I recently wrote about the inflight passenger experience aboard a Delta Air Lines Bombardier CRJ900, and described how the airline is attempting to offer service on board its regional jets that is consistent with what it offers on its mainline aircraft.
While Delta is doing a fantastic job on the inflight front, there is a topic I did not fully explore in my review, and it represents a part of air travel that has in some instances remained stagnant through the years – the passenger experience inside the airport terminal.
Let’s take a look at two Delta hubs – New York JFK (specifically Delta’s Terminal 2/3/4 complex) and Detroit Metropolitan Airport (specifically the Delta McNamara Terminal). Unlike Delta’s approach to uniformity on board its aircraft, these two terminals couldn’t be any more different in terms of design, passenger comfort, amenities, and access.
Delta’s McNamara Terminal in Detroit was built for Northwest Airlines and opened just about 10 years ago in early 2002.
Upon entering, you are presented with a wide corridor lined with shops and restaurants. A little further in, a wonderfully designed “ExpressTram” system will quickly transport you to either end of the nearly mile long terminal. Walk a little further and you will arrive at one of two beautiful attractions that this terminal has to offer.
Placed directly in front of a gate that parks Boeing 747s (which is wonderful enough for an aviation geek) is a beautiful fountain with dancing water. With a nice seating area, this is a popular gathering area for passengers to rest up before their flight while watching some liquid artwork.
If a regional jet is operating your flight, it will most likely be leaving from concourse B or C. While these concourses may not be as large McNamara, passengers are greeted with a treat named the ‘Light Tunnel’. This is easily my favourite part of this airport.
The tunnel is a rather long underground connecter between concourses; however, it is anything but boring.
From end to end of the tunnel, colourful LEDs dance and flicker behind a glass wall choreographed to music being played throughout. It is not uncommon to see passengers stop at either end of the tunnel to take pictures of this oddity. (It also makes running for your 7am connecting flight quite epic!) See my video of the light show below.
Back in New York, Terminals 2 and 3 show their age everywhere you look from the moment you enter the buildings. When you enter Terminal 3 (which opened in 1960 for Pan Am) you are greeted with a wall. Turn right and you’ll see a couple of flight information screens and a narrow hallway. Turn left and you find yourself in a slightly wider, yet quite dark hallway. Look up, and you will see a series of tarps on the ceiling catching rainwater with tubes running to the floor into buckets. If your flight is at a gate that is actually located in Terminal 2, there is no ExpressTram to take you there; there is only a connecting bridge with moving walkways that are probably not working.
If you are flying on a regional jet at JFK, the boarding process is far less glamorous than the dedicated concourses in Detroit. Because of the lack of available gates at JFK, most regional flights do not get a jet bridge at a dedicated gate; they only get a parking spot at a temporary structure. This is one of the largest differences between the two hubs. With the growing presence of regional jets, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately. All of the hardstands for the regional flights are combined into two “gates” within Terminal 2. With multiple flights boarding at the same time and limited room for seating, these areas become very crowded and loud.
Sometimes the operation is downright chaotic. Because of the lack of seating, waiting passengers stand and block the entry, making it difficult to hear any announcements being made. To make matters worse, the house announcement system constantly drowns out the gate speaker system, forcing the gate agent to stop and start speaking several times. The agents make the best of the situation, even breaking out into laughter at the insanity of it all, but sometimes they are simply overwhelmed.
At a time where airlines are focusing on inflight entertainment like Wi-Fi and GSM connectivity, and refreshing their aircraft interiors and onboard services, a few of them might want to take a step back and focus on the experience encountered before their passengers step onto the plane.
Delays happen, it’s just the nature of the industry. However, a two-hour delay in a rundown terminal might leave a passenger with such a bad experience that they might not care what happens on the actual flight. If people have somewhere to sit, restaurants nicer than Burger King to dine at and a simple thing like a fountain to watch, they might not mind the delay as much. A little change can go a long way.
It will be interesting to see how Delta will change its New York image. When the carrier finishes its new Terminal 4 project, hopefully it will match or even exceed the passenger experience you get at Detroit Metro. Delta needs look no further than its competitor at JFK, JetBlue Airways, for ideas. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 is stunning and offers a fantastic passenger experience.