CX Interview: Karen Ellis, Chief Customer Experience Officer, San Antonio Airport

Sev Fevzi


August 9, 2023

Ambassadors Info

Ambassadors at San Antonio Airport are there to help passengers through the journey.

© San Antonio Airport

On the last day of July, San Antonio Airport (SAT) reported its busiest day ever, with 41,560 passengers flying in and out of the gateway, according to throughput data from the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). The previous record of 37,998 was set on March 8, 2019, before the pandemic began.

The record builds on a strong performance the prior month: June 2023 was the busiest June on record with 949,830 passengers. With the strong traffic rebound, SAT is keeping a close eye on ensuring its customer experience (CX) measures up to what passengers expect.

Here, Modalis Infrastructure Partners’ Associate, Airport Customer Experience & Business Development, Sev Fevzi, talks to SAT’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, Karen Ellis, about how her approach to CX.

Karen Ellis Chief CX Officer San Antonio Airport

Ellis: "You cannot enhance the customer’s experience if you don’t know who they are (or) what their journey looks like."

© San Antonio Airport

In a recent conversation, you mentioned SAT’s Customer Experience 2.0. Can you tell us more about this, please?

Yes. SAT Customer Experience 2.0 is our way of refocusing our attention on the phrase ‘the new normal’ which has become popular since the pandemic. The initial thought was to determine who our customers are today, and what their journey looks like post-pandemic.

I am a firm believer that you cannot enhance the customer’s experience if you don’t really know who they are, and secondly, if you don’t know what their journey looks like. As we know, things are different throughout the world and airports are no different. It is extremely important at SAT that we know and understand our customers' wants, needs, and expectations.

What is the best way to develop that awareness and how do you work across various departments to underscore the importance of continuous CX success?

Communication and data analytics are two ways to develop awareness and understanding among departments regarding CX. Hearing the voice of our customers and communicating their feedback ensures that we are moving in the right direction. Data analytics ensures the accuracy of customer feedback. It also reduces and/or eliminates the guesswork and individual opinions regarding the voice of the customer.

US airports including SAT seem busier than ever. In your expert view, have the fundamentals of CX altered post-pandemic, and what has that meant for the way you operate now, and will do going forwards?

SAT recently had the highest number of customers ever, so to say that airports are busier than ever is spot on. For us, the fundamentals have not changed dramatically post-pandemic. The basic wants, needs, and expectations are similar, however, the way they are offered has changed.

For example, pre-pandemic some of our customers wanted us to hold their hand through their check-in process and aid them to the gate. Post-pandemic, those same customers want self-service options. They want us to be close but not too close. This required a shift in the way we provide service, which took some getting used to. I see this continuing in the future, which for us means no more hand-holding. But we will be there if hand-holding is what they would like.

SAT airportCX Personas FINAL2

Using Modalis Infrastructure Partners' airportCX module, the advisor has been able to identify nine travelers types at SAT.

© Modalis Infrastructure Partners

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What would you recommend to other leaders when it comes to reinventing customer experience?

Know your customers and their journey. I can’t stress that enough. You can do all the reinvention you want but if you are not giving/providing your customers with what they want, need, and desire, it will not enhance their experience. And, if we are being honest with ourselves, that is the key reason for the reinvention.

A new Terminal C will be opened in 2028. How will customer experience management change in light of that?

The SAT new terminal is scheduled to open in 2028 but it is not confirmed that it will be called Terminal C. One thing the new terminal will have is a children’s play area. I was disappointed that after a few years of working to have it installed in 2019, the pandemic caused it to be shut down, then ultimately removed due to the need for increased gate capacity.

Beyond that, the world is evolving and things are changing – and CX will be part of that change. I wish I had a crystal ball so I could see what exactly the future holds for us in the new terminal but it’s not possible. However, my advice remains to reassess customers’ needs every three to five years as a must. Having new and shining objects looks great, but if they are not useful to your customers, they’ll just sit there.