Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

How DFW is upping its customer service game

My most recent “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY explores the “Experience Hub” at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Take a look and let us know if you think this model can make a difference in passenger happiness at other airports.

Like most airports, Dallas-Forth International has an operations center to monitor everything happening out on the airfield.

But for the past two few years DFW has been beefing up another type of behind-the-scenes center.

This one is called the Experience Hub and its role is to keep watch over everything happening inside the terminals, to respond as swiftly as possible to any sort of passenger issue and to solve problems before they happen.

Every airport will tell you it has people and departments to do all that. However, DFW officials believe their customer experience hub is a unique and more effective way to serve its more than 69 million passengers in part because it has centralized many functions that were previously spread out across departments and locations.

“Everybody here has responsibility driven by making the customer experience the best it can be,” said Julio Badin, DFW’s Vice President of Customer Service during a recent tour of the windowless, 7,000-square foot room in Terminal D that houses representatives from just about every customer-facing agency or department at the airport and dozens of monitors streaming data and live terminal feeds.

“This group is focused on all the things that touch the customer from the experience perspective,” said Badin, pointing out staff checking on everything from the weather and airline load factors to TSA lines, baggage room operations, custodial schedules, restroom maintenance needs and mentions of DFW on social media.

The hub, located on the non-secure side of the airport, in Terminal D, is staffed 24-hours a day and has a conference table in the center and low-lit work stations (to avoid monitor glare) for about 20 people around the perimeter.

Two officers from the Transportation Security Administration’s planning department are chatting about what they see on the monitors at their work station. Their job: to study projected passenger numbers from the airlines, observe the wait times at the airport’s various security checkpoints and decide how and when to open additional lanes, move staff around and send in teams of bomb sniffing canines with their handlers to help speed things up.

“The planning team is the guts behind how well the TSA checkpoints work,” said DFW’s Badin, who was pleased that TSA accepted the airport’s invitation to locate this team here.

Sitting nearby the TSA planners are customer care specialists who spend their days answering passenger questions, solving problems for travelers and monitoring and responding to social media messages or mentions.

“People call wanting to know if their car will be towed if their flight gets back late. They want to know where they can get a mimosa at 8 a.m. And, of course, we get lots of calls from people who need help finding lost items,” said Clara Meyer, an Experience Hub Specialist whose shift starts 4:30 a.m.

“We once got a call about a man flying in on a flight from India. He didn’t know that his travel agent had put him on a flight to Dallas instead of [Washington] Dulles and his daughter called us asking for help,” said Meyer, “We sent someone to find him to explain what happened and had them stay with him until he got onto a flight to Dulles. We also helped him on the way home.”

The computer screens at the work station next to Meyers are filled with live streams of messages tagged with #DFW on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media streams.

A hub staff member responds in real time to just about anything that pops up on social media relating to DFW customer service. Sometimes it’s a “Welcome to DFW,” or “Sorry your flight is late,” message. But often the response is a tweet filled with specific information a customer has requested, such as a list of airport restaurants open before 5 a.m. or a shop that might sell a replacement for a left-behind hair straightener.

And because the social media monitoring desk is in DFW’s Experience Hub, if there’s a tweet from, say, a frustrated mom who’s run out of diapers during a flight delay, there’s someone at the next desk who can call or text one of the airport customer experience specialists (ACES) out in the terminals and have them bring supplies over.

Make a playlist and follow it

Back in the hub, each day begins with the building of “playlists,” said DFW Experience Hub Manager Ricky Griffin, “We look at expected passenger loads, weather, and other factors so we can give the ACEs a detailed list of tasks they should complete and check off in the terminals that day.”

To predict the day’s passenger flows and identify areas that might need extra attention, Griffin’s team looks at what TSA has planned for staffing and holds conference calls with American Airlines (which has a main hub at DFW) and other departments at the airport to find out what they may be expecting that day.

“Then we draft an email that goes out to our team to let them know what’s happening,” said Griffin. As the day progresses, everyone in the hub continues monitoring and watching out for everything from such storms in the area to baggage hiccups, unattended luggage, fire alarms, and anything that might cause a glitch in the terminals.

The time, energy and resources DFW is putting into enhancing the customer experience for passengers seems to be paying off.

The airport has won some major customer service awards and in the past year other airports keen to raise their level of customer service, including Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle-Tacoma International and a few international airports have sent teams out to see DFW’s Experience Hub in action.

SEA & DFW airports wager over NFL Wild Card game

There’s an NFL Wild Card game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday evening and there’s some good natured smack talk and wagering going on between the SEA and DFW airports, and between restaurants in each airport.

*Disclaimer: I live in Seattle, so you probably know who I hope wins…

Making the best of America’s busiest airports

I had great fun putting together a slide show for Bing Travel about how to make the best of some of America’s Busiest Airports. Here’s a rundown of some of the tips I shared. More tomorrow..

No. 1: Hartsfield-Jackson, Atlanta

Serving more than 90 million passengers annually, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport holds tight to the title of world’s busiest passenger airport. ATL also offers travelers an extensive art collection, a piano bar and dining options that include the upscale One Flew South, serving sushi and global fare made with local ingredients.

Defeat the delay: For $30, you can spend an hour napping, working, watching TV or just chilling out in a private room at Minute Suites, by gate B15.


No. 2: Chicago O’Hare

Winter storms packing snow, sleet and ice often ground holiday travelers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, second on the list. Wait out delays watching kids play pilot at the Kids on the Fly play area, grab a snack at Garrett Popcorn or take in the greenery at O’Hare’s vertical, aeroponic garden in Terminal 3.

Defeat the delay: The Hilton Chicago O’Hare, accessible from ORD Terminal 2, offers $15 day passes to its full-service health club, which has showers, a steam room, a sauna and a pool.


No. 3: Los Angeles International

Nine terminals, some with limited amenities, make Los Angeles International Airport a tough place to wait out a delay. If you’ve exhausted the options in your terminal at LAX, head over to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, where a pre-security food court offers a branch of Pink’s, the iconic Hollywood hot-dog shop, and the reLAX pay-to-use day lounge.

Defeat the delay: The LAX Theme Building, a separate building in the center of the airport, is home to an observation deck, open weekends only, and the space-age Encounter Restaurant, which serves lunch, dinner, cocktails and great views daily.

No. 4: Dallas/Fort Worth International
You betcha it snows in Texas, but Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is prepared for delayed travelers, with 60 free power poles, an impressive public art collection (Terminal D) and free, living-room-style theaters (Terminal D, mezzanines) with large-screen TVs and leather chairs with individual headphone controls.

Defeat the delay: Taste Texas wines and more at the airport branch of nearby La Bodega Winery (Terminal D).

More tomorrow…

Stuck at the airport: video made at DFW goes viral

How did they get away with that?

That’s what a lot of people were saying when they saw the video – Stuck – Joe Ayala and Larry Chen made while they were stuck at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport earlier this month.

STUCK from Joe Ayala on Vimeo.

Ayala and Chen are professional automotive photographers and they were on their way home from Formula Drift Palm Beach when they got stuck at the airport with their photography equipment – and their creativity.

The video shows them racing wheelchairs through the terminal, goofing around on the escalators and engaging in a wet-towel fight in a bathroom. It also shows Chen pounding on a computer keyboard at a gate and helping himself to a beer in what looks like an unattended restaurant.

The video has gone viral and, as I wrote on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin,, it also has raised some concerns about airport security concern.

Airport spokesman David Magaña said that while DFW appreciates the creativity and humor demonstrated by the filmmakers, it does not condone the fact that they entered an eatery after business hours. “The video did point out the need to better secure this restaurant, and that issue is being addressed immediately,” he said.

Magaña added that security agents did observe the filmmakers at the airport, but “because the filmmakers were presenting no threat to themselves, to others or to flight safety, and were causing no damage, there was no imperative to curtail their activities.”

They had already made it past the security checkpoint, “and they also picked up after themselves, including the restroom,” Magaña said.

The high quality of the video made a lot of people wonder if the film was indeed made during a night spent stuck at the airport, but in an interview with Jalopnik, a site about cars, the filmmakers described how they made DFW look so good.

“What do I usually do when I pass the time when I’m bored? I usually shoot skits,” Chen told Jalopnik. “I have all this camera gear so I thought, ‘Why don’t we shoot one here?’ ”

Chen said they arrived at the airport around 11 p.m., planned out their video and were shooting until 4:30 a.m. “We didn’t have a tripod with us, but I had gear to shoot cars, so we used a suction cup mount, and we used a magic arm mount that is something that clamps on to anything,” Chen said. “We clamped it on to the stalls in the bathroom, and to this railing for the escalator shot. But like, it’s just like normal stuff, grip stuff that any professional photographer would have.”

“When we’re stuck at an airport we’re sort of like ‘Let’s take pics of each other!’ It’s part of a way of enjoying life and not taking things to seriously.”

Good advice.

Snack Saturday: automated treats

I still get a kick out of seeing those ZOOM vending machines (officially “automated retail stores”) at airports offering everything from iPods to products from Best Buy, Sephora and the SkyMall catalog

Airport vending machine ZOOM SKYMALL

But these aren’t the only unusual vending machines you’ll find  in airports.

Last time I passed through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the SHOP 24 was still there. This giant vending machine fits in the space of a small retail shop and is filled with all sorts of snacks and sundries. It’s as entertaining as it is convenient.

Now comes word that Outagamie County Airport (ATW) in Appleton, WI. has one of the country’s 25 Willy Wonka Candy Machines. The machine draws attention with sounds and flashing lights and lets customers customize their own selection of candy, which is delivered in cups.

Outagamie Airport Willy Wonka candy machine

(Photo courtesy Outagamie County Airport)

Tomorrow (Sunday, July 18th) is National Ice-Cream Day, so keep in mind that you’ll find the country’s only airport-based Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream vending machine at Massachusetts’ New Bedford Regional Airport

Ice cream vending machine

And at Nashville International Airport, there’s a Dippin’ Dots machine.

Know of another fun airport vending machine? Please snap a photo and send it along.