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What An Airport Can Teach Us About Communication

Airport terminal with business people waiting
Image Credit © – #91115914

Read the results of just about any large organisation’s ‘employee engagement survey’, and you’re likely to find communication is amongst the top issues marked as needing attention.  With the (often unnecessary) hierarchies, functions and silos that some organisations create, this is hardly surprising.  I suspect many of us have worked in organisations that encourage over-communication (“better send this to ‘all staff’ to cover our backs!”) or under-communicate (“Stick it on the intranet, 12 links deep. It’s their responsibility to find it!”).  This says a lot about an organisation’s communication culture.


The culture and norms of communication that an organisation cultivates can affect the success of projects too.  Foist a new process or system on an unsuspecting “user” and they are likely to react with shock and rebellion. And who wouldn’t—as human beings don’t we all have a need to feel engaged, considered and consulted?  Underpinning this is the need to engage and communicate at the most optimum times—avoiding the over/under-communication trap.


How Do Airports Handle Information Flow?

I was thinking about this recently whilst making my way through an airport.  It struck me that a huge volume of information flows through an average airport, and a large number of processes work seamlessly alongside each other.  Yet, most of the time, things work very well.  Most of the time, the passenger gets to the gate where there’s a fuelled plane waiting for them.


Let’s explore just one example—knowing which gate to go to—and examine it through the frame of communication.  As a passenger, an indication of the boarding time is typically provided on the boarding pass setting the expectation early.  This is updated in real-time, providing further information of any delays and the specific gate on the departure boards, which manage the expectation.  In the airport I was travelling through, there were no boarding announcements in the main terminal area—this makes perfect sense.  In a busy airport, having every announcement for dozens of gates leads to ‘noise’ that people tune out—it would be over-communication—much like the content of many e-mail inboxes.


Instead, travellers’ ‘pull’ information by reading the departure boards, which are designed to allow you to quickly identify the one line of information that is relevant for you.  Yet there is a contingency built in—if a passenger happens to miss the boarding call, by exception an urgent ‘last call’ announcement can be made.  Some airlines even make the boarding gate information available via an alert on a smartphone app, making doubly-sure that the passenger will see it.


Using Proximity To Tailor Information

Yet, here’s the clever thing: Information gets more specific as you approach the gate.  In the corridor, towards the gates, you’ll hear general boarding calls for all gates in that vicinity.  As you approach a specific gate, you’ll hear very specific and actionable information (e.g. “rows 30 and above, please board now”).  Airports and airlines have become experts in giving people useful information at the precise point that they need it. Of course, it isn’t perfect (“Boarding” can sometimes mean “come and wait in a cattle-pen for 30 minutes”) but that is a topic for a different blog.  It is certainly more effective than the communication culture within many organisations.


This idea of considering proximity in communication is useful, in our world this relates to the proximity of the change.  Communication can start broad; too much too soon and people tune out (“Why are you telling me about an office move that you might be planning in our region, that might or might not affect us in the next five to ten years?!”).  However, by the time people are ‘at the gate’ metaphorically speaking, it is crucial to ensure that there is an abundance of relevant information and that there are people around to help with any query that they might have, and it’s important that those people have the power to recommend ‘stopping the flight’ (i.e. the change or the project) if they discover something exceptional or unexpected.  Of course, if the right people have been engaged at the right time, this should be unlikely.


In reality, engagement is about much more than communication, and this article covers one specific dimension. Indeed, in our world communication needs to be a two-way flow.  Considering an organisation’s communication culture up front and by considering proximity helps us to design engagement and co-creation into and throughout our analysis and design processes. And if nothing else, perhaps we can avoid the ‘e-mail overload’ that is all too common in the corporate world.


What are your views on the topics in this post? Do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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4 thoughts on “What An Airport Can Teach Us About Communication”

  1. Great Article. Thanks for sharing.
    Instead ‘giving’ people information, a better way is establishing the effective means to enable user ‘pulling’ the information. Can I say it’s somehow a demand driven approach?

    1. Thanks Yuan, glad you enjoyed the article.

      A move from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ certainly moves towards a demand driven approach… although of course it is a little more complicated in reality. For example, it’s necessary to let the person know the information is available (in the airport, that might be combined with another touch-point… e.g. when checking in bags a traveller may be told to look at the screens). However if we make it intuitive enough then that’s less of an issue too!

      Also, to be truly demand driven, we’d need to understand the customers demands & needs–in this case the types of information they want. That is a story for another article, perhaps 🙂

      Thanks again for your comment Yuan! Kind regards — Adrian

  2. Adrian, I think your airport example is useful, in part because many can relate to their own experience in travel and see the analog to communication in business/projects. To expand a bit on your example, some real challenges occur when last minute changes occur such as a gate change or flight cancellation.

    These things happen and may not be completely manageable, but the “gap” between what the traveller had expected and the actual condition can create frustration, anger and irrational response. Just as the gate agent takes the heat for issues outside of her control, the business manager/analyst may find themselves in the position of explaining “how this happened” while working to get stakeholders back on track toward the final destination of the project.

    So while communication process can certainly help, I suspect that the manager/analyst will continue to act as “ringmaster”, ensuring that the elephant’s mess is cleaned up before the jugglers step into the ring ?

    1. Robert, thanks for the comment. That is a really great point, and (extending it a little further), what can *sometimes* happen in those situations is a “communication vacuum” (I.e. plane is delayed; no information is given). This is really bad for customers.

      So perhaps we need a RACI for exceptional communication; empowering those closest to the customer to make judgements & communicate at those crucial moments?

      A tricky area, as with all communication 🙂

      Thanks again Robert, really thought provoking.

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