If you’re a parent, what’s the one thing you wish your kid would do on a plane? 

Even if you’re not a parent, what’s the one thing you wish other people’s kids would do on a plane? 

If you answered “sleep,” then you are correct! 

Well, thanks to Rick Bellioti, Director of Innovation and Customer Experience Design at San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, more kids are sleeping on more flights. 

And it all comes down to innovating better customer experiences.

I had a chance to ask him how he’s innovating San Diego’s customer experience and he had some great responses (including how to get kids to sleep on planes, don’t worry). 

I’m sure you’ll find as much value in them as I did.

Let’s dive in!

How innovation should be approached 

When Rick moved to the new customer experience and innovation team a few years ago, San Diego was really paving the way for airport innovation to center on customer experience. 

And that meant he had to actually lay out what innovation meant for the airport and what goals they hoped to achieve.

So he started by identifying areas where innovation could:

  • Improve customer experience
  • Reduce costs
  • Increase operational efficiency
  • Increase revenue

These 4 pillars laid the groundwork for the challenges innovation could and, more importantly, should tackle. 

Rick also did an amazing job avoiding the biggest technology pitfall we see so often in the business world: Starting with technology and then trying to figure out how it can help your business instead of starting with the problem you want to fix.

But Rick knew he had to approach it the right way — by starting with design thinking and really, really understanding the customers.

And that meant getting that sweet, juicy data to guide their choices. 

But, when it comes to customer experience, getting good data presents a whole new set of challenges.  

The problem with measuring feelings 

What you measure is what you improve, right?

But customer experience is by definition subjective, so what exactly are you measuring? 

You might want your airport filled with the sounds of slot machines and the smell of cigarettes, for example. But for me? I usually try to make sure I don’t have a layover in Vegas. 

So, in CX, the challenge becomes not what you measure but how you measure it. And Rick spent a lot of time pinning down and recalibrating his metrics.

Once he did, then he could measure whether innovations implemented in the San Diego airport were actually bringing good feelings or not. 

What he didn’t do was sit down with his team and discuss what everyone in the room thought the customer would want and just do that.

And that’s why San Diego is one of my favorite airports in the world.

Customer experience innovation in action

Alright, you’ve been patiently waiting for the answer to this, so it’s time we spilled the beans…

What does innovation have to do with getting kids to sleep on a plane?


One of the problems thrown into the design-thinking process Rick and his team developed centered on creating interactive play areas for kids that went beyond the simple slides of other airports. And they thoughtfully and creatively worked up some magic in their innovation lab.

Now they have one of the best areas for children in any airport. And while it may seem this is designed to improve the parents’ customer experience, it really is a benefit for everyone. 

Parents no longer have to force their kids to sit quietly, kids no longer scream or complain about being forced to sit quietly and, those of you without kids, can avoid the area if you want to.

Best of all: the kids get to expend some of that energy before they get on the flight. And it’s another reason San Diego airport is so great to fly out of.

Instead of having little Damien all hopped-up on sugar sitting behind you kicking your seat and screaming for 6 hours, you have a sweet little angel napping. It’s awesome. 

Technology should be felt, not seen 

Some other challenges Rick and his team have tackled, are working on, or are going to be working on in their innovation lab include:

  • Continuous improvements to airport parking
  • Providing better service for passengers who need assistance
  • Becoming more sustainable and reducing waste
  • Making improvements to traffic flow in and out of the airport

Even if you’ve only ever seen an airport on TV, you’ll know parking is a constant nightmare. So any improvements there will improve the customer experience for so many visitors.

Most of these problems can be solved with technology, but sometimes the best solution isn’t technological. And, for Rick, that’s OK. Innovations don’t just mean fancy gadgets.

And even for the technologies they do deploy, Rick would rather they improve the customer experience without even making their presence known. The best possible outcome is to have a customer smile a little when they get to their gate and not even know why. 

Sometimes, the best solutions for customer experience aren’t obvious. 

They’re felt, not seen. 

This post is based on a TechTables podcast with Rick Belliotti. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to TechTables here. 

PS: You can also email me at joe@techtablespodcast.com for anything related to the podcast and joe.toste@nagarro.com if you are interested in learning more about Nagarro and our philosophy on #thinkingbreakthroughs. 

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