Photo: Seth Jaworski.

With more and more businesses embracing the age of the customer, airports are contending with a challenging proposition: enhancing the customer experience at the same time they must meet fast-growing demand for air travel.

Far from struggling to meet the needs of record growth, Sydney Airport has improved customer satisfaction scores in recent years, even as they have welcomed more passengers than ever before.

Its success has been attributed in part to the airport’s new international Airline Service Agreements (ASAs), signed in 2015 and recognised by the industry as the way forward for airline agreements.

Moving beyond the traditional inputs-based approach, the ASAs adopted a new, outcomes-based framework that uses data and key performance reporting to direct investment and resource allocation.

Sydney Airport Chief Operating Officer Hugh Wehby says the ASAs have had a transformative impact, putting the focus on the airport and airlines’ common customer – the passenger.

“These new agreements have really opened up a discussion with our airline customers about how we want the passenger to experience the airport,” he says.

“We’ve looked at how airport processes can be more efficient for airlines, so we can move passengers through those processes more seamlessly.

“At the same time, we’ve taken time to better understand what matters to the passenger when it comes to issues like terminal standards and accessibility.

“This is helping us improve efficiency and customer satisfaction as we continue to facilitate a growing number of passengers through our terminals.”

The contractually binding service level framework includes measurable KPIs, providing a data source that guides airport investment and infrastructure, resource allocation and business solutions.

The framework focuses on the key areas of baggage, check-in, security and border facilitation, and bussing – all identified as contributing to airline efficiency and passenger satisfaction.

Wehby says the airport took a staged approach to embedding the framework of 29 KPIs into the airport’s operations. The framework was developed in consultation with the airport’s newly established Industry Consultative Forum (ICF) during the first year of the ASAs, before its implementation in 2016.

Through the forum, airport and airline staff worked together to set and track measurement parameters, negotiate targets and establish reporting mechanisms.

“The ICF is now an essential part of our engagement with airlines,” Wehby says.

“Our focus on data driven decision-making using the KPI framework has improved the way we engage on new projects or initiatives, helping make the case for the way we invest or allocate resources to meet airline and passenger needs.

“These discussions are uncovering new solutions for our business and ensuring our investment is targeted where its needed most, so passengers have the best possible experience of the airport.”

The introduction of new queue measurement technology was one solution identified through this process.

The technology measures queue wait times at outbound border processing and security screening in real time, allowing security staff and border agencies to better allocate resources to meet demand.

Queue wait times are also shared directly with passengers, giving them better visibility over how long it will take to move through airport processes, in turn allowing them to better plan their time at the airport.

Wehby says this was a great example of using data to enhance airport processes, better informing staff and passengers to streamline crucial aspects of the passenger journey through the airport.

The KPI framework has also helped improve outcomes when customer satisfaction levels fall. Wehby recounts a drop in satisfaction with the comfort of quality and gate lounges early in the reporting process.

Airport staff conducted a review of customer feedback to understand passengers’ concerns, presenting their findings to the airlines.

“Having the KPI framework meant we were able to identify this issue quickly, and understand what was causing it,” Wehby says.

“We could draw on data to demonstrate the need for a new approach, and work with airlines to identify the right solution for their customers.

“As a result, we trialled new gate lounges at T1 International last year and are now rolling them out through the terminal to respond to passenger feedback.

“This will encourage passengers to make sure they get to the gate with plenty of time before they board, and that supports airlines’ on time performance while also making the passenger experience a lot more comfortable and enjoyable.”

Airlines have recognised the value of the collaborative approach the agreements encourage, with the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia labelling the ASAs “a model for Australia’s other major international airports to consider”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Council also threw it’s support behind the approach, saying the agreements were a “step forward” and “an encouraging sign for where SLAs are heading more generally”.

While the endorsements are welcome, Wehby says the most exciting aspect of the ASAs is the ability to collaborate with airlines on innovative new projects.

“Whether it’s our biometrics trial now underway or our plans to introduce Airport Collaborative Decision Making across the business, the ASAs have ensured our engagement with airlines is always focused on our shared goal to improve outcomes for our passengers,” he says.

“That’s really exciting for us – and for the industry – and we see strong potential for building on the early success of these agreements in the future.”