yamamoto pointed out that while new construction is important, the guest experience is not forgotten in the face of facilities expansion. Yamamoto cited the currently underway “LAXceptional Xperience” initiative driven by Los Angeles World Airports.
“Airports receive special attention and more scrutiny under programs like this,” said Yamamoto. “This is because we are often the first and last impression a traveler will have on the entire city of Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) is very passionate and driven by the guest experience and looks to elevate LAX to a higher global standard in order to parallel the more sophisticated and highly-amenitized airports of Asia and Europe.
“Airports have gone from being just a facility to an entire experience, it is a huge culture shift into more of a hospitality mentality,” Yamamoto continued.
Katherine Goudreau agreed with the sentiment that experience is now extremely crucial to airport travel, but added that this does in fact extend all the way to the facility itself. Goudreau noted that LAX is American Airlines’ west coast hub and serves as the gateway to Asia for the airline. Among the goals for LAX at American Airlines is to bring their terminal into the 21st century. Of course, this is the goal for the rest of the airport as well, but Goudreau noted the importance of doing so across all levels of the facility, including employee areas. LAX employs approximately 50,000 people who cater to the needs of an exponentially larger number of passengers. Goudreau pointed out her belief in a strategy which addresses the needs of this smaller, employee population, whose wellbeing facilitates airport operations and customer satisfaction.
“At American Airlines, we have adopted a mentality that if employees are treated well, they will treat the passengers well,” Goudreau said.
Goudreau also noted the importance of thinking about TSA checkpoints differently and taking logistics and emerging technology into consideration. She noted AA’s research and development initiatives focused on creating easier and more pleasant experience through security lines, while providing additional space at checkpoints.
Tech and Other Facility Concerns
Kirk Demers also highlighted the importance of facility improvements on the airside due to the need to park planes and accommodate ground service equipment between flights. Demers also addressed the need to consider any impact construction may have on surrounding communities.
“We need to be good neighbors to Inglewood, El Segundo, Westchester and other areas,” he said. “That means talking to them and explaining what our business is about and any opportunity that this might create for them,” he added.
Technology, as in many other industries, is a large part of the story of expansion and renovations. Biometrics and other innovation technologies are being implemented into the guest experience to decrease wait times and streamline processes. LAX is also a TSA Innovation Airport and boasts the most automated screen lanes of any airport in the USA. This designation is given by the TSA Task Force, an agency who works directly with airport property management staff, industry partners, and airlines to bring cutting-edge security screening technology to security checkpoints. These efforts are undertaken to not only improve the overall guest experience, but to enhance the TSA’s security capabilities through innovative methods.
Ringing true to the forward-thinking nature of Los Angeles, LAX is among the first airports to test pilot programs before further application at other airports. Recently, LAX launched an app-based pilot program for blind and visually-impaired passengers. The program provides instant access to a live person who can help them navigate through the airport. As the fourth busiest airport in the world, LAX sees a great diversity of passengers, and must cater to the unique needs of each demographic. While technology is a great tool for facilitating this, it is hardly the only tool being used to create more positive experiences. Barbara Yamamoto noted that while technology is paramount to prioritizing customer service and guest perceptions in 2019, it is really the people of LAX who are the proverbial “icing on the cake” of a great airport experience, a term which almost seems like an oxymoron.
“Technology and innovation are great, but we cannot lose sight of the human touch,” said Yamamoto. “It is very possible to do this and LAX will have new construction AND an elevated guest experience, there is no OR about it.”
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