Transforming the Airport Experience by Putting Passengers First
The journey to reimagine and revitalize Toronto Pearson International Airport, from workplace culture to baggage
Help Toronto Pearson become a world-class hub that can achieve traveler satisfaction and ensure safety in times of crisis and calm.
These outcomes and the design process enabled the airport to nimbly and safely respond to COVID-19, and prepare and improve its operations for post-pandemic travel.
Toronto Pearson has been named the “Best Large Airport in North America” for four consecutive years and earned the highest passenger satisfaction score for an airport of its size.
An improved security, baggage, and border clearance process, and an internal movement that unites over 50,000 employees around a shared purpose of service.
Prior to COVID-19, air travel was soaring. But in 2020, tightening government restrictions and fear of exposure to the virus left skies and security lines unusually quiet.
The last thing an airport might decide to do during this precarious time is experiment. But at Toronto Pearson, Canada’s largest airport, executives and staff from various departments worked together to run live prototypes in the airport to promote a positive passenger experience during COVID-19 and beyond. Capitalizing on reduced foot traffic and more space, the team tested new customer service stations and color-coded wayfinding systems, transforming a moment of crisis and business peril into an opportunity to improve.
This willingness to embrace experimentation didn’t happen overnight. In 2015, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) approached IDEO to help Canada’s largest airport think differently about employee engagement, operations, and customer service in order to address challenges stemming from the airport’s growth, but most importantly, offer a world-class passenger experience. Toronto Pearson sought to achieve an ambitious goal: Become the best airport in the world.
The first time IDEO and GTAA came together, leaders spent an entire day walking the airport—a practice that would continue throughout their collaboration. The team identified four key opportunities for further action: Creating a more pleasant and efficient security screening process, optimizing baggage services, empowering employees to deliver exceptional service, and improving wayfinding and the border clearance experience. The projects would be rooted in Toronto Pearson’s overarching mission to make passengers their passion. What followed is a story of four parts:
Navigating complexity through collaboration
After completing research interviews with representatives from GTAA and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the team gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of security screening: Dozens of departments are involved, from border agencies and various airlines to passengers and GTAA. To make security more passenger-friendly and smooth, all stakeholders needed to come together. The designers convened a group of travelers, airline representatives, and various members of GTAA and CATSA to brainstorm ideas and test full-scale prototypes at Toronto Pearson. Together, they could address factors like competing agendas, airline differences, technology, regulations, the airport floor plan, and traveler desires in order to arrive at solutions that could be implemented and have a positive impact.
From passenger interviews, the group learned that keeping travelers informed during security can improve the overall experience, since the process can feel out of a passenger’s control. For the entrance of security checkpoints, the team designed signs that give passengers an estimate of how long it will take to complete screening. While waiting in line, visually-driven signage guides travelers on what’s ahead so they can prepare and proceed more quickly. Additionally, colorful signs with welcoming phrases like, "Keeping you safe is what matters most to us,” greet and reassure passengers. After screening, a dedicated post-security area with benches and tables gives travelers the space to easily and comfortably organize their belongings. Once shoes and belts are back on, signs inform passengers of approximately how long it will take to walk to their gate.
"This initiative reinforced the importance of better integration and collaboration between the many parties which are involved in the end-to-end passenger experience,” said Peter Burden, General Manager of Program Improvement at CATSA. “By focusing on the passenger and leveraging rough prototyping, we were able to identify creative solutions which have since generated improvements in overall passenger satisfaction."
Based on passenger feedback, GTAA introduced a new dedicated area for travelers to more conveniently and comfortably collect their personal items after going through airport security.
Prototyping and testing to inspire innovation
It’s extremely challenging, operationally and physically, to run a seamless baggage experience. Baggage handlers are unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes, lifting and accounting for thousands of 50-pound suitcases per day. Many are contractors who may feel like they don’t have a voice, but their role is critical: The number of baggage incident reports, including lost, delayed, or damaged luggage, an airport receives per month is used to measure its overall performance. Like many airports, GTAA struggled with high baggage-related complaints.
IDEO and GTAA noticed the opportunity to elevate and care for baggage handlers. By improving their working conditions and involving them in solutions, baggage handlers could feel empowered and inspired to do their part to serve passengers.
The team collaboratively convened groups of baggage handlers, operations employees, and passengers together to hold a “baggage Olympics.” With five core design mindsets to guide the event, the group tested different ideas that could make the baggage process more seamless. Including baggage handlers helped the team ensure the ideas were feasible, and also raised baggage handlers’ visibility and vital role within the organization.
One simple but impactful solution the team identified was to create color-coded signage for baggage handlers that could be standardized and more straightforward. In addition to the signs themselves, the group designed and implemented signage guidelines that include everything from optimal mounting placement to a detailed icon catalogue. Ultimately, more consistent and clear signs make it easier and more efficient for handlers to place baggage in the correct induction position in order to transport it to the correct carousel and awaiting passenger.
Having elevated the importance of baggage operations and handlers, this work helped establish a new role and team at GTAA. Darin Juby, Director of Baggage Services, and his team advocate for handlers, take accountability for the baggage experience, and eliminate the silos that once existed between departments that influence baggage operations. Since completing this project, GTAA has experienced a dramatic reduction in baggage incident reports.
Building a unifying sense of purpose
When operating at full capacity, Toronto Pearson has almost 50,000 employees across over 400 companies operating at the airport. These partners include concessionaires, 65 airlines, security companies, custodial services and, of course, GTAA staff. While each company services a limited scope of the operation, they ultimately all touch the passenger experience, from the security line to the baggage claim to the bathroom and more. After speaking with airport employees and passengers, the team learned that discrete silos and certain mindsets often resulted in a disjointed passenger experience. The question became: How can employees feel empowered to take risks and think outside the box to improve the traveler experience?
It was clear that cultural change was needed. But this type of change must come from movements, not mandates. First, GTAA and IDEO set out to inspire a shared culture amongst GTAA employees. They envisioned this culture spreading to workers beyond those employed by GTAA, and igniting a larger, airport-wide internal movement called “I Am Toronto Pearson.” But sparking culture and a movement is no small undertaking: It requires tapping into emotion, instilling purpose, and adopting new behaviors.
GTAA and IDEO began by designing a workshop for GTAA employees to empower them to feel like agents of change within the airport and carry the organization’s collective mission forward. During one part of the session, participants share an artifact that represents their relationship to travel. One woman brought a beloved teddy bear that her son lost in an airport, but was later returned to him thanks to the kindness and dedication of airport employees. Another worker pointed to his wedding band and recalled how he met his spouse at an airport restaurant. GTAA employees left the workshop inspired to offer this same heartfelt, emotional travel experience to passengers.
In partnership with agency 16x9, the efforts behind the “I Am Toronto Pearson” movement successfully break down barriers, connect airport staff in shared meaning, and empower them to go above and beyond. 25,000 employees—from firefighters and baristas to customs officials and cleaners—have participated in initiatives and activities related to the movement on their own accord.
Employees across the airport—from security officers to retail store managers and more—find common ground, collaborate, and get inspired through the "I Am Toronto Pearson" movement, an internal initiative rooted in airport pride and passenger service.
Since completing this work with IDEO, Toronto Pearson has made progress towards their goal of becoming the best airport in the world. It has been recognized as the “Best Large Airport in North America” for airports serving more than 40 million passengers annually, according to the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) survey conducted by Airports Council International. The survey measures key quality indicators, from security wait times and employee helpfulness to cleanliness and ambiance. It’s the only global benchmarking survey that assesses passenger satisfaction at the airport on their day of travel.
The survey also named Toronto Pearson the “Most Improved Airport in North America” in 2019, a distinction given to the airport that has made the most year-over-year improvements of any North American airport. Specifically, GTAA made improvements in 90 percent of the 34 performance indicators that are important to passengers, like security and baggage reclaim wait times and gate cleanliness. Compared to similar airports surveyed in North America, GTAA has also earned the highest passenger satisfaction score.
The work to reimagine baggage taught us how to prototype and collaborate—it reprogrammed us with a new mindset and way of working. When COVID hit two years later, because we had laid this groundwork, we were able to pivot quickly and cost-effectively in the midst of an unforeseen crisis.
Darin Juby, Director of Baggage Services, GTAA
Designing solutions that offer confidence, speed, and safety
Building on the success of the three prior projects, in late 2019, GTAA, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), and IDEO set their sights on redesigning the international arrivals experience for passengers and airport staff. The team immediately began spending time in the airport, speaking with passengers and staff to understand pain points and identifying key moments in the arrivals process.
Passengers shared that arriving at Toronto Pearson could be confusing. Often jet-lagged and tired, they struggled to understand where to go, who to ask for help, and what information they needed to present for immigration and customs. As a result, CBSA officers were often asked airport-related questions—like where to catch a taxi or connecting flight—while airport staff were asked to respond to inquiries about declaration forms and global entry.
Building on these insights, the designers developed six prototypes, including two that have now been permanently implemented at Toronto Pearson.
This work represents a radical shift for the aviation industry, that you can and must listen to the passengers—the people you’re serving.
Owen Rogers, Executive Portfolio Director, IDEO
Toronto Pearson's redesigned baggage system improves baggage flow and streamlines operations, resulting in dramatically reduced passenger complaints and increased customer satisfaction.
When redesigning the arrivals experience, the team created intuitive signage and simple, color-coded wayfinding routes to expedite the flow of passengers through the departures terminal exit—and keep travelers and staff safe during the pandemic by reducing high-touch interactions.
The team noticed that regardless of whether a passenger was a returning Canadian citizen or not, all arriving international travelers went through a similar immigration process, resulting in inefficiencies like unnecessary wait times and superfluous effort for border officers. Realizing that 70 percent of these passengers are Canadian, IDEO, CBSA, and GTAA designed an expedited lane for Canadian citizens and residents, speeding up the overall immigration experience for all passengers—Canadian or not—and reducing staff workloads. Called “the Canada Lane'' and distinguished by dozens of Canadian flags, the solution offers not only operational efficiency, but a sense of comfort for residents upon returning home.
Customs was another bottleneck in the arrivals experience. Passengers were often unsure of what to declare and nervous. The designers created a series of distinctive, welcoming signs that greet arriving passengers and help them understand the customs process awaiting them. Taking a cue from the Canada Lane and other airports around the world, the team built a color-coded exit lane system that allows travelers to self-select. If a passenger has nothing to declare, they enter through the green lane. If they need to declare items, they go through a red lane. 19,846 passengers went through the prototype and 95% self-selected into the correct lane.
These new designs offered unforeseen safety benefits for both passengers and staff when COVID-19 spread to Canada a few months after completion. Both the expedited immigration lanes and customs touchpoints allow passengers to move more swiftly through the airport, and reduce high-touch interactions with airport and CBSA staff. “Working with GTAA and IDEO to reimagine the arrivals process was a real success,” says Andrew Lawrence, Director General, of the Travellers Transformation Directorate at CBSA. “It demonstrated how integrated the GTAA and CBSA need to be to deliver a world class arrivals experience, while helping keep Canadians safe.”
Customer happiness and safety don’t have to be mutually exclusive, nor do creativity and protocol. GTAA and IDEO’s collaboration proves that embracing innovation and putting consumers first can transform highly-regulated businesses for the better—even in difficult times.
As GTAA looks forward to the rest of 2021 and rebuilding Toronto Pearson’s business post-COVID, they see design as the cornerstone of their strategy. “Craig Bradbrook, our COO, is pushing us to now rethink our operations by design,” says Michael Ross, Director of Commercial and Business Partnerships at GTAA. “Our passenger traffic has taken a massive hit during COVID. But we can build back better through design and a passenger-centered approach.”