UX Lessons from a Delta Airport Terminal

15 July 2014

One of my recent trips took two friends and me on a domestic Delta flight, and when I arrived at LaGuardia airport I was floored by the new Terminal C. This terminal, which Delta spent over $100 million renovating, incorporated a new terminal experience that made the entire traveling process way more enjoyable. At the time I was jokingly waxing a bit poetic to my friends about this life-changing experience and the lessons it could teach about user experience (UX) design, but eventually these thoughts became more crystallized. So, please bear with me while I attempt to explain what I think I learned from as urbane or potentially uninteresting a setting as an airport terminal.


Traveling out of any NYC-area airport can be a harrowing experience, where getting to the airport is itself often a stressful journey. The new Delta terminal, however, put a positive spin on the last stage before our flight. One big difference with the terminal is immediately obvious: iPads everywhere. iPads are starting to pop up in airports all over the country, but what was unique about these iPads is that they were incredibly well-integrated with the central dining area experience.

The center of the new Terminal C

The center of the new Terminal C

In the middle of the gate area was one central restaurant, which had plenty of bar seating around it and in its periphery lots of four-person tables. Each seat at the bar and at the tables had its own iPad.

These iPads, customized by a company called OTG Management, have a terminal-specific app that allows users to order food and drinks from the central restaurant, as well as concessions and goods from nearby stands. Anything ordered is delivered by a waiter, who is happy to give you an introduction to the app but otherwise leaves you alone. There are credit card readers within reach of every iPad, and plenty of outlets and USB plugs built into the tables and bar. The iPad has a few other pre-installed apps on it and the ability to browse the internet freely.

Ordering food

An appealing menu

(Here's a NY Times article about the new terminal.)

How did this achieve a more pleasurable experience?

As my friends and I sat and ordered some food and drinks, I became increasingly surprised at just how pleasant all of this was. It's crazy to think that an iPad could make such a big difference. There are a few major factors for why I think this worked, factors which can apply to other kinds of product design decisions as well.

There was a pleasant surprise element

Seeing dozens or hundreds of iPads might be a surprise to some travelers, but this is increasingly common in airport terminals. The surprise here was the integration with the restaurant and engaging with the terminal in a new way.

There's an excitement generated with trying out a new experience or technology. It's a powerful way to engage a new user, one in which the bar gets set high - something new is fun to try, but not if it is more complicated or less convenient than the status quo. But, if a new product can deliver a truly good experience and hit that higher bar, as the new terminal experience did, the resulting enjoyment and goodwill are really powerful.

Everything was intuitive and "Just Worked"

The main app that linked the iPad to the restaurant and stores was professionally designed and executed. There were no obvious bugs, no lag, and nothing jarring in the design. This high quality of execution is something we often take for granted as consumers, but it is not easy to pull off.

Moreover, the design of the entire user interaction was incredibly intuitive. The flow between the different parts of the app worked exactly how you would expect: you add things to your 'cart' like you do for any other e-commerce experience, and you pay for your order with the nearby credit card reader.

Everything was so intuitive that it is almost boring to analyze, which is a sign of how well it was designed. Of course the app worked the way it did, because what else would make sense in this context? People deep in the world of design say that good design is one that users don't notice. The iPad experience here is a great example of that philosophy - everything "Just Worked" as I expected. Allowing a user, especially a new one, to engage effortlessly with the product requires a lot of careful design and thought.

It changes the traveler's relationship with the airport

The airport experience usually feels like a hassle. You have to get to the airport, then go through the security process, and finally you arrive at your gate...only to face a flight that's delayed. Maybe you get a drink at a bar near your gate, but you might be worried about the status of your flight. The locus of power in this situation is not with you, the traveler.

The new Delta terminal experience tries to reverse this. You can rest comfortably in the diner area with your electronics plugged in, with food and drinks brought to you. The iPad will keep you updated about delays ( euphemistically called "new boarding times") and gate status. The new experience gives travelers more peace of mind and a greater sense of control over the situation.

The app knows all, don't worry

The app knows all, don't worry

Everything was done in moderation

The new terminal worked because it didn't try to do too much in too flashy a way.

First, it fits well into the social context. Solo travelers get something to do. Groups traveling together can take over a four-person table top, but members of that group who want to do their own thing can start using the iPad. There is also a charger station at every seat, which eliminates the awkard dance of positioning yourself close to chargers in the gate area. Instead of trying to create new kinds of social contexts, the iPads instead facilitate the different contexts travelers already seek.

The new experience also treads well the line between "old" and "new" tech.iPads still feel new-aged to users, but are familiar and unintimidating; most users do not need to be educated in how to use an iPad. The iPads in the terminal feel like a logical integration of technology into the "old" terminal world, just a far enough step into the future to appear cool, without being so advanced as to discourage users from engaging with them.

But wait, it's also a great product from a business standpoint

OTG Management didn't just create an improved airport terminal experience, but they also created a highly monetizable product. To give a sense of the potential opportunity, OTG paid Delta $50 million to create this terminal experience and to run the concessions.

The iPad experience is monetizable in many ways. There are ads on the iPad screensaver, as well as in the browser when you surf. There are special apps from companies like AutoTrader.com or Avis, who surely paid for this placement.

Paid placement apps, most likely?

Paid placement apps, most likely?

A large paid app

A large paid app

The main app to order food and drinks is loaded with different psychological tactics to encourage users to spend more money. There are beautiful pictures of every dish and drink, the menu seemed ordered to put common and higher-margin items in more prominent places, and (a real kicker) different menu items would propose add-ons that were checked 'yes' by default.

Would I like it double? Why yes, if you insist

Would I like it double? Why yes, if you insist

Your last chance to get coffee

Your last chance to get coffee

Moreover, the app seems tuned to keep all stakeholders happy. Delta gets happier customers and goodwill, as well as some more opportunities to push other products like their credit card. Even the waiters of the terminal's restaurant stand to benefit, because the app encourages a default 18% gratuity.

OTG Management is a private company, so it's hard to tell exactly how profitable these redesigned airport terminals can be. But with a large check made out to Delta, OTG is signaling that it thinks the revenue opportunity is significant.

The new Delta terminal experience blends a well-executed new user experience with a monetizable business idea, which creates a win-win for everyone involved: Delta, OTG, employees, and ultimately the consumers.

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