AIRticulate

Passenger Experience Fail: Newark’s Desperate Cash Grab

EWR Airport Terminal C

Newark Airport’s Terminal C, its primary United hub.

EWR Terminal C70-99

Zoomed in area of the green box in the Terminal C map above.

Airports always want to market themselves as entertainment hubs. With ancillary revenue being the buzz of the industry for the past four or five years, it’s easy to be lured in by the promise of easy money.

In the United States, airport authorities seem to be keeping tabs on what’s happening in Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and other top tier airports, and they want in. But they are failing miserably in one regard: the best airports in the world, with all of their bells and whistles, never cut corners when it comes to actual usability. Changi, Chek Lap Kok (Hong Kong), Incheon and their counterparts all prioritize getting customers to their gates on time, and only then look at what kinds of amenities they can add.

Case Study: Newark

Nobody has ever confused embattled Newark Liberty International Airport with Changi, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who actually enjoys flying there. Besides the occasional nice view of Manhattan you get if you happen to take off to the north and have a right-side window seat, there is little that Newark does right. The AirTrain is too small—about 3 passengers with luggage are actually able to fit in each car. The security lines can be a nightmare. The staff defaults to utter rudeness. Delays abound. Paid wifi (who still does this?). And EWR’s primary tenant, United, has customer service struggles that are well-documented.

So when I saw a sign that promised “more usable space,” I was pleasantly surprised. Until I learned what the Port Authority’s definition of “usable space” is.

“More Usable Space”

EWR Terminal C
The entrance to the C70-99 wing, shown as Point A in the diagram.
Pictured above is the entrance to one of the main concourses in EWR’s “C” Terminal, which is home of the only airline with a major hub at Newark (United). In other words, it’s busy. The fenced-in area behind the sign used to be moving walkways, which in a busy terminal full of connecting passengers, is about as “useful” as space can be. I thought Newark was simply upgrading the moving walkways, until I strolled down towards my flight at C96.

The green area in the diagram is a newly-opened restaurant, Wanderlust Burger Bar. It’s fancy and confused. The iPads at every seat suggest modernity, but the community-style layout suggests awkwardness—people positioned to be social each staring off into the screens of their own little world. It’s congested. Besides people walking to their gates, Wanderlust has a team of up to 15 servers running food and drinks to its hungry clientele. It’s expensive. A burger and fries will set you back about $25.

I hung around Wanderlust for about 15 minutes, and saw about five near misses between waiters, passengers and large pieces of luggage.

Ignoring the Passenger Experience

I understand that an airport needs to offer places to eat and drink (which Newark already does in the yellow shaded area of the diagram and elsewhere. But to have it in the middle of an already-congested concourse? It screams of desperation.

The picture below shows the walkway between C80 and C91 (Point “B” in the diagram). As you can see, there is ample space and few gates around, yet it is still centrally-located. This would be an ideal place for a middle-of-the-concourse restaurant.

EWR Terminal C
Wide-open part of the C concourse.
Except that Newark is copying the Wanderlust concept at the mouth of the C70-99 gates, Point A referenced above. Wanderlust barely offers for passengers and the restaurant to coexist, and that’s all the way at the end of the terminal. So how exactly does the Port Authority think a busy restaurant will fit into the one area in the concourse that every passenger needs to pass through? Newark was tough to navigate with walkalators—and now they are taking them away in favor of another restaurant? The first picture doesn’t lie—only about two passengers can fit through the open space width-wise. That’s not good enough for an office building, much less a major international airport.

For an airport as prominent as Newark that is already dealing with a bad reputation, the lack of foresight into the actual customer experience is astounding. Passenger experience is much more than having 12 dining options instead of 11. It’s far more important to the passenger that he or she can actually get to the proper gate and catch a flight, on time and without hassle. In an airport (and concourse) already bursting at the seams, it seems that EWR’s designers are doing themselves no favors.

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