Airport Resilience

We were flying to Italy for a wedding. As we queued through Manchester Airport’s security and duty-free mazes, teams of men in high visibility jackets scowled menacingly at us; the phrase “Airport Resilience” writ large on their backs.

It seemed like an odd turn of phrase at the time, and one that stuck with me. To be resilient is to recover quickly; to adapt, and bounce back from setbacks. As a function, resilience is by definition reactive. The role of these officers is to wait for something to go wrong, and then attempt to address the situation.

I find the idea that the airport appears to favour reactive fixes over proactive optimisation uncomfortable. If success is measured in terms of how effectively problems are dealt with, rather than how effectively they’re prevented, then most experiences will only ever be mediocre. Only the bare minimum of effort will be actively invested into ensuring good experiences, improving over time, and being audience-centric.

I see this kind of thinking in many organisations, and it’s reflected in their websites, marketing, and strategies. Because the value of proactively helping an audience in a way that prevents problems is harder to quantity than reacting to problems, it’s rare to see things like “being helpful” being prioritised.

I digress. As our travel day progressed, our resilience was tested repeatedly. Our train was cancelled, and the replacement was delayed and overcrowded. Our flight was delayed, then late to depart. We landed at the wrong terminal. We missed the terminal transfer bus. We missed our coach to Turin. We stood in the rain, in the dark, for an hour, at 10 pm, frantically searching Google for options.

The airport website was unclear about terminal transfer services and locations, and the map pages didn’t provide enough detail.

Information on multiple websites about terminal transfers was outdated. They all had incorrect and inconsistent timings, for the wrong coach brands, with the wrong pickup times.

The correct coach brand’s website had the wrong pickup location.

The coach website (and tickets) didn’t say which of the many bays at the bus station it stopped at.

Every single source of information about every step of the journey was wrong.

We managed in the end. We flagged down a taxi to take us (with some understandable confusion) to the other terminal and managed to get a later coach. We were resilient.

But we were only resilient because it was our only option when the websites of each organization involved – the airport, the transfer bus company, and the coach company – all had outdated, inadequate content and information to help us proactively help ourselves. They failed us as consumers.

What’s the cost of those failures? Some are obvious; I’ll be less likely to fly EasyJet in the future (duh). But some are more subtle. I’ll probably recommend that people visit Florence and not Milan. I’ll visibly scowl when I see a Flixbus logo. I’ll spend my money on companies and solutions I already know I can trust. I’ll never actively choose to use, or to recommend, any of those organizations. 

That’s the hidden cost of your website not being helpful. Of not maintaining the content that helps to support and empower users. The cost of not maintaining that seemingly unimportant webpage (that probably gets few visitors, and fewer conversions) is forcing users to be resilient.

Resilience is what we need when we’re failed, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In a marketplace where consumers expect brands to help them, your model can’t be based on reacting to failures. It can’t be based on having to quantify the cost or value of helping to solve your users’ problems.

How resilient is your brand, if you’re silently, invisibly, and immeasurably failing your audience? You’ll never know, because all you’ll see is decreasing reach, increasing costs of acquisition, and your competitors eating your lunch.

Next time I’m (reluctantly) at Manchester Airport, perhaps they’ll have replaced their Resilience team with a Resources team; one that actively seeks opportunities to help, support, and guide their users. Imagine how transformative that could be for the experiences of their passengers, and how that could impact their reputation and bottom line.

But choosing to invest in proactively supporting users in this way requires a kind of bravery that’s rare in the boardroom. Most brands will continue to prioritize reacting to measurable problems, after the fact and fighting for the margins. That leaves a space for leaders to step up, and to put the (unspoken, unmeasurable) needs of their users first. Then, when the incumbents inevitably continue to fail those users, they’ll look elsewhere. Will it be your brand that helps them? Can you afford for it not to be?

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