Case Study: Airport Anxiety
"Why are passengers so stressed out at the Airport?"
The pandemic had made the travel industry completely shut down for a very long time, however now we're slightly getting back to a normal operation with an increased number of flights and destinations.
International travellers have never been happier and more excited about getting out of the country for their resumed adventures and journey to their families.
So, what gets passengers so anxious and stressed about flying overseas then?
There are various emotional states beyond the excitement of travel that raises their fears and unpleasant experiences at the airports.
UX / PX Researcher
2022 May-July / 6 weeks
The main focus of the study was to identify the negative sides of the airport experience which passengers encounter in different situations, conditions and emotional states.
Clarifying the existing issues helped generate ideas and solutions to improve the airport experience.
Passenger Journey Map
Quick Mockup Design
Before starting off my research
I've been hearing enough frustrations and disappointments from passengers in the past few years while I'm on my duty and I thought I should gather them all to see what I already know about their experiences.
I narrowed down the audience to those who are likely facing "Airport Anxiety".
What they were saying:
I collated all sorts of concerns I've been hearing in the past four years during my duty.
These are something I always hear from passengers with their frustrations and disappointments which leave them with a negative experience for their future travels.
I set up my space for observation and interviews at level 4, waiting area.
Non frequent flyer
Mum with baby/kids
Passengers in transit
Kids travelling alone
The biggest fears
The missing flight wasn't the only fear passengers are dealing with at the airport. All anxiety comes in different situations, conditions, contexts and previous experiences.
In general, there are not many people who often come to the same airport, even the backpackers who have travelled through different airports around the world start from figuring out how to get to the airport to check-in to passport control to finally lounges/boarding gates.
It's such an overwhelming experience for those who don't have much experience in air travel to walk into a massive place like the airport that is most likely packed with a large number of people they're not used to seeing. By talking about this, our brain tries to figure out how to complete our tasks by absorbing the objects in the areas. In this case, there may be hundreds of signs allocated at the airport that is supposed to be a cue for us to navigate through, however, they can also make our situations very complicated as some signs may mean the same but are written in different terms/words. While we're figuring out and registering information into our brain, our emotional states are more likely destructing this process by having thoughts of "What if" (i.g. missing a flight) and stress us out even more in an overcrowded environment.
In the situation of family / single mother with baby & small kids, their stress level seems to be way higher than other passengers as their anxiety normally begins a day before their departure when packing their bags and preparing baby foods/snacks knowing that there's a possibility of some can be disposed of by the security in the screening process. Once they arrive at the airport, they now have to deal with long lines at the check-in counter and the security screening point, as well as keep their eyes on their little ones, entertain, and keep them as happy as possible.
Online Check-in service has made the check-in process a lot easier, quicker & less stressful for passengers though, there have been extra documents required due to the current situation of a pandemic such as Vaccination status, Travel exemption, Quarantine completion documents and PCR Tests which have to be manually handed over to airline staff to meet all the requirements.
A new finding here was the "Airport Anxiety" from the passengers' family members and friends, especially when they are travelling with medical, special dietary conditions and hidden disabilities.
At the Brisbane International Airport, if you're not flying then you're prohibited from entering the sterile & restricted area while some airports in other countries allow family members to escort/assist through the departure process until the plane leaves. These would be a great offer for those who are seeing off their kids travelling alone.
Two types of passengers:
Are you relaxing at the lounge or speeding through the security?
Those are the two types of travellers who are often seen at the airport.
In many situations I've spotted, passengers are running late because of traffic delays/accidents, terminal transfers and unexpected waiting times.
1. Check-in / Baggage Drop
Long waiting times
Too many signs/instructions no one really sees
Finding out checked-in baggage was overweight / Needing to pay extra for excess
2. Security Screening
Long waiting time
Too many signs/instructions no one really sees
Taking liquids and large electrics (laptop/iPad) out of the carry-on bags for screening
Divesting - Hats, Jackets, Belts, Bulky boots, Empty pockets
Having to lose toiletry over 100 ml including liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, pastes and powders
Different procedures & restricted items at each airport
Airline crews / airport staff straight jump in front of passengers' queuing as they're prioritized
A high volume of people in a noisy environment
Those who transfer from the domestic to international terminal get confused about the process as the domestic security is less restricted than the international which not many people know about
3. Passport Control
Long waiting time
Scanning passport in high paced environment (Be done in seconds)
Speak to the Border force officers if rejected by scanners
No self-scanner available for family with baby/small kids
Can be escalated to speak with police officers if you're considered suspicious
Thanks to those instant translation tools, language barriers are no longer stopping us from having our conversations !
Need Information Desk on the departure level:
The good transportation hub has good wayfinding !
In the current situation, passengers are left alone with a bunch of signs and instructions to figure out where to go.
Unforgettable moment during the observation:
It wasn't easy to observe when passengers were having the last moment to say "goodbye" to their family and friends. I realized the importance of the personal space where individual emotion was heavily exposed. It is a tough experience for both passengers and their family/friends to work through their sorrow.
Searching for articles and practices related to "Airport Anxiety" and how other airports are dealing with the prolonged issues.
What are the symptoms of Airport Anxiety:
"Airport anxiety can also be regarded as a form of social anxiety. The sum of all the components related to an airport that causes stress in you, in a way that affects your well-being and actions, can be considered airport anxiety. Having to spend a lot of time at airports before a flight can be seriously stressful"
Three major symptoms that passengers experience:
Having difficulty breathing and having rapid heartbeats
Having trouble sleeping the night before travel
Having stomach ache and nausea
Twitter Data Analysis:
King Khaled Airport (RUH) used Twitter data, the passengers' tweets about the airport in any language to measure Airport Service Quality (ASQ). I searched for tweets about Brisbane Airport as well as Airports around the world.
"Crazy lines at Brisbane International Airport"
"$7 for a cup of black tea? How can they justify charging more than coffee for a tea bag?"
"Disappointed in the staff in the club lounge. I've been ignored and given the dirty eye by staff"
"I understand when technical issues occur with baggage handlining system it takes time to remedy. However, finding that the flight crews have no idea why everyone's late to the board is a major internal communication issue"
"Over 3 hours delayed on @vueling flight approaching midnight. We have been offered no food, no explanation on what's happening.."
"My flight was delayed 2+ hours at Amsterdam because the airport had to shut down a runway due to a staffing shortage"
"At Bombay International Airport, roads are blocked and no intimation sign boards, information or help for travellers"
"The whole airport needs a good clean!"
"Had to 'sleep' here for the night(terminal) ..@frankfurt airport. We need an explanation and apology to make this right"
"The Most Stressful Aspects Of Airport Travel" :
Airport lounge access specialist Priority Pass has taken a look into the most stressful parts of the airport experience to uncover the black spots and help us navigate our travels with a little more serenity.
A survey of more than 1,700 British found that almost half (49%) agree that baggage collection is the most stressful part of airport travel, closely followed by passing through security and waiting for transfers with 47% of the vote each.
At 57%, three in five people actively worry about losing their passport or missing the plane altogether. And while 61% are concerned about somehow losing their luggage, only 41% worry about losing a child!
The most common problem is overweight luggage, with 19% of travelers admitting they’ve been caught out in the past.
Men are more than twice as likely to forget their passport as women – 8% compared to 3.78%, while business travelers, male or female, are the worst with 16% having left that vital document behind at least once
The average British gives themselves one hour 14 minutes in the departure area, with 65% of families quoting anything from 30 minutes to two hours. Despite this, one in five families ends up having to sprint to the gate to catch their plane.
Published by Duncan Madden on Sep 17, 2019 - Forbes
How are the other airports performing differently?
FINLAND: "Improve on-time performance for passengers"
Helsinki Airport and 19 regional airports across Finland are looking to digitally transform with "Amadeus" - Cloud base airport operational database solution (AODB).
The AODB solution is closely integrated with airline systems, enabling the airports to receive real-time updates about flights.
This timely information will allow airport stakeholders to allocate resources more effectively and better meet the requirements of travellers and carriers.
US: "Robots deliver a food and retail service"
Cincinnati Airport in the US has a new robotic team member providing passengers with a delivery service for food and retail products.
The introduction of these robots allows passengers waiting at the airport to order food, beverages, and lifestyle products without the need to walk around the airport and queue at various retailers.
Specific QR codes are placed at the lounges and terminal for passengers to access a web ordering option, allowing them to select items and products from a food and retail menu to be delivered to their boarding gate.
I reached out to the airport staff who are engaging with passengers in different ways. Special thanks to those Passenger Service Agents: Menzies, Swissport and dnata for their kindest contributions to my case study !
It's not just passengers who are dealing with "Airport Anxiety":
The airport could penalize airlines if they fail to depart in/on time. Airline ground crews are always under the pressure to get all passengers onboard to avoid delays which could also affect their contract with the airport.
The reason for this punishment is that each flight is scheduled to take off / land on a specified runway and the runway needs to be completely cleared for the aircraft to safely land.
For example, if Jetstar was delayed departing and Qantas comes on landing by using the same runway, then Jetstar has to wait until the control tower gives them a thumb up for their departure which will cause even more delays.
This normally occurs at the busy airports where planes come and go in minutes.
Budget airline means "Budgeted Staff":
Unlike the big airline companies, the budget airlines don't normally have enough staff to allocate for each site such as check-in counter, boarding gates and in some airlines they're required to clean the planes, so that the airline can cut the cost of hiring cleaners.
For instance, they have to close the check-in counter earlier, so that they can run up to the boarding gates to prepare for the departure while some passengers are still left alone at check-in.
"Passengers are aware that they're flying with budget airlines but expect the same services they would receive with bigger airlines" - Jetstar passenger service
"We don't expect passengers to understand our situations.. but sometimes I wish they could see what's like to be us" - Previous Tiger Airline Staff
Staff shortage crisis in post-pandemic:
As you can see the 2019 / 2020 Annual Reports below, the number of flight movements, international passengers and transfers dropped down during the pandemic. In March 2020, Brisbane Airport had to make a major change in operation for all services / contractors, mainly cutting costs on non-essential which made some companies stand down or redundant their staff. When the Vaccine Mandatory came out for all airport workers, the staff number was largely dropped and most of them never returned to the airport.
Since the Queensland border was officially open in January 2022, airlines immediately began to resume their flights and offer travel packages and deals to encourage people to travel overseas. The number of passengers is increasing rapidly while airport workers are struggling to assist passengers with no staff.
Passengers are frustrating about not receiving the information and services they need while they have their own situations and condition to deal with, which could increase their anxiety and stress levels.
Airport staff are struggling to provide quality services and supports for passengers due to the staff shortage as an ongoing issue.
To identify the most common pain points passengers experienced, I chose two different groups from my research to create passenger personas.
37 / Brisbane
"I travel overseas with my family every two years. Getting my family on board is a real mission, especially when my kids are still little"
Queuing at the airport for hours while I keep my kids entertained
Having to take out baby formula at the security and a high chance of being stopped for further inspection
Carrying bags for myself and kids as no trolleys can pass through passport control
Kids go missing
Provide a specified queue for the family with babies/small kids to cut down the waiting time
Clarification for restricted items but exempt for baby formula
Allow family to access trolleys to assist with the number of bags
Accessible to hot/boiled water to make baby formula
29 / Brisbane
"I'm diabetic type 1 since my childhood. I carry my insulin pump, injections and special dietary meals wherever I go.. They are as important as my passport! "
Get tired easily due to my medical condition while queuing at the airport
Possibility of losing my dietary meals at the security checks, depending on airports
Going through the security with my insulin pump could take longer than a normal process
Not having an understanding of my medical condition
Provide water stations at each point of the process for those who get dehydrated quicker due to their conditions
Passengers' queuing needs a flow control to stop all passengers coming down at the same time
Improve the security procedure for travellers with the special condition to reduce the stress level
The exercise helped me identify tasks in each step of the departure process that passengers are required to complete. When passengers' emotional states are involved, they tend to feel more difficult and complicated about the process.
Passenger Journey Map
The journey map based on passenger persona David (family) and Ramila (medical condition) clarified that most of their pain points were in common. The map also identified that each process lacks information and assistance passengers need to achieve their goals with satisfaction.
Common pain points:
Spend the most time queuing in a crowded and noisy environment
Uncleared information and unavailable assistance leave passengers with anxiety
The rules set for each process isn't easily changeable though, how the practice is carried out may need to be considered of change or restructured to improve passengers' experience (e.g. restricted/prohibited items followed by the regulation)
Seek assistance by speaking in person for the best validation other than reading vague signs and information at the airport
There used to be iPad-sized panels allocated at the airport where passengers can send feedback or leave comments regarding their experience, however, they were all dismissed and pushed into storage since the pandemic hit.
Now, many airport sectors are suffering from a staff shortage, identified as one of the biggest issues causing the lack of information and assistance.
If these panels were brought back on the floors to assist passengers as airport guides, it could save a lot of time for both passengers and airport staff.
Brisbane Airport Cooperation offers a good amount of information for passengers on their website and these contents could be transferred to the panels, so that essential information is accessible to everyone. (Unfortunately many passengers don't know about the website)
Quick Design for Information Panel:
I designed four pages of the Information panel by simply reflecting the contents from the Brisbane Airport Cooperation website (non-clickable).
To enhance availability and accessibility to all passengers, adding audio, text resizing, multiple languages, and adjustable height for wheelchair users would be considered.
As airport workers like myself spend a lot of time at the airport more frequently than anyone, it's a natural behaviour that we tend to forget what it's like to be at the airport from the passenger's context.
"Why do passengers think it so complicated?", "They should know what's rules in international flights", "Why are they so stressed out?"...
The problem wasn't all about the departure process but the environment where thousands of people gather in one place overwhelms passengers which also unable them to register information properly.
In the past two years, there was hardly anyone who could freely travel between borders without restrictions and rules due to the pandemic.
Flight fares have been skyrocketing due to jet fuel prices raised and many travellers invest their money in flight tickets.
Therefore, their passion and motivation for international travel are stronger than ever.
Human psychology strongly affects their performance capability and makes them impotent in achieving their tasks.
Also, the previous experience puts them in negative thoughts about coming to the airport.
During my research, I realized that passengers feel relieved and satisfied when they directly receive assistance and support from airport staff other than putting their trust in online information.
Providing "human to human" services isn't easily achievable when the airport is facing a staff shortage, however, many problems were identified and can be solved by improving the environment and accessibility of information services.
Remove old unclear signs and instructions
Consider the areas where signs are allocated and reorganize if needed
At least, one staff is positioned at the front of queuing to direct passengers
Offer easy access to airline staff / open a service desk for longer, not just when check-in is opened
Re-design the instructions for security checks (i.g.) restricted/prohibited items, security procedures, body scanner
Provide information for other destinations (i.g.) Most visited: Auckland, Christchurch (New Zealand) / Bali (Indonesia) / Singapore / Dubai / Qatar
Transform the feedback panels into an information hub to support passenger needs. (If possible)
My experience as a passenger
I travelled back to Japan in July 2022 to spend time with my family and it was my first time flying out overseas after three years. Having an experience as a passenger was a different feeling from coming to work.
Brisbane, Australia - Changi, Singapore - Tokyo, Japan
Airlines seemed to struggle in responding to a high number of passengers due to staff shortages. Some airlines opened their check-in 5 hours before the departure as they expect a long queuing but make sure all passengers are on board and the plane is ready to leave on time.
Most passengers including myself arrived at the airport over 3 hours earlier to ensure that we have plenty of time to pass through the process with the expectation of possible delays.
The Brisbane Airport isn't as complicated as other international airports around the world in terms of navigation and departure process based on my previous experience.
However, recent news and media regarding the passenger's experience have overwhelmed us badly which could increase our anxiety. There are still some countries that remain strict entry requirements to control diseases & infections in their communities and it's our responsibility to stay updated with information that's constantly changing.
While I was queuing at check-in at the Brisbane Airport, I've seen some passengers mistreated or handled roughly by airport staff which could leave them with a negative experience and memory at the airport.
Because we spent a lot of time queuing, we were only left with little time or no time for shopping and having a coffee at lounges before boarding.
I landed at the Changi Airport to find my next flight to Tokyo.
What was on my mind:
A hundred people walked past me every minute
Which terminal am I? (There were 3 terminals in use but now all 4 terminals are open)
Do I have to catch a train or bus to my terminal? (The airport is just massive!!)
Which gate do I go to connect to my next flight? Why I can't find my flight number?
Fatigued from my last flight
Wondering if my credit cards are compatible with money machines here
The Changi Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world as they serve more than 100 airlines flying to 400 cities in over 100 countries and territories worldwide.
Somehow it always gives me a feeling of "I've never been here before!" even at the same airport I have used before, because for me as a passenger the airport was just a path of my journey to go and see my family and the experience didn't seem to leave a strong expression in my memory. Also, many airports have been changing rapidly these days with a digital transformation, they could look completely different from what you know from the past.
I remember that even though I was sure that I won't be late for my flight, there was still a tingling sensation that kept me anxious for unknown reasons just until I was fully onboard. It probably was a flash-back from my experience when my flight was cancelled at last minute.
The study made me realize that I could only assume how users "may" experience the situation unless I put myself into the same position as users (passengers) if possible because there was so much to be uncovered that I didn't get to discover from my desktop!