(Why you shouldn't) run your company like an airport

I liked Seth Godin's "Eleven things organizations can learn from airports," wherein he notes, "[Of course, this post isn’t actually about airports]."

2. Problems persist because organizations defend their turf instead of embrace the problem. The TSA blames the facilities people, who blame someone else, and around and around. Only when the user’s problem is the driver of behavior (as opposed to maintaining power or the status quo) things change.

3. The food is aimed squarely at the (disappearing) middle of the market. People who like steamed meat and bags of chips never have a problem finding something to eat at an airport. Apparently, profit-maximizing vendors haven’t realized that we’re all a lot weirder than we used to be.

4. Like colleges, airports see customers as powerless transients. Hey, you’re going to be gone tomorrow, but they’ll still be here.

5. By removing slack, airlines create failure. In order to increase profit, airlines work hard to get the maximum number of flights out of each plane, each day. As a result, there are no spares, no downtime and no resilience. By assuming that their customer base prefers to save money, not anxiety, they create an anxiety-filled system.

Eleven things organizations can learn from airports

(Image: Airport tower, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kittysfotos's photostream)


  1. Regarding item 5, I think airlines don’t need to assume that their customer base prefers to save money, their customer base hits them over the head with it regularly. 

    People make airline buying decisions from the comfort of their computers, where the main thing you’re looking at is the price. By the time you’re stuck on the ground for three extra hours, or in the line-up, or have lost your luggage, it’s too late, you’re committed, so you tough it out. And if the airline that did that to you has the lowest fare next time around, you’ll probably fly with them again.

    There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about whether this is structural and inevitable, or whether some kind of regulation or incentive could correct it, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that it’s real.

    1. I beg to differ, so I guess I’ll be the single quirk data point.

      After my experience on AirChina, I’ll never fly that airline again.  I rather pay double to fly Cathay Pacific or even fly United.

      1.  You chose to fly AirChina over the other options.I’m guessing you based this choice on price, which sort of proves Andrew’s point.

        You have the money to say “OK, I went a bit too cheap there, I’ll upgrade next time” – but most of us don’t have that luxury when flying.

        While the wealthy repeat flyers might cherry pick by value instead of price, you are a tiny minority. The majority gets the best price it can, because a few hours’ discomfort is worth a significant saving to us. We’re not travelling to enjoy the travel, we’re travelling to get somewhere.

        We wouldn’t pay a few hundred bucks for a slightly more comfortable seat in a restaurant, why would we do so in a plane? That’s just throwing money away that we could have spent enjoying ourselves at our destination, or on visiting  more often.

        1. We wouldn’t pay a few hundred bucks for a slightly more comfortable seat in a restaurant, why would we do so in a plane? That’s just throwing money away that we could have spent enjoying ourselves at our destination, or on visiting more often.

          Speak for yourself. A more comfortable seat can mean a day or two less spent flat on my back recovering from the trip.

        2. A few hundred dollars for a meal in most restaurants is many times the cost of the meal.  How about a more reasonable comparison, like paying an extra dollar for a more comfortable seat in a movie theater?  Yeah, I’d do that.

        3. As stated, I shall be the quirk.  The problem I have is the “chance I’ll pick the same based on price”.  I choose not to.
          You also have the option of NOT flying or save more to pay for what you want.  So I don’t understand why people don’t have that sort of luxury.  You do have a choice.

          Using your same analogy, I’d save more money and pay more for a better meal, not a better seat, because I pay for the meal in a restaurant.  Why the heck would one pay for a seat in a restaurant?  They don’t take you anywhere.  You pay for a meal.

          Based your statements and your analogy, does this mean you’ve only gone to low frills eatery like Mcdonalds and never step into fine dinning?  Surely then, why would we throw money away into fine dining, when all you need is bland oatmeal that meets your daily nutritional requirements?

      2. I would, too, and in fact pay extra for the extra leg room that United offers. But the market in aggregate apparently does not do this.

        1. Because only a tiny segment of “the market in aggregate” is increasing in wealth.  Everybody else has to get the cheapest flight or not fly at all.

          Of course, as this trend continues there are fewer and fewer customers regardless of price.  I haven’t flown in around a decade – I can rent a car and drive to Boston from DC in less time, with more comfort, less hassle, and lower cost than flying there.  Just the time saved dealing with “pre-boarding” and navigating the road mazes immediately around the airport gets me a hour or more.  I used to fly there fairly regularly; now I drive or webex, because I’ve chosen to boycott the physical and psychological discomforts of modern air travel.  They can’t make it cheap enough for me, until they get rid of the TSA foolishness and stop shrinking the size of the seats.

          1. Not really a best option, if one lives AK or HI.

            (Yes, there is a very long, dangerous stretch of road through Canada. But there’s also a very long, dangerous stretch of road just to get to Canada. The combination is not trivial in time, safety, fuel consumption, or always passable during the winter months. Same for the AK Marine Highway.)

          2. That is a great option if you never want to go more than a couple thousand miles where you live. Personally, I like to get the fuck out of ‘murica on occasion or hop over to the other coast. In order to do that, you either need a LOT of time to take alternate transportation, or you need to spend money on an airplane. I have the money, but not the time. I’ll take a little loss of dignity if it means I can to get out and see the world a little.

      3. This would be more relevant if we were talking about the flight you chose, but this is about the airport management. Air China is not responsible for, say, your bad experience in Chicago O’Hare. The airport (justifiably) does not see passengers as their customers, as most often passengers have no choice. Security measures also have severely cut down on the chances of inviting other visitors to just drop by and watch planes land, and so on. So they have (as even the summary points out) a captive customer base that they do not have to, you know, LISTEN to.

    2. I’d love to choose based on reliability; but it’s really difficult to gauge which airline will be the most reliable for the flight I need.  The relevant data is obfuscated.

    3. The problem exists in the first place because the airlines were deregulated. Before deregulation about the only way airlines could complete with one another was by making the trip as pleasant as possible. After deregulation, with price being about the only driver, the trip can be pure hell.

    4. I think this statement is the wrong focus. the question should have been “What have we done to drive consumers to being so focused on price?”

      That would be the real question, and the answer is clearly a: quality and b: where they have cut corners that has not actually saved them money.

  2. On #3, I’m not sure which airports Godin travels through, but my routine trips regularly through Seattle (my home base), which has a fantastic array of local and national restaurants, as well as SF, LA, DC, and JFK — well, JFK is still bad. But the rest have a surprising variety of healthy and delicious items. Not cheap, but if I could pop to Seattle’s airport for lunch, I would.

    1. I think your problem here is that you don’t exactly have a representative sample of airports — those are all major transoceanic hubs. I fly pretty regularly between Ontario, California and Norfolk, Virginia, and as a vegetarian I usually have some pretty big issues finding relatively inexpensive (grad student here) yet palatable grub in these two airports or the random layover airport in the middle of the country. I usually end up eating… well… a bag of chips, honesty.

    2. Exactly. It reminds me of Europeans complaining about how bad American beer is because they still think “American Beer” is just Bud and Miller rather than the stuff coming from the American craft breweries (which routinely win world contests). Yes, there are a lot of McDonalds and such in airports, but there’s more to it these days.

  3. Great description of how the airport industry has essentially perfected the awful experience.  Too bad they have exactly zero incentive to change.

    It’s occurred to me that airports could be easily made more interesting and less sterile places that more genuinely reflected the local culture if they invited in street performers / buskers to perform in spots around the terminals.  No mimes, of course.

    (OK so it’s not supposed to be *literally* about airports but I’m the literal type.)

    1. They did this in the UK’s tube system (subway system). They had (still have?) little semicircular floor pads with sponsors’ logos on, that approved and licensed buskers could stand in and make music. Some famous names have busked there, anonymously, with thousands milling past them and throwing an occasional coin. Also artists to paint the walls with murals.
      But these are sort of McArt installations. If you’re hungering for something that isn’t just tunnels and architecture and the echoes of crowd-babble, then, well, it’s there. But with your hunger satisfied in a moment, you’re moving past and through and it’s gone and forgotten because that’s not why you’re there.

      1. They have a similar musician/busker system in the NYC subway. I’ve seen some really nice stuff. But you’re right, generally I haven’t stopped – I have someplace to go.

        The difference in an airport is that much of the time you don’t have someplace to go right away – you’re literally trapped, sometimes for quite a long time, waiting for your connection.

  4. Not all airports are sterile…PDX, the Portland airport, is pretty nice.  They often have someone playing piano in the concourse and there are a variety of local venders represented…Powell’s Books, Flying Elephant Deli, Coffee People. 

    As for airlines, they relentlessly compete on price to the point that the US airline industry has never make a net profit when profit and loss are summed over the history of the industry.  Airlines that experiment with higher quality service are routinely punished by the traveling public.

    1. Airlines that experiment with higher quality service are routinely punished by the traveling public.

      I thought Southwest Airlines was actually doing quite well.

      1.  I know that I always choose based on price… unless there’s a Southwest route, in which case I choose them. Not only comfortable but reliable, and I can trust them to try the hardest out of any airline not to screw me over at every single turn (Just some of them). That’s worth a premium.

  5. Airports are a monopoly with a steady feed of customers. They don’t want you to hang around scuffing up their expensive floor. They want you to get on the plane and go somewhere else, far far away.

    So they don’t even try to make your time at their facility comfortable. Why should they?

  6. I don’t get it.  Seth seems to be pointing out all the ways airports annoy customers without actually losing any customers or revenue.  They can do that because they have a de facto monopoly.  Whether he’s talking about airports or another business, it’s not clear to me why a monopoly should do more than the bare minimum, especially if it’s already got more customers than it can handle.

    1. Which is exactly his point. AirPORTS can get away with it, mainly because the passengers are NOT their customers. Companies trying to be like airports will meet ugly ends.

      1. It’s a sad fact that many of the big institutions we interact with do not count us as customers. We instead are the product.

  7. Arriving in Auckland this past Christmas I was indeed delighted when the customs officer said “Welcome back!”

  8. No one is having any fun. Most people who work at airports have precisely the same demeanor as people who work at a cemetery.

    You’re thinking funeral attendants, not cemetery workers, Seth.  Cemetery workers are earthy folk, and often quite jolly!

    Now Papa
    looked like an old church deacon
    but underneath he really was a clown
    he said,
    “folks are just dyin’ for our service;
    god knows we’d be the last
    to let them down!”

  9. Well, as far as no. 10, I can confirm that I had a regular bartender at an airport that I flew through about eight times a year for about three years. It helps that we had a mutual friend but she’d always recognize me and was game for a good conversation.

  10. I actually disagree with him about #7. Airports are based on very high people flow, so anything not serious and solid will get wrecked pretty fast. A loose powerboard? That’ll be gone in a few hours, when someone decides that they want one at home or that they’re within their rights to take it and use it at the next stop. I work in a high school, huge numbers of people moving rooms every 70 minutes. If it’s not solid, it gets damaged pretty fast. We prefer something that’s workable and solid over something that’s fast and flimsy, what would be respected in someone’s home gets disrespected in a common area.

  11. The humiliating security theater of the TSA isn’t universal.

    Airports need built-in facilities–I don’t think employees should bring extension cords so passengers and their kids can play with high-voltage wires. The airport-planners should design (or redesign) adequate power-points for passengers. The OP’s argument has some holes, as pointed out in previous comments.

    For a look at what a modern airport CAN be, spend some time in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Certainly, airport administrators should.

    I spend little time in US airports, but they remind me of prisons. Gray, uniformed individuals of questionable competence in positions of authority, and a lot of people who don’t want to spend time there.

  12. Gosh, you’d almost think most airports are not companies at all, but rather government-run institutions. Oh wait.

  13. “4. Like colleges, airports see customers as powerless transients.”
    We do?
    -Signed, a College Prof.

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