Tuesday, September 25, 2007

They Try Harder, Because They Have To

(I'm just back from a quick trip with a nifty airplane-generated sore throat, so today it's a quickie instead of what I'd planned to write about, inspired by... travel!)

In so many industries, it seems like the little guys are the ones who pay attention to customer needs. I suspect it's because they have to.

I fly through Houston's big Intercontinental Airport all the time. It's okay, but not great. The signage in the parking garages and outside the airport is awful (it's okay once you're actually in the terminal). It's got lots of amenities, but nothing special. It doesn't have to be great, because when you're the major airport for a metro area of millions of people that is the world headquarters of the energy industry, lots of folks will fly through no matter what you do.

Consider wifi at the airport. This is a hugely convenient thing for business travelers and very nice for everybody else. And while this wasn't a business trip, when you work for yourself, you're always a business traveler with some email to answer or something to check up on. Houston, like so many big airports, has an overpriced wifi network ($10 to get online) run by Sprint.

My usual pre-flight routine is to find a seat just outside the Continental President's Club and get on their free wifi. (Look, I fly enough damn miles on that airline, I don't feel bad doing this.) I noticed on Saturday morning that in Terminal E, all the seats near the doors of the club seemed to have been removed.

So rather than have a few people sitting outside using wifi, now people in the terminal have fewer places to sit. How... friendly.

My destination airport was Bradley International Airport, a bit north of Hartford, Connecticut, serving Hartford and Springfield, MA. When I got there yesterday (relatively early) I fired up the my laptop and discovered that there's a good free network. No sign in, not even a page to click things saying you're agreeing to their terms. Just turn on your computer and off you go.

I've found the same thing at the airports in Syracuse, NY and West Palm Beach, FL - all small airports.

It's funny that these little airports seem to realize that providing amenities to travelers is a good idea, while the major airports - the ones who ought to be setting the standards for how airports are run - treat amenities as a chance to extract cash from hostages. Hartford is not the closest airport to my hometown in Connecticut, but I tried flying there because I figured that despite the extra miles from home, it would be easier than arriving in one of the New York City airports. It was, and the wifi was just the icing on the cake - if I wind up stuck there, I can be productive without paying $10 an hour to read my email. Next trip, I'd make a point of going via Hartford, even if it's a little more for the ticket.

Maybe they just realize that creating a good experience for travelers is necessary, because people have options. (For Hartford, I'm guessing that there's a segment that could, like me, choose NYC instead; another that might choose Boston instead; and yet others for which Albany or Providence might be an alternatives.)

I wish the folks running Houston's airport would take note.

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