Easing the Pain at Airports

KAREN W. ELLIS, customer services manager at the airport in Atlanta, is used to getting a certain reaction when she describes her job.

“When I say I enjoy hearing passengers’ problems or replying to their calls and e-mails, people say, Are you crazy?” she said.

You could hardly blame Ms. Ellis if she did go crazy, given the state of air travel these days. Yet there she was one morning, chipper as a camp counselor as she stood under the soaring neck of a 33-foot-long dinosaur skeleton (lent by a local museum) in the atrium of the bustling airport, which is undergoing a 10-year, $6 billion-plus renovation.

“You get complaints,” she said, glancing at the people trudging by. “You give out information. You acknowledge to people the fact that they are there and you are here to help.” It keeps Ms. Ellis and her team hopping. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is the world’s busiest airport, handling 994,000 flights and 89.3 million passengers last year, many of them anxious business travelers in a huge hurry.

Passengers are spending more time than ever in airports as delays, cancellations and other disruptions mount. While airlines have cut back even on normal services, some airports — Hartsfield among them — are trying to make life easier for travelers. A few are succeeding, becoming the bright spots in domestic air travel these days.

“The airport is saying, I need to be accountable to my customers regardless of what carrier they’re on,” said Meara McLaughlin, vice president for business development at FlightStats.com, which provides statistics for airports and other clients.

Enhanced customer service, like that practiced by Ms. Ellis, goes only so far. Airports have been adding amenities, too: more spas, massage centers, walk-in medical clinics, wine bars, lounges with showers, pet centers, art exhibitions, performances and free Wi-Fi. At Hartsfield, there are even places to buy stamps, mail a package and rent a cellphone.

But at Atlanta and elsewhere, the more important changes are occurring in less glamorous arenas, as authorities work hard to streamline the time-consuming check-in and security process.

“To me the biggest issue in Atlanta is getting through security,” said Anne Genevieve Gallivan, an associate director for the Corporate Executive Board, who uses the airport about five times a month. “It doesn’t matter what time of day. It takes forever.”

Hartsfield’s managers have heard, loud and clear, complaints from passengers like Ms. Gallivan. The airport’s new international terminal, which opens in 2011, will feature its own security checkpoint with nine lanes and six more for arriving international passengers making domestic connections. Meanwhile, the airport is adding four security lanes and updating screening equipment, all by summer’s end.

Other domestic airports are also addressing security congestion. The new $1.3 billion American Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport, which opened last summer, has eight CTX (explosive-detection device) luggage scanners, compared with six in the old terminal, and has integrated them into the underground baggage-handling system. That means that passengers no longer have to carry heavy bags to freestanding scanners.

“We’re able to process double the number of bags than we were before,” said Chuck Imhof, vice president for passenger sales for greater New York for American Airlines.

The airline’s premium members go through a private check-in line walled off with frosted glass, their paths laid out by red carpet. “We wanted to create an oasis of sorts where our members would feel more special,” Mr. Imhof said.

The new terminal was recently selected by the Transportation Security Administration to test millimeter-wave scanning, a whole-body imaging technology that is a quicker, more impersonal alternative to the pat-down technique currently used on passengers who have been selected for secondary screening. Elsewhere at Kennedy, JetBlue Airways is opening a new $750 million terminal this fall. They “were very clear at the outset that they wanted to get passengers off the curb, through ticketing and through security as soon as possible,” said William D. Hooper Jr., the project director and a managing director for Gensler, the architect firm that designed the terminal. Mr. Hooper chose a “different proportioning” of the main terminal’s space, allotting more to the security process and less to ticketing counters.

“We tried to centralize security as much as possible,” Mr. Hooper said, explaining that design decisions involving security equipment came down to inches. “The more you decentralize security, the greater the likelihood that you’ll pick the wrong line.” If you put X-rays and magnetometers close together, he added, “by literally one to two inches, you’ll end up with a security checkpoint that will slow the passengers down.” JetBlue has also dedicated a zone with benches and a glowing blue wall, meant to calm hectic passengers, on the other side of its security check-in for “putting yourself back together,” as Mr. Hooper put it. “This is one of the least understood places in the security process,” he said.

At Hartsfield, the new international terminal will also ease the strain on its people mover rail system. Businesspeople like Ms. Gallivan dread rushing from one terminal to the next on the system to make a connection.

“If I’m in heels and a suit and I’m trucking it, I typically just have to wait for it,” Ms. Gallivan said.

Hartsfield is speeding up the people mover, which runs about every 105 seconds. By 2011, it will run every 90 seconds, and international passengers will no longer have to use it because they will have a dedicated terminal.

Ultimately, even a faster rail system cannot do much to help travelers who are subjected to long delays, flight cancellations and instances where packed airplanes sit on the tarmac for hours. William R. DeCota, director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said there would be no easy solution to these problems until airspace issues are resolved.

“The capacity of the system to handle demand is only as good as the capacity of each individual link,” he said. “It’s important to think about the airport infrastructure as more than just physical assets at the airport but also in terms of airspace.”

Still, airports want to reduce stress not only for customers but also for workers. Tom Murphy, an aviation consultant, directs a worker-training program called the Aviation Resiliency Project, which is operating at Kennedy.

He developed the program after writing a book on how airport employees pulled together after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The book, “Reclaiming the Sky: 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying,” said that airport employees “have to have the skills to deal with these new problems that are arising — congestion and delays and airplanes running full — which will only get worse.”

Domestic airports could gain by looking overseas, where air travel is prospering. Some of the international airports — notably in parts of Asia — have become models of efficiency in handling the increase in passengers.

One of the “most-admired” airports is Singapore Changi Airport, according to a 2007 survey compiled from 200,000 online passenger questionnaires sponsored partly by the Airports Council International, which represents more than 870 airports. “Everything is about speed at Changi,” said Matthew Holden, vice president of PodAsia Traveller (podasia.net), a podcast that streams audio and video segments. “There are people movers on all routes, high-speed lifts and a light rail between terminals,” he said. “Getting through metal detectors and X-rays is almost a pleasant experience,” and the technology “ensures that your bags are on the carousel before you get there.” Layover at Changi? Mr. Holden raved about its gymnasium, movie theater and spaciousness.

But in the competition for better services, an airport can overreach, with dire consequences, as the operators of London Heathrow Airport’s new $8.6 billion Terminal 5 and its sole tenant, British Airways, learned this spring.

Praised as a landmark in airport innovation, the massive new terminal opened with great ceremony in late March, then promptly fell into chaos as baggage handling systems and customer service broke down. Tens of thousands of bags were misplaced, and more than 300 flights were canceled.

British Airways apologized profusely and has said that operations are now smooth at the terminal. But analysts said that the debacle would cost British Airways at least $50 million. Britain’s premier airline took a public relations beating that some said — showing how important an airport’s reputation can be — reflected adversely on the nation itself.

“Terminal 5 is a farce that makes us the laughingstock of the world,” concluded The Sun, the British tabloid.

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