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Dato’ Iskandar Mizal Mahmood, managing director of Malaysia Airports, talks to Joe Bates about his company’s customer service strategy, ASQ successes and recovering from the global pandemic.

Anyone who has ever visited Malaysia, particularly those lucky enough to have been on holiday there, will know that they can expect a warm welcome and, more often than not, excellent customer service levels.

Indeed, at an ACI customer service conference held in Kuala Lumpur over a decade ago, it was suggested to me that good customer service is very much in the DNA of Malaysians.

Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Malaysian airports have traditionally performed well in ACI’s annual Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer experience survey. 

The success continued this year with Kuala Lumpur (KUL) and Langkawi (LGK) finishing joint top in their respective Best by Size and Region categories for airports handling Over 40 million and 2 to 5 million passengers annually. 

Malaysia Airports’ managing director, Dato’ Iskandar Mizal Mahmood, believes that the company’s commitment to “hosting joyful connections” for those passing through its airports, effectively means that it constantly strives to find ways of doing things better to be more operationally efficient and enhance the airport experience for visitors.

“Malaysia Airports values our guests more than anything else, and even more so during these demanding times, so yes, customer-centricity is one of our company’s core values,” reveals Mahmood. 

“Indeed, when you put the four core values together – Integrity, Customer centricity, Accountability and New ideas, it abbreviates to I CAN, which helps motivate us to do everything in our ability to ‘Host Joyful Connections’ with all our stakeholders. 

“This philosophy means that good customer service is always high on our agenda, and even more so as ASQ is part of our corporate scorecard.” 

How important is new infrastructure, such as new terminals or the modernisation of existing ones to enhancing the airport experience for passengers?

Mahmood says: “Part of improving the passenger experience involves the modernisation of existing infrastructure which, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, will include the refurbishment of our washrooms, and replacement of the baggage handling system and our iconic Aerotrains.

“I believe the projects show that we empathise with our passengers and prioritise essential services at the airport. 

“That being said, in line with our Airports 4.0 initiative, we are also innovating the airport experience through EZPaz, our very own biometric identification, self-service bag drop system and upgrading our mobile MYAirports App in addition to introducing initiatives such as Airport Collaborative Decision Making [A-CDM] and 3D Internet of Things at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. 

“Embracing digitalisation and new technology is part of our Airports 4.0 initiative in which we seek to provide a safe and world-class passenger experience through a fully integrated digital ecosystem.” 

As previously reported in Asia-Pacific Airports magazine, Malaysia Airports’ pioneering travel retail e-commerce platform, shopMYairports, is designed to make shopping easier and more convenient for passengers at its Malaysian airports by allowing passengers to order retail items on their mobiles and have them delivered to their departure gate or aircraft seat. 

Mahmood notes that a similar initaitive called shop@saw has been rolled out at the Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) owned and operated Istanbul-Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Turkey.

Having admitted that digitalisation remains a key priority going forward for Malaysia Airports as it bids to increase the operational efficiency of its airports and ease of use for today’s more tech-savvy travellers, Mahmood is quick to note that he hasn’t forgotten about the important role people play in the provision of customer service excellence at airports. 

“Our people are important to us and play a key role in the delivery of excellent customer service, and this is something that is demonstated to us every year by the positive feedback we get from passengers in the ASQ survey,” he says. 

“I would go as far as stating that the people element has always been recognised as the strength of Malaysia Airports in delivering customer service excellence. This is perhaps best reflected by the continued improvement of our ‘courtesy’ and ‘helpfulness’ scores in the ASQ survey.” 

Malaysia Airports’ certainly prides itself on its training programmes that remind staff of the importance of good customer service, and of the need to maintain a sharp focus on service quality and high-standards to ensure a good experience for all passengers across its airport network.

Referring to one particular initiative, Mahmood says: “Our special ‘Host Culture’ programme is geared towards service operational excellence. It is designed to 

further internalise the customer-centricity mindset and skillset of our staff to ensure that meeting the needs of our guests remains a top priority.” 

How big a thrill for him is it that Kuala Lumpur International Airport finished joint top in the ASQ category for Asia- Pacific airports handling over 40 million passengers per annum in 2021? 

“All of us at Malaysia Airports were thrilled by this result, but beyond the recognition received, it shows that every effort – no matter how big or small – matters, and that if we all work together on a united front, anything is possible,” enthuses Mahmood. 

“Our customer service strategy and focus makes me confident in the ability of our staff to make a difference every time, and in the case of Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, make them two of the best airports in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Any suggestion that KUL and LKG’s 2021 ASQ success means that they can now sit back and rest on their laurels is, however, quickly dismissed by Mahmood.

“Visitors to both airports, and indeed all our airports in 2022 and beyond, can be assured that our efforts to improve our customer service levels will continue as we seek to enhance the passenger experience and aspire to host joyful connections for all our stakeholders,” he says.

When asked if he can provide some examples of customer service excellence at KUL that might have contributed towards its most recent ASQ success, Mahmood suggests that its triumph was more likely due to the overall effort to enhance the airport experience for visitors rather than any individual action. 

“Fundamentally, it’s about focusing on the most important elements of the Voice of Customers feedback derived from ASQ surveys, and being agile enough to adapt to industry changes,” he replies. 

“One example of this was our decision to use our ‘Host Culture’ programme to enhance the courtesy and helpfulness levels of all frontline staff. Of course many other elements come into play, such as the modernisation and upgrade of existing infrastructure. 

“We also believe that we have actively enhanced the airport experience by engaging more with our passengers through initiatives such as cultural performances, and putting a greater emphasis on hygiene, health and safety by ensuring operational excellence in all our airport services.”

Talking about Langkawi International Airport, Mahmood says that its ASQ Awards success was very gratifying for Malaysia Airports, which continues to invest in enhancing services and the key infrastructure at the country’s six largest gateway. 

“The success of Langkawi International Airport was, in part, due to infrastructure upgrades, but it is also a combination of the people, processes and changed perceptions of the airport that resulted in it achieving the No.1 spot last year,” notes Mahmood.

Mahmood certainly has a high regard for ACI’s ASQ programme, which he considers an invaluable tool for Malaysia Airports in its quest for customer service excellence. 

“Other than the fact that it is highly reputable recognition from ACI, the ASQ programme provides the global benchmark for Malaysia Airports to continuously improve our services. It also provides the Voice of the Customers feedback so that we can always prioritise what’s important for our passengers,” he says. “The programme also instils confidence in potential investors, partners and future businesses towards Malaysia Airports.” 

Good customer service is, of course, subjective and open to interpretation meaning that it often means different things to different people.

In reply to what it means to him, Mahmood says: “As an airport operator, good customer service is expected to be delivered perfectly while also finding ways to delight passengers beyond their expectations. To put it simply, it is a perfect blend of people, process, place and perception.”

Like everywhere else in the world, the last two plus years of pandemic related travel restrictions have made for a difficult time for one of the world’s largest airport operators.

In 2019, a record 141.2 million passengers passed through its network of 39 Malaysian airports and Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) in Turkey.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) handled 62.3 million passengers on its own in 2019 and Malaysia’s next biggest gateways – Kota Kinabalu, Penang, Kuching and Langkawi – all recorded all-time high traffic figures that year as did SAW, which welcomed 35.4 million passengers.

Those figures dropped sharply in 2020 and 2021, but rather than dwell on the past, Mahmood notes that the demand for air travel has been encouraging since the April 1, 2022, re-opening of Malaysia’s borders to all international visitors and the further easing of travel restrictions from May 1.

“Though international passenger movements are only just beginning to pick up, it is worth noting that the number of international passengers handled at our Malaysian airports instantly jumped by 53%, compared to March, when the country’s borders re-opened to all travellers,” enthuses Mahmood.

“It should also be remembered that this significant upturn from the previous month happened despite a very mixed backdrop of international travel and border restrictions across the Asia-Pacific region, with some countries only slowly beginning to relax their requirements and restrictions still in place in others.

“The latest preliminary figures up to the third week of May show that international passenger numbers was 65% up on April 2022, so growth is finally back on the agenda and, hopefully, here to stay.”

The return of international traffic has also boosted the number of passengers flying on domestic services as many visitors choose to travel to more than one destination while in Malaysia or travel onwards to a final destination via KUL or any of the country’s other international airports. The knock on affect of this resulted in overall passenger numbers at KUL soaring by 89% in the first few weeks of May 2022 compared to the entire month of April.

Mahmood remarks: “Is it possible to say when passenger numbers could return to 2019 levels? I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I believe that it is too early to make any predictions as there is still much uncertainty surrounding the recovery of the aviation industry. The factors that could facilitate the lifting of travel barriers are also still fluid. 

“However, what I can say is that we are humbled by recent traffic developments, and although this is just the beginning of a gradual recovery, all the signs are positive that it will continue for the rest of year, making me optimistic for the future.”

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