Airport tries to raise bar on service

Most air travelers these days are happy to just get through the airport without major hassles.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is in the midst of a program to give them a little more than that -- good service at every point along the way, from the parking lot to the food court to the boarding gate.

The airport is spending up to $1.02 million on a three-year contract with a Texas firm that trains Hartsfield-Jackson workers on service basics. The program covers not just employees of Atlanta’s Department of Aviation, but also those who work for businesses that make the airport run, from the shops and restaurants to the parking contractor and airlines.

Among the lessons they get: Acknowledge fliers with a smile and eye contact as they approach within 10 feet, and add a greeting at five feet. After fliers use a credit card or show a boarding pass, use their names. When a guest complains, listen, apologize, and if possible solve the problem and follow up.

That might help someone like Brian Zeiler, a frequent traveler who said when his parking ticket becomes demagnetized and unreadable, the workers at the exit “usually seem really indifferent, if not outright surly about it.”

Evaluations by mystery travelers -- who check for basics and might even try to push employees’ buttons -- reinforce the training.

“Sometimes the mystery shopper will walk away without paying the bill, just to see how the employee reacts,” said Karen Ellis, customer service manager at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Shawn Hightower, a teal-vested customer care representative at the airport, said the training enables employees to “work together collectively as a team,” helping travelers navigate the terminal, for example.

Hartsfield-Jackson is one year into a three-year contract with Richardson, Texas-based FreemanGroup Solutions. The contract is worth $514,000 for the first year and $253,000 each for the second year and third years.

So far, the focus has been on training instructors and employees in airport shops and restaurants and parking areas. Front-line employees attend an eight-hour workshop and management is trained to hold employees accountable. Future training will be for employees of airlines, car rental agencies, taxi companies, the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The training is not mandatory, but 4,000 people have taken it so far, and the airport hopes that number will reach 11,000 by the end of the three years. There are about 38,000 front-line workers at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Having common customer service standards is important, said Debby Cannon, director of the School of Hospitality at Georgia State University.

Travelers “have one perception of the experience at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. They don’t differentiate” between airport and non-airport employees, she said.

Even if Atlanta travelers don’t have many good options aside from Hartsfield-Jackson, connecting passengers do, Cannon said.

“Our airport is so crucial because it is the impression that so many people have of Atlanta as a whole,”Cannon said. “We not only want them to layover here, we want them to decide that on their next trip they’ll stop over here for a day or two, or more.”