Why The Combination of Low Cost Airlines and Regional Airports Can Be An Expensive Risk

05 Aug

Keen to grab market share from international hubs, regional airports have been expanded in haste. However flying from East Midlands Airport (Code: EMA) on Sunday was an education in how low cost airlines and regional airports are not always able to cope with their own market.

Checking in for my 19:10 BMI Baby flight to Amsterdam at 17:45 I was advised at the baggage drop counter that my flight had a delay of 1 hour. I then grabbed a coffee to talk with a friend. We then noticed that there was a very long queue for security. After starting to queue at 18:45 I started to experience a long list of service errors.

Before Security

First I realised that no real time information was being displayed for my flight on the info monitors. All that was noted was that Check-In was at desks 03-08, nothing about the delay. I then noticed the airport offers an “Express Lane” for passengers who wish to avoid queuing. I decided against this as I could see the security machines behind boarding pass control so assumed that I could judge how long it would take. I also noticed that at 19:10, the scheduled departure time, the monitors still had my flight displayed as “Check-In Open” which was not the case as could be seen by glancing at the empty BMI Baby check-in desks.

As I approached boarding pass control the time was 19:15, still plenty of time left even if the flight departed a little earlier than 1 hour late. Only at that point did I see the whole length of the queue between boarding pass control and the security scanners. The queue snaked around and doubled back 4 times revealing an extra 100 people. It was now too late to use the “Express Lane” and of further irritation was that only 4 of the 9 security scanners were manned. Finally at 19:45 I cleared the security procedure.

After Security

Looking at the monitors my flight was listed as “Final Call: Gate 5”. I ran through but found another long queue at an unmanned Police Check Point. This queue was for all of the flights leaving from gates 1 to 5, another of which to Belfast was also late, and at this length nobody at the back was getting any flight information at all. There was a screen in this section but again it only said “Final Call” with regards to my flight. Pushing past the queue and seeing no plane, a BMI Baby representative pointed me to Gate 2. There I was advised that my flight had already left! Ironically as my flight took off the monitors in the terminal were still showing the message “Final Call”.

Pressing the airline reps I was told a message was sent out over the PA system but I never showed, and as a result my bag had been taken off the plane and it had left without me.

Regular flyers of low cost airlines can now guess the rest. Despite asking why no one had gone to the queue to find me or why the monitors were giving false information, BMI Baby refused to accept responsibility and directed me to the airport management, as the queuing and information displays were under the airport’s control.

Buying a new ticket was the only choice, despite my protests, and at short notice that was a considerable expense. I was then pointed to the Terminal Duty Manager to complain.

Service Errors

I was glad to find the Terminal Duty Manager to be approachable and reasonable so a more informed chat about the airport’s service took place. The points I put across to him are below along with his answers and my solutions;

  • Landside Monitors: Why no accurate flight information? I was advised that the airport only relays information given to them by the airlines, but the airport does not relay flight delay information on the screens in that section.

    This is in itself a decision not to communicate information to passengers. The lack of accurate information on your flight makes it impossible to make informed choices, especially in the case of cancellations or long delays which would affect families, the elderly and the infirm.

  • No communication on length of queue, unable to decide whether to pay premium for express lane? The length of the queue was exceptionally long given the holiday period. The airport was monitoring the time it took for passengers to go through for their own procedures.

    Anyone who has been to a theme park recently knows has seen signs telling you how long the queue is in minutes from this point. If I realised how long the queue was between boarding pass control and security (which I was unable to judge by sight before going through) I would have paid 3 GBP and gone through out of necessity.

  • With such an exceptional queue for security why were 5 of the 9 security scanners unmanned? Security is contracted out to a 3rd party firm and the airport management will have to take a look at this.

    The obvious question is, how long does the queue have to be before a 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th machine is opened?

  • The airline said they tried to contact me but I heard nothing, why? There are no facilities at EMA for you to hear announcements in the security area. Nor are there any information monitors.

    Again this is a decision made by the airport not to communicate to passengers. I was in this section for 30 minutes which seems to be black-spot regarding communication. It was whilst I was here that BMI Baby made the announcement for me to “hurry up!” Unable to hear it, and without options, I stayed put.

  • The Airside monitors after security mentioned my flight as “Final Call” even after it had taken off, why? “Yes, they would do!” was the unfathomable reply, implying that was part of the system’s design.

    I have no idea why a system would be implemented which would deliberately convey false information. Again the 3 C’s of passenger communication which I wrote of here should be adhered to.

So that was the Airport’s story. Now let’s look at what you can expect from BMI Baby. Take a look at my boarding pass from my rebooked flight; What’s missing?

Further errors

The two things missing are Boarding Time and Gate Number. Both contribute greatly in increasing efficiency and reducing stress, both for passenger and airline! Boarding time is important so that you know when to be ready. Gate number is important so that you know in which section of the airport to wait, this latter missing piece of information contributed directly to there being 1 long queue into the area of EMA where there are 5 gates, with none of the passengers knowing what was going on as no airlines reps coming down the queue that far to communicate.

The Consequences of Poor Service Design

The design of the airport did not cope with the mixture of delayed flights, the holiday period and the lower responsibility threshold of low cost airlines. The result was confusion and frustration, both on the faces of passengers and airline employees.

With poor system design and large communication black spots, the airport does not serve the best intentions of its passengers.

In comparison at Schiphol airport Amsterdam, the information displays are far more enhanced and tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, for example;

You can see the Gate number, the time it takes to walk to the gate and the status of the boarding all in a clear and efficient presentation, including most notably the fact that the New Delhi flight has departed. As you would expect of a major international airport Schiphol Amsterdam (AMS) has a more developed channel of communication without black-spots. This is what passengers deserve and expect, and as working examples exist the world over they should not be difficult to provide.

As the established Customer Service attitude of Low Cost airlines is “revenue maximisation” instead of “human relations” it’s important to understand that getting one to refund or even replace a ticket when blame can be diverted is impossible. It appears through this example that regional airports, recently expanded or completely redeveloped, are not always able to cope with the mixture of high passenger volume and the associated popularity of the low-cost airline. Therefore it is now in the passenger’s domain to carefully select the service providers which must now include airports as part of the equation.

From the service providers point of view, low cost airlines and smaller regional airports must work together and deliver against simple passenger expectations. Failure to do so means travellers will take more established routes with more reliable connections because the low-cost business model exposes a risk in doing business with them at airports unable to cope with higher passenger numbers.

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3 Responses to “Why The Combination of Low Cost Airlines and Regional Airports Can Be An Expensive Risk”

  1. Adam Lawrence August 6, 2010 at 12:05 am #

    Richard!

    I always get furious when I hear the like of:

    “This is a service announcement for passenger Xiu departing on flight DR234 to Mombasa. Your flight is now boarded and ready for departure, and your non-attendance is delaying the flight. Please proceed immediately to gate 24. Failing to do so will result in your luggage being offloaded and your being refused travel at this time.”

    when they mean:

    “Mister Xiu! Mister Xiu for Mombasa! Go to gate 24 or you will miss your flight. Go now Mr Xiu! Hurry!”

    I wonder if it occurs to some airlines that many passengers are not native speakers of English.

    Why in the name of Screwtape would anyone say “proceed immediately” when they mean “go now”?

    Ryan Air are appalling in this regard – they never say one word when ten will do, preferably with incorrect grammar. It always sounds like a comedy about 1950s civil servants…

    • Richard Lenthall August 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

      Adam, thanks for the comment.

      It’s a great point that you make about service announcements and I especially like the ‘Default-English’ view when the airline would already know by the passport what the chances are of the passenger understanding English and reacting to the message.

      With regards to the verbage issue, my immediate reasoning would be that there is currently a trend for companies to talk in a corporate tongue wherever possible ensuring everything is nice and ‘Politically Correct’. Having worked in an environment where messaging was tuned and censored to a point where it became meaningless to the recipient, in my view it remains of fundamental importance that clarity and efficiency are not sacrificed when planning your front line corporate communications. This is especially so if the messaging has gone through a few layers of management before getting to the person making the announcement, (Chinese Whisper syndrome?)

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