Pushing the Envelope
Kevin Dillon recalled that, when he first started working at airports in mid-’70s, they were run almost like government facilities.
Translation: there were few, if any, frills, customer service was hardly a priority, and the notion of generating repeat customers didn’t really exist because, for the most part, customers didn’t have any choice but to return.
All that has changed over the ensuing decades, of course. Fliers do have choices, especially in this part of he country, where there are several airports within a two-hour drive. And they make their choices based on a variety of factors, but especially convenience and the quality of their experience (after all, they’re spending at least a few hours there, on average).
So today, every airport wants to be the airport of choice, including Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which took over management of the facility in 2013.
And there are many factors that go into that equation, from the number of flights and, more specifically, the number of non-stop flights to the number and quality of restaurants at the facility; from ease of movement through the flying process to the overall customer experience.
And Bradley has been addressing all of them, said Dillon, referencing recent developments ranging from new non-stop service to St. Louis to a new $200 million transportation transit facility set to move off the drawing board (more on that later), to the addition of therapy dogs to help those anxious about flying.
“What we’re about at Bradley is convenience,” he told BusinessWest. “We know that’s what we’re selling as an airport, whether that’s convenient access to the airport or convenience once you get to the facility. So we have focused on improving overall customer service and the customer experience.”
Initiatives on these fronts are generating results that can be quantified in a number of ways, said Dillon, who started with the five consecutive years of year-over-year passenger growth Bradley has enjoyed since the CAA took over in 2013. That includes a 6.2% spike in 2017. He also noted that Condé Nast Traveler ranked Bradley the fifth-best airport in the U.S. it its latest Readers’ Choice Awards.
But while the passenger-growth numbers and votes from Condé Nast readers are compelling, Dillon said the airport has to keep pushing the envelope (that’s an aviation term, sort of) and find new and better ways to improve the customer experience.
“The airport business has become extremely competitive,” he noted. “So we’re constantly looking to differentiate ourselves from other options that travelers in our region have; we want to be that airport of choice, but we do know that travelers have options, so we have to keep looking for ways to improve the experience.”
For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest talked at length with Dillon about Bradley’s focus on convenience and the many forms this mission takes.
Perhaps the most obvious, and most important, aspect of customer service, Dillon said, is the number of flights being offered, or route development, as he called it.
And over the past several years, the airport has been working to add new flights for the convenience of all travelers, but especially business travelers.
“We know business travelers are looking for a greater menu of non-stop services at Bradley, so we’ve put a lot of attention and focus on development in general,” Dillon explained. “When we first took over the airport, we focused on bringing in West Coast connectivity as well as trans-Atlantic connectivity, and we’ve been able to accomplish both goals.”
With the former, the airport has added a popular flight to Los Angeles, he noted, and last year, seasonal, non-stop service to San Francisco was added to the portfolio, and efforts are ongoing to offer that service year-round.
Also, through the addition of carrier of Spirit Airlines, there are now more direct flights into a number of Florida cities, including Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Myers.
As for the latter, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in September 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with area business and leisure flyers looking for a more convenient way to get to Europe than driving to and then flying out of Boston, New York, or New Jersey.
“That’s because it’s not only connectivity to Dublin, it’s connectivity to all of Europe,” said Dillon. “And there are 26 major cities that you can connect to very conveniently in Dublin with this flight.”
The overseas flight has thus far met or exceeded expectations, and the response from the business community has had a lot to do with that, he said, adding that, as might be expected, leisure travel to Europe drops off considerably in the fall and winter, and the business side of the equation has helped keep the planes reasonably full year-round.
As for the experience at the airport itself, those at Bradley have been attentive to this piece of the puzzle as well, said Dillon, focusing on such matters as security lead times, check-in times at the airline counters, the menu of restaurants, and, yes, programs such as therapy dogs.
When it comes to eateries, Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Brewery have been added to the mix within the past year, and they’ve been very well received, said Dillon, adding that travelers will likely have a decent amount of time to spend at such facilities because of efforts to help the process of getting bags checked and travelers through security.
Overall, there are some things an airport cannot control — travelers will still be asked to arrive 90 minutes before a flight, especially if it’s an international flight — but there are many things it can control, and those are the factors Bradley is focused on, said Dillon.
This extends, as he noted earlier, to access to the airport, and also what happens after one leaves.
And this mindset explains the facility’s new transportation center, now in the final design stages, which is being built to improve the overall customer experience.
“You’ll be able to fly into Bradley and connect via a walkway to this new facility right across from the terminal to get your rental car,” he explained. “No longer will you have to take a bus to that rental-car facility.”
The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects Southern Connecticut with Springfield.
“We’re working to have every one of those trains stop at Windsor Locks, which is considered the airport train station, and then we’ll connect the new transportation center to the Windsor Locks train station via high-frequency bus service,” Dillon explained, adding that the ultimate goal is to directly connect the airport to that station with light rail.
Such rail connections will ultimately make life more convenient to business and leisure travelers alike, he went on, adding that they can fly into Bradley and connect, via rail, to a host of other cities, similar to how it’s done in Europe.
When the CAA took over operations at Bradley, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Fewer than five years later, the total is 6.5 million.
That’s a significant increase that came about through a broad, multi-faceted approach to improving convenience and the overall customer experience.
But as they say in this business, Bradley is merely gaining altitude. It can soar much higher still, and Dillon and his team are committed to doing just that.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com