Which? has revealed the best and worst rated airports in the UK for 2019. The annual survey of more than 6,000 passenger experiences details this year’s top and bottom ranking airports countrywide.
Long queues, crowded terminals and pricey parking charges contributed to Belfast International Airport taking the bottom spot. It scored 42% overall. Passengers described the airport as “tired and shabby” with a “poor layout”, claiming that there are long security queues and that the airport is “understaffed”.
In the BBC News report The UK’s ‘worst’ airport revealed, Graham Keddie, the airport’s Managing Director, told BBC Radio Ulster “We have now got a tracking system in place and we’re seeing more than 90% of our passengers going through in less than 15 minutes.”
“It’s perhaps legacy from the past, but again we’ve got to take it on board and continue to improve.”
Time will tell whether the promised changes bring the much-needed improvements.
Airports doing not much better
For the fourth year running, Luton was close to the bottom of the table, this year second-to-last. Again, passengers complained of long security queues and limited seating. This is despite more than £1m spent on terminal improvement works in December 2018.
Of those surveyed, when asked if there was an airport they would never fly from 25% picked Luton. Aberdeen International Airport scored the lowest rating for Scotland, achieving poor results for both staffing levels and the availibility of seating.
Steve Szalay, Managing Director at Aberdeen, told BBC News that the Which? research was “months out of date and in no way tallies with the hugely positive feedback we’re receiving from the tens of thousands of passengers who are travelling through our doors on a weekly basis”.
However, a quick flick through the hundreds of comments on the BBC News article shows that many Aberdeen passengers do not agree. They talk of poor building design, in putting baggage reclaim so far away from the arrivals area, dirty toilets and long queues at security.
Aberdeen may well be able to add staff to improve some areas of performance but rebuilding, so as to improve the passenger flow on incoming flights, may prove more difficult!
Airports flying high
Doncaster Sheffield was the highest scoring airport for the third year running, achieving 86% passenger satisfaction. In contrast with airports at the other end of the table, passengers described it as “cosy”, with no queues, and said that it is “easy to navigate”.
97% of those who have used the airport within the last year said that they would recommend the airport, giving particular attention to its “personable and helpful” staff.
But passengers did have one criticism, which was that they wanted more flight destinations than the current 55.
Best of the biggies
Among the airports with more than ten million passengers a year, Heathrow Terminal Five has the highest customer score (66%) among airports with more than ten million passengers a year. Toilets are clearly important, as it was the only area that scored five out of five stars! Ample seating and helpful staff both received four out of five stars. “Too many half-empty luxury shops” made the terminal feel like “a shopping mall”, and what passengers saw as expensive car parks were described as “daylight robbery”.
Close behind was “hassle-free” Birmingham Airport, which scored 65% with three stars across all categories. However, some passengers used words such as “unremarkable” and “functional” to describe it.
What do passengers expect?
The findings show quite simply that passengers expect staff to be helpful and courteous. But just as important are the surroundings. Queues, as you would expect, are never acceptable to passengers unless in exceptional circumstances and even then they expect more staff to be on hand. Passengers also expect good facilities whilst they wait for their departure.
Public vs Private airports
How does the ownership of an airport affect the customer service performance? In 2016 the Airports Council International Europe analysed the ownership of UK airports and found that almost 53% are fully private and more than 25% are in mixed ownership. 21% are still entirely publicly owned. Nearly all of the airports with private shareholders are owned by a variety of foreign private equity funds and pension groups. Since then, Prestwick Airport was put up for sale in June 2019.
Perhaps there is little incentive for airports to adequately staff their airports or keep their buildings up to scratch and fit for purpose, when there’s money to be made? Profit margins are where it is at and of course there isn’t much in the way of competition if you just want to fly from the nearest airport.
Airlines are responsible for most services at airports, so complaints usually go there. People tend to forget their experiences once they’ve flown out and by the time they come back usually can’t be bothered to do anything. Poor service is difficult for people to complain about when they don’t know to whom they should complain or if they will get redress because they haven’t paid the airport any money.
This is probably a big part of why airports say they don’t receive many complaints! There’s a feeling of “well they won’t clean the toilets anyway!” and “I’m back after a lovely holiday I can’t be bothered” and “they won’t take any notice anyway”.
The future of airport satisfaction
The true “customers” of airports are not the passengers but the airlines, who pay to use them for the departures and arrivals of their flights. If problems occur then passengers need to make more effort to complain about service, both to the airports themselves and to their airlines.
In doing this, passengers can guide the way in helping airports to improve the service that they provide. We can live in hope.
Terminal decline – Belfast International rated worst UK airport the Which? press release.