Analyzing Google Reviews for Edmonton International Airport

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I was recently working on a task for my internship that involved converting raw guest feedback into intelligent, visualized information that could then be used as a benchmark for continuous improvement. Most of the data included responses on a scale of 1-5 to questions like "how satisfied were you with the service/pool/bar etc." While these are straightforward, the questionnaire also asked hotel guests for comments that are more difficult to quantify. A quick search led me to this post which highlights Google's Cloud Natural Language that can perform syntax analysis, sentiment analysis and entity analysis. The example in the post analyzed over 400 Airbnb reviews for a listing in Boston and produced an analysis with entity, sentiment score and number of mentions. On the positive side, we can infer that guests like the location, value, stay and Sean (presumably the host), while on the negative side, guests didn't enjoy the noise, mattress, parking etc. 

I wanted to apply the same to Google reviews for EIA, but this involves coding that is beyond my capabilities. Looking for help within my social circle didn't lead to much either, so I decided to go about it the long way - sourcing the data, analyzing each review for sentiment,  categorizing key elements and counting the number of instances of each. My intent was to distill over 500 reviews of EIA into positive and negative sentiments so I could understand what travellers thought of Edmonton International, my favourite airport. 

 

PROCESS

Unfortunately, there there aren't any open data sets for Google reviews. I tried using a web scrapping tool like Import.io to easily pull in the information but this didn't work either. I realized I had to individually copy and paste the information into Excel which wasn't as tedious as it sounds. I only had to scroll down far enough until all the reviews were loaded, copy and paste into Excel and then clean up the data. I imagine Google provides businesses with all of this data through My Business, but unfortunately I did not have this luxury. 

Of the 517 reviews, only 295 included any text with the rest just being star ratings. At first I figured I could break each sentence down to its words, count frequency and be done, but realized that a word by itself doesn't offer much meaning. This approach also fails to take into account the importance of context; the word "good" in a sentence can signal a positive experience, but one that contains "not good" would mean the opposite. Context is key. 

With no other tools at my disposal, my best approach was to read each review, understand the sentiment being conveyed and determine its frequency. I came up with a broad bucket of categories as defined below. 

  1. Overall Experience
  2. Check-in 
  3. Security/Customs/Immigration
  4. Baggage Services
  5. Retail and Amenities
  6. Parking

Further notes about the process:

  • Words that conveyed the same meaning - what I call sentiment redundancy - were grouped together. For example, friendly staff/helpful staff more or less mean the same and I didn't make a distinction between these 
  • Some reviews may be outdated and may no longer apply, but I have included them regardless. For example, one comment was on the lack of Uber service, but the airport has since allowed Uber
  • Reviews current as of June 4, 2018

 

RESULTS

The data shown above is interactive. Hovering over the bar chart will give you an indication of the number of instances for each comment. The filters also allow you to display entries based on category, frequency and whether the comment was in a positive or negative context. Not surprisingly, the highest frequency at 52 is a catchall entry that captures all those comments that simply state the airport is nice or excellent or great or best. You can make the argument that "good" at 20 times is similar, but I chose to distinguish between them to provide some variety. 

 

Overall Experience

Filtering out the results to only display those under overall experience we see that there are:

  • 44 instances of reviews where the airport is described as being convenient, easy to navigate and understand with no long lines and 4 instances describing the airport as easy to get to and well connected. The flip side sees comments stating the airport is small (4) with an under-connected terminal (1), not enough moving sidewalks (1) and poor connectivity to the city's downtown (7)
  • 25 instances describe the airport as being clean and another 4 stating the washrooms are clean. Compare this to 1 instance of "dirty washroom", another of "driving area messy" and a third of poorly cleaned walks in the winter
  • 23 comments praise the staff as friendly/helpful and 8 appreciate the airport's level of service. Contrast this with comments of poor service (2), poor management (2), rude or unhelpful staff (1) and staff not being easy to communicate to (1)
  • 10 reviews appreciate the fast and free WiFi compared to 7 that have WiFi issues (slow, poor coverage, connectivity) and 2 that indicate the WiFi isn't secure (go figure - it's a public hotspot, after all)
  • 11 that think the airport is good sized and spacious, 10 that like that "it's not that busy" and 5 that describe it as utilitarian, efficient and functional. On the negative, 6 instances urge the development of more routes and 3 describe it as boring.

Retail/Amenities

For retail and amenities we note:

  • 36 instances of reviewers who are pleased with the variety and quality of food available, another 16 who enjoy the many store options and 3 who specifically mention the Belgium Beer Cafe. On the negative, travellers complain about the poor food choices at the US terminal (2), the lack of services before passing security (2) and the limited and horrible food options (2). Other reviews ask for healthier food options (1), better coffee (1) and better Canadian concessionaires in the US terminal (1)
  • 2 instances love the new Premium Outlet Mall and 1 unfortunate instance of a traveller wanting to check out the mall on a layover but being unable to store their luggage 

Security/Customs/Immigration

For these services we see 20 reviews that describe going through security, customs and immigration as fast, 2 reviews call personnel friendly and 1 specifically states immigration as helpful. On the flip side, unhappy reviewers describe busy and slow lines (11), always being selected for pat downs (3) and issues with security personnel or procedure (3). 

Parking

Rather uneventful on the parking side - 3 comments indicate the airport has good parking options and 1 that appreciates the Uber service. On the negative, comments range from not having enough parking at arrivals (2), to parking being expensive (2) and having too many spots reserved for Lexus-only cars (2). 

Check-In & Baggage

Surprisingly, there weren't a lot of comments, especially on the negative side. I anticipated more complaints but could only find 2 on damaged baggage, 1 on slow turnaround of bags after deplaning and 3 on problems with check-in.  

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I undertook this exercise to get an idea of what travellers thought of EIA, both positive and negative. I figured most of the gripes would be about the usual things people complain about when flying - the check-in process, long line ups, missing baggage. Indeed, the majority of the negative comments were about busy/slow lines. Next up, surprisingly, were issues with WiFi (I've never had problems with the WiFi and EIA does offer faster WiFi if you sign up for their free rewards program.) People also complain about poor connectivity to the airport due to limited transportation and overpriced cab services. Hopefully these are somewhat alleviated with news on Uber being allowed at the airport and funding for ETS' 747 bus route. Unfortunately, LRT service to the airport is still decades away.  

On the plus side, passengers love travelling through EIA thanks to its friendly staff, navigability and the many retail and food options. Assuming most of the passengers are local Edmontonians, I found it amusing we describe our airport as utilitarian, functional, efficient and "not that busy"; perhaps it's that Canadian trait of not being too bashful or perhaps it's because Canada's next busiest airport and our rival to the south, Calgary, handles around twice as many passengers. Yes, Edmonton lacks the number of direct routes that Calgary offers, but Calgary has geography, Westjet and is a hub for Air Canada.

I also compared Google reviews for Canada's 8 busiest airports to see how they're doing relative to each other. What's interesting is the "Delta" column which is just the difference between an airport's share of reviews and its share of traffic. I've assumed, of course, that these 8 airports represent 100% of the reviews and traffic. While most of the airports are in line, Calgary lags by 2.77% and Edmonton by 1.08%. Montreal, on the other hand, leads by 3.3%; YUL is 14.33% of passenger traffic but accounts for 17.62% of reviews. The top 4 airports all score below 4 with the exception of Vancouver. Of course, the busier an airport is the more once can expect things to go wrong and the harder it is to please everyone. It would be interesting to determine an "adjusted" score after correcting for number of reviews or annual traffic. I'm not sure how the two are related, if at all.

Table showing top 8 airports in Canada and corresponding review scores on Google

Table showing top 8 airports in Canada and corresponding review scores on Google

Improving passenger experience is a difficult yet crucial task for airports. Difficult because so much is affected by external stakeholders (airlines, retailers, CBSA etc). Important because according to an estimate by the ACI, an increase in passenger satisfaction generates an average growth of 1.5% in non-aeronautical revenues at airports. "Gate anxiety" is very real and EIA has done plenty to address this concern. The airport has implemented Primary Inspection Kiosks (PIK), allowed Uber at the airport and a installed new 4K HDR LED display to show travellers key information. The reviews seem to echo the efforts made by EIA as travellers enjoy the airport for its ease of use, fast-moving lines, friendly staff, free WiFi and many retail and food options. Kudos to the EIA team. 

The Economic Impact of Business Travel on the Canadian Economy

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GBTA held another informative webinar on Tuesday, May 29 highlighting the results of a study compiled by Rockport Analytics on the economic impact of business travel in Canada. The webinar also featured representatives from Air Canada and BCD Travel, the study's sponsors. The following are my observations and takeaways from the webinar. 

 

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

Rockport Analytics developed a model to estimate business travel expenditure for 2016 as this is the last year for which full data sets are available. Data sources include:

  • GBTA's BTI Global Outlook - This is an exhaustive study of business travel, productivity and growth published by GBTA since 2009. 
  • Statistics Canada's Travel Survey of Residents of Canada (TSRC) - Published every quarter, this is a major source of data used to measure the volume, characteristics and economic impact of domestic travel. The survey is comprehensive and covers aspects of travel including origin, destination, duration, type of accommodation, mode of travel etc. It's important to note that this survey covers all kinds of travel, not just business. 
  • Statistics Canada's International Travel Survey (ITS) - The ITS provides statistics on travellers to and from Canada. Information is collected on country of residence, reason for travel, method of transportation, trip expenses etc. 
  • The Economic Contribution of Meeting Activities in Canada - I was not able to find references to this, but a Google search turned up a link to the Business Events Industry Coalition of Canada (BEICC) and their Canadian Economic Impact Study Survey here. I'm unsure whether this is the 

Additional notes on research methodology:

  • Only spending that took place within Canada was included since this is the only portion that ultimately accrues to Canadian GDP. This makes sense; if a businessperson makes a trip between Toronto and Chicago, any expenses incurred in Chicago would not benefit the Canadian economy
  • Only the impact of business-initiated travel and meetings were studied
  • Estimated business spending calculated using the above data sources was then translated into GDP, jobs, wages and taxes using the IMPLAN model of the Canadian economy. IMPLAN, from what I could gather, is an input-output modeling system originally developed by the USDA Forest Service

 

TRIP CHARACTERISTICS

The following is a visualization of the results of the study on trip characteristics. All data is courtesy of Rockport Analytic's research. The interactive charts were compiled using Google Data Studio. 

Here's what I found interesting about the research results: 

  • 90% of business travel in Canada by volume is comprised of domestic trips at 31.8 million
  • Ontario and Quebec account for 67% of business trip destinations by volume at 46% and 21% respectively
  • Alberta accounts for 13% of business trip destination by volume, but makes up 18% of spending. Compare this to Quebec which accounts for 21% of volume but only makes up 15% of spending  
  • Looking at cities, I was surprised to see Edmonton hold the 2nd spot for business travel spending, behind only Toronto. Montreal is second in terms of volume, but Edmonton's average spend per trip is more than 2.5 times that of Montreal
  • Edmonton's average spend per trip at $1,531, is almost 50% more than Calgary's at $1,080! Surprising, again, given the (relative) similar nature of the two cities. Certainly, Edmonton's economy has fared better than Calgary's during the oil & gas downturn and could offer a possible explanation, but I'm not sure if this alone explains the difference. I posed this question during Q&A and was pointed to length of stay as a possible factor, but that it would need to be investigated further. My theory is that because a lot of companies have their headquarters in Calgary, any business-related travel would occur outside the city and any travel spending would accrue to the destination city and not Calgary
  • Even though Vancouver ranks second for average spend per trip at $1,733, Edmonton's edge in terms of volume is enough to push it over Vancouver for total spending at just over $2 billion!
  • Cars and trucks make up the primary mode of transportation at 79% followed by commercial aircraft at 12% - a little surprising given Canada's vast geography. This would suggest that even for domestic trips, most business travel is regional, confirmed by the fact that 82% of business travel in Canada is less than 319 kms, 

 

ECONOMIC IMPACT OF BUSINESS TRAVEL

The infographic below summarizes the research findings. All data is courtesy of Rockport Analytics.

Infographic - Business Impact.JPG

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Business travel forms a crucial part of overall travel and is a major benefactor to the economy. Consider that Florida - the state that recorded the second highest number of overnight stays related to business conventions and home to the nation's most visited destination, Orlando - is on a push to regain business travel spending by capitalizing on "bleisure" - business + leisure. As if 116.5 million visitors and $112 billion in spending weren't enough!

Business travel in Canada is responsible for to 2.6% of Canada's economy at a staggering $40.1 billion. Every dollar spent on business travel returns $1.12 to the Canadian economy, thanks to the multiplier effect. Furthermore, 1 in every 32 workers owes his/her job to business travel.

The webinar provided some great perspective and context to business travel and its impact. The effects are especially pronounced in a country like Canada where 90% of trips are domestic, 82% of which are under 320 kms. It was also interesting (to me, anyway) to note the disparity in spending between Edmonton and Calgary and I would have loved to dive into this in more detail. 

 

The Push for Arrival Duty Free in Canada

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I recently came across the following post on Twitter advocating for duty free purchases upon arrival at Canadian airports.

The coalition of airports are:

  • Ottawa (YOW)
  • Calgary (YYC)
  • Edmonton (YEG)
  • Montreal (YUL)
  • Quebec City (YQB) 
  • Toronto (YYZ)
  • Winnipeg (YWG)
  • Vancouver (YVR)

These airports combine to represent close to 90% of the country's passenger traffic based on numbers published by Statistics Canada. With such a majority of the country's airports advocating for this change, I wondered what's in it for them and why Canada had yet to adopt arrival duty free.

 

WHAT IS DUTY FREE?

Duties are a kind of tax and are defined in the Customs Act of Canada as "those taxes levied or imposed on imported goods." Consequently, duty free shops are licensed places for "the sale of goods free of certain duties or taxes levied....to persons who are about to leave Canada". 

Anyone who has travelled internationally through an airport will be familiar with duty free shops. Most airports are intentionally designed so that you are forced to walk through duty free shops, the idea being that it will increase the likelihood of a purchase. The incentive for an outbound traveller is in making any last chance purchases at a cheaper price given that most duty free goods are exempt from duties and taxes. More information can be found at the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) website here. Whether duty free shopping is a bargain is up for debate as there are several factors that determine how much money, if any, is saved. This doesn't seem to impede spending, however, as worldwide duty free sales are expected to hit $73.6 billion by 2019

Regarding prices at duty free shops, the Customs Act includes a note that says, "The operator of a duty free shop shall ensure that the prices of goods offered for sale at the duty free shop reflect the extent to which the goods have not been subject to duties and taxes." Indeed, the Toronto Star found that purchasing alcohol and tobacco, which are otherwise heavily taxed, can be cheaper at duty free shops and the Canadian government, it seems, would agree as it places strict limits on the amount you can bring back home upon arrival. A list of restrictions can be found here.

 

THE HISTORY OF DUTY FREE SHOPS

Coincidentally, I also came across a recent NPR Planet Money podcast on the history of duty free shops which you can listen to here. The show describes the first duty free shop as having been opened at Shannon airport in Ireland in 1951. The airport was a popular stopping point for flights originating in the Americas as limited aircraft range required planes to land on the first runway after crossing the Atlantic - which happened to be at Shannon. With flying being so expensive back then, you can imagine only celebrities, presidents, prime ministers and kings and queens could afford to fly. Shannon airport hired Brendan O'Reagan to cater to this exclusive clientele, who crafted local dishes like Kerry lamb, Dublin prawns, Limerick butter and even Irish coffee.

In addition to the restaurant, O'Reagan also ran a kiosk that sold mini bottles of whisky and trinkets. He noticed a loophole whereby sailors aboard ships on long voyages could bring aboard rum and whiskey without paying duties. On a return trip to Shannon from the States via cruise ship, O'Reagan realized the alcohol on the ship was way less expensive than what he had been serving at his own kiosk thanks to the elimination of duties. Armed with this information, O'Reagan petitioned the Irish government to adopt the same exclusions resulting in the world's first duty free shop.

 

WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE AIRPORTS?

Airports in Canada are operated by local non-profit airport authorities that receive no government support and instead pay rent to the federal government. Revenue is primarily obtained through 2 sources - aeronautical and non-aeronautical. A look at Edmonton International Airport's 2017 Annual Report shows us that EIA recorded $215 million in total revenue split across non-aeronautical (30.3%), aeronautical (25.8%) and AIF (43.9%).

AIF is the airport improvement fee which is collected by the airlines on behalf of airports for only those passengers originating at the respective airport. This does not include connecting passengers or non-revenue passengers like flight crew. The fee's purpose is to fund capital programs for airport infrastructure and related financing costs. Air Canada offers a resource for AIF charged across the major airports. I also read a CBC article that stated that not all of this fee makes its way to the airport - airlines receive between 4 and 7 per cent and chalk it up to a "processing fee". 

Aeronautical revenue comprises fees relating to airside operations - aircraft landing fees, terminal fees, US pre-clearance fees, bridge fees etc. In EIA's case, aeronautical revenue represents 25.8% of total revenue generate. 

Non-aeronautical revenue is collected from those activities that are not associated with airside operations like parking, concessions, ground transportation and real estate. Concessions are how airports make money from retail outlets including duty free shops. EIA's annual report has a note under revenue recognition that gives us an idea as to how it earns this revenue. The note states that EIA collects "the greater of agreed percentages of reported concession sales and specified minimum rentals over the terms of respective leases.

It should now be clear that expanding duty free to arriving passengers will directly benefit airports. A greater pool of passengers who shop at these stores translates into higher sales and therefore greater concessions for the airports. More importantly, however, increasing non-aeronautical revenue reduces an airport's dependence on aeronautical revenue. Indeed, ACI - the voice of airports worldwide - stated that non-aeronautical revenues are a vital component in the economics of airports that helps cushion the impact of lower passenger and freight volumes during an economic downturn. Non-aeronautical revenues may also critically determine the financial viability of an airport as they can generate higher profit margins than aeronautical revenues. Whether non-aeronautical can and should be used to reduce airport charges is hotly debated between ACI and IATA, the trade association of the world's airlines, but that's a topic for another day. 

 

THE CASE FOR ARRIVAL DUTY FREE

Canadian Airports Council (CAC), in a submission to the Department of Finance in 2009, stated that implementing arrival duty free will:

  • Repatriate $60-70 million in duty free sales that are currently going to foreign airports
  • Create 400 immediate new jobs representing $13 million in wages
  • Generate $3-7 million in direct federal taxes
  • Position Canada at the forefront of the G8 in this area

The report points to when arrival duty free was implemented in Norway in 2005, causing Copenhagen airport in Denmark to report a 3.2% drop in revenue associated with sales repatriated by Norway. A case study of arrival duty free in Australia is also included where duty free sales grew by 30% with no impact on domestic retail sales. Former Australian Tourism and Customs Minister, Hon. John Brown, is quoted as saying that "Arrival duty free has become an accepted and valued aspect of Australia's welcome to tourists.. the availability of arrival duty free has transformed the first experiences of Australia's airports from a less sterile to a more vibrant and welcoming experience."

 

THE OPPOSITION TO ARRIVAL DUTY FREE

Opposition mostly comes from domestic retail operations who fear arrival duty free will cannibalize their sales, but CAC again points to Australia that saw no decrease in domestic retail sales after implementing arrival duty free, the idea being that sales at arrival duty free are those that would otherwise be purchased at the originating international airport. To support this, the report highlights Hong Kong's Legislative Council Panel on Financial Affairs which stated that "We believe that the sale of duty-free goods on arrival would largely replace the purchase of such equivalent goods outside Hong Kong. Hence, there should not be any overall revenue implications arising from the sale of duty free goods on arrival." 

I would also imagine opposition to come from the federal government because of the loss in taxes. If I'm a tourist travelling to Canada and purchase alcohol on arrival, that is money that would otherwise have gone to a domestic retail operation and subsequently, the government. Whether the additional taxes generated by arrival duty free will be enough to offset this loss remains to be seen. 

Personally, I am a big advocate for airports and support any change that allows airports to increase their revenue generating capabilities. Whether that increased revenue is used to reduce fees for aircraft or whether it's used for future capital investments - the passenger and the local economy benefits - and I'm all for that.