It's astounding that the battle for a better airport experience in New York City has to happen one terminal at a time. But if it has to be that way, airport leaders should look to what's been done at Terminal 4 to lift the experience out of the doldrums.
Outside of a small group of masochists, nobody really likes flying in and out of New York City’s three airports.
As managed by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey — a two-state agency that many would argue specializes in incompetence and political patronage above all else — Laguardia, John F. Kennedy, and Newark Liberty airports are both a joke-writer’s dream and object of shame.
But despite the Port Authority’s intentions, things are getting better on a terminal-by-terminal basis. Terminal C at Newark, as run by United Airlines, is light-years ahead of terminals A and B. At JFK, JetBlue’s terminal 5 is something the airline can be proud of. And Laguardia will be torn down and rebuilt from scratch in the coming years.
Terminal 4, or JFK International Air Terminal (JFKIAT) is another story altogether. As the only non-airline and privately owned terminal in the U.S., it has a different operating structure than its peers. It also benefits from the knowledge of its ownership group, which is a division of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Group.
Nearly one out of every three passengers going through JFK goes through Terminal 4, and that number continues to rise. On Sunday, August 2, the terminal set it’s single-day record for traffic with 71,136 passengers. The previous record of 63,000 was set last summer, while the daily average is 46,000.
The Skift staff recently toured Terminal 4 with the team behind the operation, and afterwards sat down with JFKIAT CEO Gert-Jan de Graaff, who began by telling us about new display screens that would inform passengers of wait times at different points in the airport.
Skift: How will you make sure that’s accurate? As a New Yorker, if it says 20 minutes, I’d say it’s going to be 40 minutes. I suppose there are challenges there.
de Graaff: It actually physically measures how long people are waiting. There’s quite a smart algorithm built in that projects how long the wait is for the people in the queue. It’s always from the last person in the queue to the front of the queue.
Skift: Is that using iBeacons?
de Graaff: Exactly. Current wait time is 9 minutes. That’s arriving through customs. Customs is easier to measure because there are only two customer flows, for U.S. citizens and certain visa holders they can go to the automated kiosks. There’s hardly any wait there these days so they go really, really, fast. Then there’s the non-U.S. or passengers traveling with a visa that cannot go through the passport reader. They queue up and that’s a time consuming process. This actually measures that.
Skift: That the longest of the waits?
de Graaff: That’s the longest of the waits. Non-U.S. arriving passengers, that’s the biggest challenge. Those are our difficult visas. They are people that quite often CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] wants to have a second interview with or wants to have a second look at. If you’re unlucky, you’re right behind someone that gets these questions or the officer has to go away with the passenger to inspect baggage. That’s the tricky part of our process which we try to work very closely with CBP to make it a better process.
This information feed goes directly to customers as well. They can see if the wait time creeps up that they need additional people.
Skift: Do you know if this is being done in other airports as well?
de Graaff: I have to be very careful because, I don’t think it’s as full-fleshed as we’re doing. For example, I know that certain airports have bits and pieces of it. There’s actually a way for example, for it to tell you, there was a trial at terminal 5, that’s Jet Blue, I don’t think it’s done anywhere for customs. I know some airports in Europe are using it for security.
Skift: I know I’ve flown out of Copenhagen before and I remember the …
de Graaff: It’s a Danish product.
Skift: I remember seeing one minute through security one time. I thought no possible way it’s going to be one minute. So I hit the timer on my phone and I got through in 47 seconds. I was humbled.
de Graaff: It’s this system. It’s exactly the same.
Skift: What happens when something goes wrong? I’m thinking about the social media response when that clock says 48 minutes security. What’s the type of thinking behind how to deal with that?
de Graaff: That’s the challenge. When I’m really honest with you, this system’s got three aspects. The first is it’s real-time information for people doing resource planning. That’s the taxis. The taxi dispatcher sees the wait time creeping up he can call more taxis. For CBP and TSA it’s exactly the same. They need more lanes or more people in the booth and that sort of stuff. That’s great information. Real time.
It’s helps us analyze what happened at certain times when things went wrong. How can we cater better for certain flights? As you can imagine, some flights have more passengers that need to go through secondary screening. Not just the first interview, but the second interview. That depends a little bit on flights and nationalities. We can better analyze that and therefore make a better planning.
Skift: So they’re open to it?
de Graaff: They’re open to it. It’s also we have to. Tell you a little bit later about how many passengers going through. We need to. It’s important. As you know, this is the very first thing people see when they arrive in the United States, the last thing when they go away. Let’s at least, let’s make that a memorable experience for good reasons.
That’s what we like to do.
What time were you here today?
Skift: We got here about noon.
de Graaff: So it was not that crowded. We had a fantastic weekend impression in numbers. We had Friday and Saturday over 62,000 passengers in the building and Sunday actually even 65,000, an all-time record. I know for a fact that next Sunday will be even a bigger day. What I tell people is that on a good summer day there are 65,000 – 70,000 passengers in this building, arriving and departing. Some of those passengers are connecting flights. On top of that on a good summer day we’ve got four to five thousand people working in the building. It’s a big operation. My best guess is that there are about 25,000 in the building picking up or dropping off passengers. If you add all those numbers up and on a good summer day there are 100,000 people here. That include taxi drivers, bus drivers, the whole lot, 100,000 people, it’s a big operation.
Therefore we have to really invest in everything that includes the logistics of the building. Queuing times and so forth. I wish that all airlines were spread over, or all flights were spread over the day but it never works like that. During the night, it’s a little more quiet because no one really wants to fly at four at night, that’s not the ideal time. It starts up in the early morning, a lot of people flying for business, for example. A lot of those domestic but also the flights to Europe or to Asia are going early, then the flights to Europe they’re after. It’s very, very peaky. We’ve got certain times of the day that as you can see, pretty nice and quiet but sometimes of the day it can be really crowded and to speed processes up during the peaks, that’s essential to me. Like I said, the peaks change from week to week.
Skift: It takes a lot of time for a passenger to get from check-in to let’s say, B35, how are you helping passengers manage their time from check-out because I have no idea how long it’s going to take me to walk there and some people could miss their flight.
de Graaff: That’s a very good question. It’s something that changed two or three years ago. In 2013 we built that extension and by doing that, all of a sudden, the building got much larger and the walking distances were much, much, much bigger than they were ever before. We’re reviewing our signage. Our signage is not just saying, go to where B35 is. We’re adding to that walking distances, in minutes, to give passengers at least, that information. We like to extend that to information at check in. To make sure that people are comfortable that they will make their flights on time and they even have a little bit of time left to spend their money at shops. That’s what we like too. That’s what we’re doing. We’re enhancing our wayfinding. We recently introduced, and you might have seen them, the digital displays providing information to passengers. They can see how much walking time there is from that particular display to the gate where they’re going to. We provide them with additional information where they’re comfortable.
It’s a one-on-one relationship between people feeling relaxed and them spending money. As I said before, part of our business model is based on the fact that people are buying gifts, presents, something for themselves. That’s very important. We try to provide them with as much relevant information as possible.
Skift: I’m wondering if you can do a compare and contrast with airports outside of the U.S. you’ve worked with. There are so many interested parties in how an airport works. From CBP to TSA, to the airlines themselves, to the airport operators… Making all those pieces work is quite a challenge. In your work at other airports or just around the world, do you see models that work better than that? Than how you’re forced to operate here at terminal 4?
de Graaff: It’s always more challenging if there are more parties involved. That’s the way it is. When the number of actors are limited it’s easy to work together, to oversee everything that’s happening. You’re right; responsibilities at airports are quite divided and quite different in the United States than in most other countries. I think in general, when I compare and I worked in airports in four different continents, it’s everywhere. Still there are always many, many parties involved. In our particular case, we’re dealing with 32 airlines. That’s a lot of them. One of them is really big, that’s Delta. That’s completely different partner to work with than all the small ones.
We’re an independent terminal so we like to do what’s good for all of our customers and of course, this very big customer. Every now and then there may be a bit of a challenge. In general terms, I think because we’re the independent party we make sure that everyone is behaving themselves as they should. The real competition is finding place at the ticket sales level and that sort of stuff and not here in the operation. That wouldn’t work. In general terms, operations people, they work together, they know how it works.
A lot of airlines, as you might know, airlines are not handling their own aircraft. In general terms they use other partners to do so. For example, for check in, for baggage handling, for cargo, for catering, for cleaning, that’s all third parties. That’s a whole group of companies servicing the aircraft at this terminal. We have relationships with each and every one of them. We need to know them; they need badges, they need to have access to the building, and they need to have access to our infrastructure.
We’re working with our own business partners, for example, maintenance and security activities. We’re cleaning the facilities, but also with our retail partners operating the store. We are no longer operating the stores. That’s third parties. All in all, it’s, and that’s why I said 4,000 on a good summer day, they are all employed by different parties and I think our core business is to making sure that all those companies and all those people are working together.
I have to say if it works out then the passenger has a great time. When one or two or three of those parts are not working well together then the first thing that happens is passengers are going to be in queues and waits. The aircraft are going to be delayed. It’s what we don’t like because of the ultimately it impacts not only on the experience but also on how our infrastructure and the efficiency of our infrastructure.
It is in a lot of countries the same. What is a little bit different here in the United States is, for example the security is a separate entity. In most of the Asian, European, and South American countries, that’s the airport operators. They’re subcontracting those activities to third-party security with supervision by the government. These guys, these people are employed by the government themselves. CBP Customs is always government. They’re responsible for immigration and for access to the country and for checking goods. That’s always the government.
We had 17.1 million passengers last year. That’s a little bit over one third of the whole of JFK. Most of them international passengers. We’ve got more than half of all international passengers flying to New York in that terminal. Next year we believe we will have, or this year I’ll have to say 2015, we’ll end up way over 19 million passengers. 1-9. That’s enormous growth. That’s only possible because we’re doing things right. The funny thing about New York, and it is quite unique, is that there’s multiple terminal system which complicates stuff enormously, takes up a lot of space but it complicates things for passengers and it’s not ideal. That’s not something we’re going to change in the next 30 years.
Skift: Which airports spring to mind and make you think “These people are doing it right. I wish we did that at T4?”
de Graaff: Of course not, we’re at the forefront. [Laughs]
Skift: A particular feature that somebody else is doing that you think is …
de Graaff: … no I think we can learn from many, many airports. That’s the interesting thing about what we’re doing as airport managers. As I said, I worked in airports in Europe, in Australia, in South America, now here and we recruit a lot of young people here. That’s what I really enjoy, by the way, about New York. A lot of people are very excited about working in aviation. You’ve got these great aviation schools and rooms full of interns these days where people really want to have a career in aviation. I haven’t seen that before to be honest, in other countries. I really liked it.
A lot of those people I tell, well in that case, airports are all the same. They all have runways, they all have terminals, they all have shops, they all have parking, and they all have problems with the roads in front of the terminal. Increasingly, it’s all that they all have issues with the environment, with noise, that sort of stuff. Airports in that sense, all those processes are the same. The local circumstances are very, very different. The best airport managers are those airport managers that understand their local challenges and are able to manage those; those are they best.
There’s always something to learn. There’s always someone here to challenge my, I know it’s greater somewhere else but they find the perfect solution for us. We can look how their doing it and learn from it and I think that’s the great thing about being in this business.
Skift: You mentioned iBeacons and being able to tell lines and things, what are some of the technologies you’re most optimistic about right now that will help either you do your job better or customers have a better experience when they’re flying through here?
de Graaff: I think it’s about personal mobile devices. We were talking about apps. I think those kind of things are really going to make a difference in airports if we’re able to make them really, let’s say, applicable to all airports. I think that’s a good one. The things that are happening in a lot of countries in the world, that self-service check-in, self-service boarding, self-service is a big thing in general, at airports. People like it but at the same time there are still a lot of people who like to be serviced as well, so that would be an option.
We’re going to be smarter in terms of security. Where a couple of years ago you still had to unpack your bag and put everything on the belt and keep a lot of that these days in your bag. There will be more advances there so it will be easier. It will perhaps in the very not too far future you can just walk into the building and you’re screened when walking into the building so you don’t have to queue up for special security screening. There are a lot of things that are being developed at the moment focused on a better, smoother, more efficient process for passengers.
Uber is another one. Uber is interesting. Uber provides a great service. I use Uber myself. Our challenge is, for security reasons, cars are not allowed to stand still in front of the building. That’s a little bit of a problem with Uber’s operations. Of course, their business is, the car is there when you need it. That’s a bit of the challenge. The second challenge for us is there’s limited space in front of the terminal. If not for security reasons, then just for operations reasons. We don’t like cars to be there for so long time, there’s not enough space. That’s the challenge with Uber we’re having. By the way, not only with Uber, with every car that’s served that’s there.
Where as then Uber is, we’ve got also people that are fighting taxi services without being taxis. We’ve got them as well. Hustlers.
[Editor’s Note: Recently, Uber and the Port Authority have come to an agreement for Uber cars to move from the front of buildings and will wait away from the terminal in allocated areas.]
Subscribe to Skift Pro
Subscribe to Skift Pro to get unlimited access to stories like these ($30/month)Subscribe Now
Photo Credit: The shopping concourse at JFK's Terminal 4. Skift