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Five Management Lessons from Istanbul Airport

Posted on October 15, 2014 at 11:35 AM


Istanbul is a major crossroads of the world. Maybe THE crossroads of the world. East meets West. Asia meets Europe. Istanbul’s main international airport (IST) lives up to that reputation as well. I recently traveled to Istanbul and was impressed by many things I saw in the modern and clean airport. First, I was impressed at how eclectic a mix of customers and vendors it serves. Men passing by in clothes ranging from robes to suits to shorts. Women walking by in clothes ranging from burkas to pantsuits to skirts. A lingerie shop and a pub just around the corner from a place to pray. In many ways, it was no different from the many other big airports I have iTunesed my way through around the world, but just with the volume and bass turned all the way up this time

As a management consultant, I was impressed by several management practices that seemed to help make it all work.

  1. As soon as you get off the plane, there is an airport staffer sitting at a strategic point right off the jetway asking you if you want to stay in the airport to just connect or if you want to exit the security zone and go out of the airport (e.g., to go into the city.) Having had to figure out international transfers through London and other airports the hard way on my own before, I appreciated how timely and clearly the IST staff posed that choice to me.
  2. When you are re-entering the airport from outside, they make everone go through an initial security screen before getting into the densely packed airport area with the check-in and baggage claim areas. The security does not require people to be ticket carrying-passengers, but they just want to make sure they are not letting people bring dangerous stuff into an area crowded with passengers and others who have not yet been through security screening to go to the gates.
  3. After I had checked in and went through security, I saw several examples of interactions between tired and frustrated passengers and tired and frustrated airline and airport staff that, despite being heated, ended up pretty successfully. In a couple of examples, passengers skipped past others in long lines to ask the airline representatives for help. The reps were quite disciplined in barely even granting eye contact to the line cutters. After a while, the combinaion of being ignored by the agents and being silently peer-pressured by people who waited their turn in the line encouraged the line-cutter to get in line.
  4. At the departure gates, the airline set up rope lanes for people to get into their boarding groups. Instead of creating mini-chaos and line cutting by just announcing the groups, people formed their own lines and could see exactly how things would go. The airline rep just had to open one lane with the previous one had emptied. Quite orderly and easy to know where you stood.
  5. Like other large European airports, IST was set up to keep passengers in a large central area until the last minute when they announced an assigned gate. My guess is that commercial retail reasons are a large part of this (e.g., keeping people near the duty free and other shops as long as possible). What I liked about this was that the retail and restaurants were large and thriving, if fewer. Instead of having a lot of small restaurants spread out across the many branches of terminals with hit or miss foot traffic business, it ensured the retailers always had a clientele, and thus were thriving and kept longer hours. Having spent many late hours in airports with a lot of closed restaurants sitting next to empty gates, I appreciated that system.

All well-seasoned, well-traveled management consultants think about how airports could be run better. Many complain. Some of us blog about it.

Categories: Operational Excellence