Chief Customer Experience Officer – San Antonio International Airport, With Karen Ellis – CB44

Episode Overview

Some people love flying, but many view it as a hassle — and a big part of said hassle is the airport itself. I found it interesting that our work in customer experience is now expanding to airports, and Karen Ellis of the San Antonio International Airport (previously in somewhat similar roles in Houston and Atlanta) was good enough to come on the podcast and discuss some of her initiatives and challenges.

About Karen

Jeanne Bliss Karen EllisKaren W. Ellis serves as the Chief Customer Experience Officer for the San Antonio International Airport System which comprises the San Antonio International Airport and Stinson Municipal Airport. Karen has almost 20 years of leadership and customer service experience in the Aviation industry by serving with the following airports: the Houston Airport System, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and now with SAT.
Karen holds a Master of Science Degree in Human Resources Management from Troy State University and a Bachelor of Science Degree from Jacksonville State University. In conjunction with her educational background, Karen is a Certified Customer Care Manager by the Customer Service Institute and a certified Customer Service Manager by the Customer Service Institute of America
Through Toastmaster’s International, Karen has achieved the status of Competent Toastmaster, Advanced Toastmaster Bronze and Competent Leader with Toastmasters International and served as President of the International Customer Service Association-Georgia Chapter. She currently serves as
the Co-Chair of the Customer Service Working Group for Airport Council International and Chair of the Training Committee for the American Association of Airport Executives.

Karen’s Path To Her Current Role

She began by selling travel insurance. “Once you start working in an airport, you’ll never leave an airport,” she says. A parking manager approached her with an assistant manager role at Atlanta’s airport (one of the world’s busiest). There’s an amazing amount of traffic into and out of that airport, so working with the parking division was interesting — but after about two years, Karen wanted a more customer service-focused role. “Day in and day out helping people was where I found the most excitement.”

She worked in the customer service role at Atlanta’s airport for over 12 years. That’s 12 years of 250,000+ travelers moving through daily. Talk about volume. The airport was also being rebuilt at the time, and she overlapped with the 9/11 events.

Customer Service Training Program

She began one in Atlanta that trained 11,000 employees in two years. The focus was on consistent messaging across all customer touchpoints. The program was so successful that the deputy director of Atlanta’s airport was hired by Houston’s airport system. He called her up and wanted the program in his airports, so she moved. She became a Customer Relations director, which was more responsibility — marketing the Houston airports, and providing a customer perspective to other aviation leaders in the area. Essentially, her job became more proactive and less reactive.

The San Antonio Role

In San Antonio, she has ownership of the following for the airport:

  • Marketing
  • Public relations
  • Customer experience
  • Ambassador programs

If you follow the last three sections, each time she moved to a new role, she took on slightly more responsibility — to the point that now she’s managing multiple customer channels for San Antonio’s airport.

What Work Needed To Be Done?

It started with listening. That’s everything.

The second aspect was building relationships with tenants/stakeholders in the airport. The airport has a saying that security is everyone’s responsibility — and in Karen’s mind, so is customer experience. Most employees in an airport don’t work for the same company, but travelers don’t think about it that way. They just assume everything is part of the airport experience, so Karen needs to make sure the experience is seamless. How does the experience at a newsstand, for example, feel the same as at a bar and at a kiosk? Those experiences are technically “owned” by three different companies, so how can the experience be unified within the airport?

Walking The Airport

She still does this every day since she began. Talking to passengers, stakeholders, etc.

In the first 30 days: she attended meetings/briefings of tenants/stakeholders. She introduced herself and listened to their challenges and what their parent company was listing as priorities.

At the end of the first 30 days: she had a 30/60/90 day overview. (Benchmarks at all three durations.) Each week they did assessments on how close they were, and at the end of each month, they assessed where they stood.


The 30-day goal was getting feedback from passengers and stakeholders/tenants. Assess everything and get feedback around voice of the customer.

The 60-day goal was setting up training initiatives. She needed to get trainers in-house — she wanted employees of the airport to be able to see/interact with their trainers in the building — and then certify them. Then, she had to create and develop the training presentations. Right now they’re doing about 3-4 trainings per month of 20-30 people, but that is expected to ramp up.

The 90-day goal was “sense of place,” which is essentially branding San Antonio within the airport. They want travelers to understand the rich history of San Antonio when they arrive. Most people know Riverwalk and Alamo, but there’s much more. They are also installing a Kids Zone that features history of San Antonio elements as well.

Being Proactive And Repeatable 

Karen works with a Facilitation committee (stakeholders, etc.) Her team tracks customer comments and sees what issues are trending. The trending issues are brought to this committee monthly and everyone with a stake discusses what’s going on.

Her team also conducts satisfaction surveys quarterly. The surveys span 36 areas (essentially touchpoints) and feedback/action plans are given. The whole survey is set up 1-5 (5 is highest), and their 2016 average was about 4.3 across the airport.

“Because we’re in the airport all the time, we can become oblivious to an issue,” she says, “but when it’s brought to our attention, we can take care of it pretty quickly.”

How Do They Release The Surveys?

A team of volunteers uses iPads to capture feedback from travelers. They do about 350 per quarter, and the question set for arriving passengers (busier) is smaller.

Uniting The Stakeholders

The Facilitation committee already existed when Karen arrived, which was beneficial. She also believes that the San Antonio airport stakeholders genuinely want to do a good job — they just need the road map for what that looks like. She also wants to make sure everyone realizes this is their airport, so the integration aspect is important.


One of the biggest negatives on surveys was poor WiFi. Overall, they needed to increase the speed, bandwidth, number of power outlets, signage — and the WiFi needed to be free. This was an interesting discussion because it wasn’t necessarily the WiFi tactic — i.e. deliverable elements — it was more WiFi experience — what will make customers feel positively about this specific airport’s WiFi?

The Pay It Forward Question

I ask all my guests this one: “What do you know NOW that you wish you had know THEN?” Karen’s answers:

  • It takes a village: Everyone has to be laser-focused on a common goal for that goal to be achieved. Airports are an unique hospitality ecosystem and people can’t really function in silos.
  • Avoid silos: You can’t do it all on your own. Relationship-building is crucial, and that’s very hard to do out of a silo’ed mentality.

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