Small Business Lessons from the World's Best Airports

It is official, four of the top five airports in the world can be found in Asia. Yep, according to the annual Airport Service Quality Survey released this month by Geneva-based Airports Council International, the best airports on Earth are found in Seoul, Korea; Singapore, Hong Kong, and Nagoya, Japan. Rounding out the top five is Hallifax, Nova Scotia. This is great news for the airports, but as a small business owner, you are probably wondering how this announcement affects you. I am glad you asked.

Whenever something is “the best” it always begs the question of why it is the best, what did the people behind whatever the best is do right that no one else did, what set them apart? So, we have to ask why these four airports are the best and why did Seoul's Incheon Airport come out on top? The answer can be found in the mindset of the people running these airports and the recognition that they need to address all issues that impact both sides of their customer base—travelers and airlines.

Service Business vs. Public Facilities

In the US, airports are seen as a public facility, much the same way as a park latrine, a bus stop or the post office is a public facility, and they are managed accordingly with a basic level of customer service and amenities that meets basic customer needs. For the most part—and there are definite exceptions—American airports are high-functioning examples of government-run mediocrity. The experience of being there is something to be endured, not enjoyed, until you can be safely ensconced in your pittance of alloted space aboard your flight.

In Asia, airports are not public facilities any more than aircraft are buses, though they are supported by their local and national governments. No, over there, the airport is a service business and is managed as such. According to Nancy Gautier, Airports Council communication director. "There seems to be both a business and cultural commitment to hospitality that underpins their customer service." To achieve their desired results in this area, the airport officials in Seoul examined the competition to see what they were doing right and figured out how they could take those things and do them better. The costs for doing this were high but worthwhile and the airport continues to spend money on upgrades to its facilities and passenger amenities. They have worked hard to streamline the process of getting through security and to the passenger terminals and to increase on-time performance and flight safety. A recent BusinessWeek article noted that:

Incheon airport has cut down on waiting times. Administrators reassigned terminals for planes making a brief stop and reprogrammed computerized baggage handling systems. The result: Last year the airport reduced to 45 minutes from 55 minutes the minimum connection time for passengers who are traveling through Seoul to other destinations. The airport authority also spent around $7 million on a new 240-seat lounge, which opened last June for departing passengers and offers free showers, Internet connections, and movies on giant-screen TVs.

Make the passengers happy, make the airlines happy—make the customers happy: That is what this is all about. Jonathon Tisch, the CEO of the Lowes Hotel chain had this observation: “The truth is that today’s rapidly changing world, which is making life so difficult for those of us who run organizations, is also making life hard for our customers. We are not the only ones who find the 21st century stressful.”

He went on to describe a world that is increasingly hurried, painfully insecure, physically and mentally exhausting, socially and economically fragmented and psychologically and emotionally demanding. In this kind of world, Tisch holds that people need to feel free from time pressures, safe and secure in their surroundings, pleasantly stimulated both physically and mentally, at peace with themselves and others, and open-minded, creative and productive. “The organization that can provide such opportunities by reimagining the customer experience—whether they are businesses, nonprofits, or government agencies—will attract an enormous number of customers in the years ahead and keep them coming back.”

That harried world sounds a great deal like an airport, doesn't it? The truth is that it could describe nearly any busy place of business, but even in more relaxed environments the same needs that Tisch described still exist and that is the lesson of the world's best airports: They concentrate on the customer experience. Specifically, they work hard to make it as pleasant as possible, something to be enjoyed rather than endured and, more importantly, something to be remembered.

Do you do that in your business? Don't you think you should?