Singaporeans are fortunate. Despite being in the top 15 busiest airports in the world, Changi Airport is a shining example of efficiency, comfort, and style. But the same cannot be said for the majority of airports elsewhere in the world.
At New York's JFK airport Terminal 1, which serves airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France, and Japan Airlines, 234 arriving passengers queued for more than two hours in the late afternoon on June 6 and 229 waited that long on June 20 this year.
Slow-moving queues, endless journeys on foot carrying heavy bags, bad food, lost luggage, delayed flights, unhygienic washrooms, and limited retail or entertainment options are just a few of the gripes vented by airline passengers.
While any one of these scenarios is enough to irritate even the most hardened traveller, when combined, tolerance levels decline rapidly and tempers start to flare.
Add young children to the equation and what ought to be the start of an exciting adventure or lucrative business trip very rapidly descends into a boiling pot of frustration, learned helplessness, and despair. Such are the stresses associated with airport travel, one in ten people in the UK alone are choosing not to fly.
Greater investment in airport design, infrastructure, and manpower would go a long way towards diminishing long waiting times and improving overcrowding at typical bottleneck areas such as check-in desks, security screening, and immigration.
But since neither passengers nor retailers can control government strategies or the owners of privately owned airports, could insights from the field of human psychology be exploited to improve travellers' journeys and provide a mutually beneficial opportunity for retailers?
The major consequence of long queues and overcrowding is passengers' perception that time seems to move painstakingly slowly and their loss of control. Slow passage of time and loss of control are major contributors to boredom, learned helplessness, and frustration.
Psychologists have shown that our perception of time is something the brain constructs and it can be speeded up or slowed down depending on a person's emotional state or the environmental context.
For example, being amongst people who are walking incredibly slowly (such as in a slow moving queue) can cause our internal clock to slow down and we perceive time as dragging by.
On the other hand, novel, interesting experiences distract us from marking the passage of time. Indeed, neuroscientists have now confirmed that time does fly when you are having fun.
In Disney Theme Parks where queues at rides can surpass 45 minutes, guests are entertained by Disney characters, clowns, and engaging posters while they wait. Signs beside the queues inform people about the approximate time to ride and Disney tries to ensure the actual times are in fact shorter so that guests are pleasantly surprised.
All these combine to create the perception amongst those queuing that time has passed faster than it really has. If airports want to improve their image, they too could exploit some of these clever tactics to keep passengers entertained and minimise stress at their busiest times.
Recommendations for retailers
Regardless of the layout and overall efficiency of an airport, by adopting a more informed and empathetic approach to the plight of passengers held up in queues, retailers can increase traffic to their outlets once travellers have cleared check-in and immigration through the use of clever strategies.
For example, taking a leaf out of Disney's books, F&B retailers at airports could provide queuing passengers with promotional vouchers with scratch-and-sniff patches to whet their appetites.
Purveyors of cosmetics and fragrances could distribute samples designed to soothe tempers through the use of calming scents and cooling creams. Sample toys and entertaining promotional widgets provide a welcome distraction from the monotony of queuing and incentivise passengers to visit the relevant outlets.
These tactics feed into the psychology of time perception and the power of distraction in making time fly.
While women may be more inclined to shop for last-minute holiday items and luxury accessories, men may hark back to the romanticism of an earlier age, when services at airports were abundant.
Today, they can find shoe shining services, neck and foot massage booths, sports bars with mobile phone charging facilities, and even barbers offering haircuts for the business traveller who wants to arrive at his meeting looking well-groomed and sharp.
For many travellers, the holiday starts long before they step foot through the airport doors. By providing welcome distractions at every touchpoint and making the first stage in their journey as stress-free as possible, you tap into their mindset that air travel should include an element of treating oneself.
Tips for travellers
Remember you can't control how busy an airport will be when you arrive, nor the behaviour of other people or the efficiency of checkpoints. What you can control are your expectations and the contingencies you can put in place to reduce psychological stress and minimise boredom.
To avoid queue rage and overcrowding angst, turn up early and give yourself plenty of time. Check in online and make use of airport mobile apps that keep you informed of tailbacks, or that allow you to estimate how long you're likely to spend at each checkpoint.
The Singapore Airlines mobile app not only allows you to book and manage your trips, it also allows you to manage your reward miles.
Plan to spend the time after check-in having a meal, doing some shopping, or relaxing with a massage. If you know there are minimal facilities, take a good book to read while you queue.
Organisational psychologists have long known that when individuals feel in control of their environment, stress levels plummet and performance improves. The same principle can also be applied in the context of airport navigation.
If you're not sure how long the walk is from the entrance to the check-in desk, or from the immigration to the gate, reducing the amount of weight you need to carry will help smooth your passage. High heels are not for the faint-hearted if you're faced with an endless array of long corridors.
In today's world, travelling by air doesn't have to be a fashion show. Comfort is king – and it is simple to pack a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage that allows you to smarten up on arrival.
High flying aspirations
Many airports have lost sight of the customer. Travellers no longer tolerate being herded like sheep, having their movements restricted and being corralled like cattle.
Many are now beginning to vote with their feet choosing to stay at home, or going for staycations. Avoiding airport queues is top of the list for Irish people planning to holiday at home this summer with 21 percent looking forward to not having to negotiate airports, according to the latest survey from leading budget hotel group Travelodge.
The good news is, how we prepare for our journeys can now mean the difference between psychological well-being and downright despair.
Perhaps airports looking to improve the situation for travellers can emulate Singapore. Changi Airport is a masterpiece of multisensory engineering, designed to minimise stress and provide a much needed oasis of services for passengers arriving, departing, or just transiting to their various destinations.
The airport has an ambience - pleasing aromas are pumped with subtlety throughout the airport to keep unpleasant odours at bay; soothing music and carpeting provide a relaxing soundscape; water features, ambient lighting, and art installations combine to create a visual sanctuary.
All of this converges to effect a soothing, calm, and hassle-free experience for passengers.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.