Over the last month or so, I’ve landed up spending far too much time at airports, partially as a result of a complex travel schedule, primarily as a result of flight delays for a plethora of reasons. And it got me thinking.
Maybe open multisided software platforms are like airports. Maybe soon many organisations will look like airports as well. I know, I know, you think I should keep taking the tablets, but please bear with me. Just for a little while.
An airport is a marketplace, open and multisided. Anyone can go to an airport, embarking and disembarking passengers make up a small percentage of overall traffic. Some people pass through there. Some people work there. Some people, apparently, stay there.
There’s a primary purpose to the community: getting on or off planes that take you places.
And there’s a whole pile of activities that relate to the primary purpose:Â Ticketing, Check-in, Security, Departure Lounges, Arrivals Lounges, Baggage Halls.
There’s also a set of activities that deal with special cases of the primary purpose: Immigration, Emigration, Tax Clearance. Health checks for would-be immigrants, sometimes even holding cells for illegal immigrants.
And there’s the usual feedback loop. Complaints counters. Lost Luggage counters.Â Whatever.
Since there’s a lot of through traffic, there are a bunch of other things that happen, overlaps with other marketplaces. Airports are shopping malls. They have churches and other places of worship. They have restaurants and food halls, bookshops and nail salons, shoe-shine seats and children’s amusements, ice-cream parlours and pizza palaces. Airports sometimes have luxury shopping arcades with all those brands, the ones that would make great plays at Scrabble. [How come Paul Smith is the only designer I can think of with a “normal” name?].
People come to get and spend and lay waste their powers. So they need banks and cambios and wechsels and whatever, they need toilets and loos and restrooms and whatever. They need places to sit and stand and walk around and amble aimlessly, even to sleep. Sometimes, when flights get delayed, the borders between these places gets a bit fuzzy.
And to make all this happen, people actually work in airports as well. They too need places to call their own, places where they can change out of civvies and into clothes that say to everyone else “I work here”.
Everywhere there is motion. Of a sort. Queues form for no apparent reason, then disappear for similarly invisible ones.
In the old days, airports were fairly basic, there was no concept of customer or service or time or quality. In the old days, airports were about the primary purpose and nothing else. In fact you couldn’t even go there unless you were a departing or arriving passenger.Â In the old days, airports tended to be locked-in components of an airline’s attempts at vertical integration, a classic monopoly play. In the old days, information about the status of flights and passengers and baggage was sparse and unreliable.
Now the monopolies are beginning to break, and customers are coming to the fore again. Conversing with each other. Occasionally transacting business as well. Fluid and active. Global and open and realtime.
Over time, a bunch of standards evolved to make this simpler and easier. I guess I’m an idealist: I think that airport gates are likely to be similar in dimensions, even if they get manufactured by a host of companies. That escalators and lifts are similar to some extent, even if they compete via a complex array of prices and bundles.Â That passport sizes have converged over time. That Starbucks looks the same everywhere, as does Hermes or Harrods. That a loo is a loo is a loo.
Some airports are niche, serving a specific and narrow market. Some are satellites. Some are regional. Some are global. Some are domestic. Some are international. Some are everything and nothing.
You can go from airport to airport via coach or train or car, not just plane. You can do this privately or using public services. Airports collaborate and compete with each other.
Some things you can do online and in advance, some things you must do online, some things you can only do physically.
There’s a lot we can learn from airports, things we can apply to software and to organisation.