Think back to the months immediately after 9/11. Following the initial shutdown in air traffic, airports reopened and flights resumed. But with one key difference: rigorous new physical security checks were instated to ensure only ‘safe’ travellers could board planes.

At first, travellers felt anxious over the need for new procedures. Then, they felt frustrated as their passage through the airport was slowed by long queues at security gates.

Fast-forward 20 years, and people’s responses to post-9/11 measures are very different. The checks that once seemed intrusive are now accepted as a routine part of flying. In fact, people welcome them. No air passenger feels comfortable sitting next to a stranger who hasn’t been cleared through security.

New security checks echo 9/11 restrictions

Why the history lesson? I believe there are some close parallels between our current COVID-19 restrictions and the period after 9/11.

Like that terrorist attack, the pandemic has ushered in a range of new security checks. Although now focused on health status rather than seeking concealed weapons, travellers again feel anxious and frustrated. To avoid delays, they now factor in more time when they head to the airport — much sooner than the customary two hours before the flight.

The latest layer of pandemic-related checks has also undermined the excitement people used to feel when heading to the airport. For many holidaymakers, that excitement was an integral part of the vacation experience. However, today’s travellers have different values from those of 2019. According to Accenture consumer research, 95% of people surveyed said they made at least one lifestyle change due to Covid-19 that they expect will be permanent. So, how can airports restore the excitement in travelling?

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Airports — along with border agencies and airlines — need to become part of the digital identity ecosystem now taking shape.

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The amazing evolution of the airport experience

First, let’s see how the airport experience has evolved. Many airports began life as basic, functional departure points for boarding flights, like railway stations of the skies.

In recent decades, airport infrastructure has evolved into leisure and retail complexes boasting high-end branded outlets alongside restaurants, bars, luxury lounges and more. The fact that many people there are already in a holiday mood only increases their propensity to spend.

Until the start of 2020, the business model underpinned by the airport experience was powering ahead. But the pandemic brought it to a shuddering halt. Even when traveller numbers began to recover, people’s focus had shifted from enjoying the leisure facilities to getting through the airport as fast as possible.

Opportunities that will restore excitement

After a grim couple of years, there are several reasons for believing airports can — and will — regain their old excitement and “buzz”. One is the post-9/11 precedent: checks that may seem intrusive today will soon become routine and be expected by travellers who’ll draw peace-of-mind from them.

Another is that once passengers have cleared the security and COVID-19 checks, they could enter an airside “green zone” where they know everyone is COVID-free. So it’s a more relaxing place to engage in leisure activities than almost anywhere else. With people tending to arrive earlier, and tests becoming more efficient, there’s the potential for travellers to spend more.

Border agencies: digital identity pioneers and better forecasts

Whatever steps airports take to help turn anxiety back into excitement, success will depend on two supporting elements. One is close collaboration with border agencies, especially around predicting and managing passenger flows.

With the old rule-of-thumb that most people would arrive two hours before their flight no longer applicable, forecasting when people will turn up and for how long is now much more complex.

The other key factor is digital identity. Knowing exactly who everyone is and what their COVID-19 status is will be vital to restore trust and confidence. So, airports — along with border agencies and airlines — need to become part of the digital identity ecosystem now taking shape.

How well-placed is your organisation to help turn anxiety back into excitement at the airport? Please feel free to get in touch — I’d love to hear from you.

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Gerco Landman

Senior Manager – Consulting, Public Service, Australia & New Zealand

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