I've been walking around an airport part two

Imagine working for 12 hours a day, covering 15–20 miles of walking and more than 40,000 steps. That’s the job of a PSA (Passenger Support Advisor) 

18 Aug 2015
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Imagine working for 12 hours a day, covering 15–20 miles of walking and more than 40,000 steps. That’s the job of a PSA (Passenger Support Advisor) who keeps the airport running smoothly.

This is part two of a two part series. Have a read of part one.

These invisible people are who help travellers in their time of need or confusion at the airport and are the quintessential problem solvers. I was shadowing a PSA called Abdul who had been working at the airport for 12 years (and he called himself the new guy). It’s not uncommon for the PSA’s to work at the airport for decades ranging from 12 years to 30+ years. In todays world of increasing apathy it’s amazing to see such devotion and willingness to help others with a pure dedication to the job at hand.

I followed Abdul through arrivals, often one of the busiest and hard to manage areas in the airport. Imagine owning a corner shop, completely empty and then all of a sudden 1000 people arrive at your checkout with an item you need to check thoroughly. As flights all land very close to each other you’re fighting a losing battle with the queue.

Being up to date with information is key. This example on the PSA’s iPad’s shows the current queue time. Not very well designed to look at as people believed this was the current time 37minutes past 12 and not the queue length but useful data none the less.


I believe when people become disgruntled it’s through lack of context. They don’t understand that 5 flights just landed all within 10 minutes of each other. And we don’t understand the passengers mindset after their holiday/travel. In arrivals you are greeted by a massive queue. A queue which determines your patience by how you perceive time. When you’re waiting for something and concentrating on it time slows down. For every 1 minute you spend waiting it feels like 2. 10 minutes becomes 20 minutes in your and 20 minutes becomes 40 minutes. Perception of time is important.

I was a victim of the arrivals passport queue last year. It took 20 minutes just to walk to the back of the queue at about 1am. There were a lot of angry people having a go at Manchester Airport. I was disgruntled and a knee jerk reaction caused me to turn to social media. It’s becoming a more common thing. For the record I had checked the @manairport twitter feed and visited the website to find no information.

Facial recognition

The airport has a new system which tracks customers entering and exiting certain parts of the areas in the journey. The cameras take a photo of the customer, translate the facial pattern into an obfuscated anonymous code and then it starts counting. This means we can track the time it takes to complete tasks such as security and border control. The PSA’s have this information on their iPads to check at all times so they can quickly see where in the airport they might need to be helping.


When you’re in trouble

It’s easy for things to go wrong in airports and when they do, it’s normally a major inconvenience. There are really only three things you need to guard with your life:

  • Passport (or at least 1 form of ID!)
  • Boarding pass (ticket)
  • Cash

The rest you’ll survive without but if you lose your passport you’re screwed. I met a Polish lady who had lost her passport and had no form of ID at all. This is dangerous and the immigration officer (rather crudely) knew she was in trouble. “She’s screwed.” He mumbled as his realisation that she’s going to have a long afternoon sunk in.

Tip: Whenever I go abroad I make use of online storage and photograph my passport and driving licence, then drop it into Google Drive to make it accessible offline on my phone. This makes proving who you are a lot easier. If you really want to cover all bases make a photocopy. It won’t get you straight through border control but will save you a lot of time.

Empty spaces


Airports are built to handle huge bursts in traffic. Because of the terminals design and the nature of each gate an area can only be utilised when a flight lands. Because of this you often have huge areas of the airport which is under utilised. The domestic arrivals baggage collection hall for example has a huge space for up to 1000 people but with only a handful of domestic flights landing in a week, the space is empty most of the time. This is a huge problem for an airport looking to expand and they need to better understand how to utilise existing space.

Organising queues


The queue for arrivals at the airport. Non EU and EU passports. Arrivals come from two directions (left and right) but the queue has to be redesigned as people arrive at the airport.

One of the jobs the PSA’s have to handle every day and why the queue timing and face recognition is important. Luckily non EU flights and EU flights don’t tend to land together so the crossover on the left rarely happens.

Redesigning the airports queues is an ongoing thing. The PSA’s are always watching for flights arriving using the arrivals board and can judge how to adjust the queues accordingly. When I followed Abdul he took me round to a gate where a non-eu flight had arrived and showed me the difference in the queue design. Adjusting the queues to ensure everyone fits in a certain space is a constant battle.

How I captured information?

I needed to capture as much of the airport as possible as the drive there from Sheffield is 3 hours solid. Being able to see and put pictures to what I’m designing is vitally important so I set about recording videos and snapping as many photos as possible.

I wanted to capture as much of the airport as possible without stopping or “pointing and shooting”. I needed a quick way to snap a photo in the moment so decided to buy a bluetooth monopod (known nowadays as a selfie stick!) and a fish eye adapter for my iPhone. It gave me some great results.


So what next? I’m working on the actual research I’ve collected with my visit, and this will be added in to the personas I’ve developed with the client. All this information will influence the final design which starts imminently. It’s an interesting time which ties the website into a new wayfinding project which is also ongoing. How do you make the transition from online to offline and how do the two work together? Remember that context is key and you can’t design for an experience without first understanding the journey of the people you’re designing for. This work ensures we maintain empathy throughout.

Listed in:  Strategy UX Design