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How Airports Are Designed to Influence Your Behavior

June 22, 2019
12 min read
Crowd of people waiting for check-in
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Airports are complicated.

There are countless moving parts in and around them, from passengers to baggage, ground transportation to cargo, and from airport staff to the planes themselves. And airports serve multiple uses — they’re industrial buildings with a hospitality component and a civic duty.

One of the most important tasks of an airport is to get travelers from the curb to their gate without much human guidance. To accomplish that, they rely heavily on subtle design cues and human psychology.

So travelers, take note: Essentially everything in a terminal is designed specifically to influence your behavior.

Navigating the Airport

In design terms, navigating a terminal is known as wayfinding. “Historically, we rely on directional signage. We walk into a terminal and look for the signs. Where’s security? Where’s the bathroom? Where are the gates?” said Robert Chicas, director of aviation and transportation at design firm HOK. “But I often say the best-planned airport terminals are the ones that have the least amount of directional signage because it’s largely intuitive.”

There’s a whole science behind signage. Everything from the fonts to the colors to the exact height at which signs are displayed is optimized through research — airport designers actually have people walk through terminals wearing special goggles that track their eye movement to determine how long they’re looking at things. And there are numerous design techniques to guide people in the right direction.

(Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG / Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG / Getty Images)

“People are drawn towards warm colors and light, so designers can use these things to pull people in one direction,” said environmental psychologist Sally Augustine, founder of Design With Science, an agency that consults with designers on the physical, mental and emotional impact of spaces on humans. “People also like to stay on the same surface, so if they’re walking on carpet, they have a tendency to keep walking on that same carpet.”

Incorporating simple elements into the overall design of a terminal reduces the need for excessive signage, which can easily confuse and overwhelm travelers. At Incheon International Airport (ICN) Terminal 2, in South Korea, for instance, design firm Gensler took a minimalist approach to signage and instead used details like horizontal light fixtures to pull people through the terminal.

But the physical layout of a terminal can also influence people’s movement through it. “To the greatest extent possible, we try to spatially design the building so that there will be a fairly straightforward set of spatial segments — you’ll have a clear sightline far enough ahead to direct yourself to things you want to get to, whether it’s a gate or the security checkpoint or a concession node,” Derek Moore, aviation practice leader of design and architecture firm SOM, told TPG. If you can see where you’re trying to go, that alleviates the stress of feeling lost, though there are stipulations.

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“That sightline needs to be clear enough and have enough vertical volume that you don’t feel boxed in, but you don’t want it to be so great that the passenger is overwhelmed by the distance and daunted by their journey,” he added. "And if there are too many twists and turns, then you start to become uncertain about where you’re going."

Architects and designers are continually discovering new ways to influence passengers' movement through a terminal. For Rockwell Group’s JetBlue Marketplace at Terminal 5 at New York-JFK, founder and president David Rockwell collaborated with Tony-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell to study the way people move. “We looked at great urban spaces such as Central Park, Grand Central and Times Square, finding ways the urban experience could overlap with the travel experience,” Rockwell said. “Our goal was to develop more fluid pathways for travelers, allowing ways for people to avoid crisscrossing.” The result was the creation of two grandstands that subtly direct inbound travelers to them and outbound travelers around them.

Managing Stress and Anxiety 

For many travelers, getting through a terminal can be one of the more anxiety-inducing parts of their journey, so airport designers do their best to create a calm environment. When it comes to the most stressful part — security — they’re limited in what they can do. If they’re renovating an old terminal, they may not have space to reconfigure the checkpoint. “When we design a new terminal, we try to both widen and lengthen the space where the security checkpoint is,” says Moore. “We try to make it column free and give it enough vertical volume so it doesn’t feel like you’re being pressed through a strainer.”

(Photo by Christian Kramer / The Points Guy)
Navigating through a crowded terminal can be an anxiety-inducing experience to say the least. (Photo by Christian Kramer / The Points Guy)

But the future is bright for screening technology. “Tech is becoming invisible — smaller and faster. It won’t be 'Total Recall,' but with facial recognition, biometrics and remote screening and scanning, it’s not going to be very long before the security screening devices disappear. They won’t be gone, but they’ll be concealed,” said Chicas.

The result will be a less stressful walkthrough experience. But until technology advances — and it might be another decade or so before we get to that level — security checkpoints will still be an anxiety-inducing hassle.

The “relaxing” part of the airport experience happens airside. In order to create a calming atmosphere for passengers, designers rely on some more obvious techniques. “We look for opportunities to incorporate natural light, art and landscape elements,” said Tim Hudson, an aviation leader at Gensler. “That tends to make people feel better and healthier about their environment.”

Beyond simply adding natural light, adjusting it to somewhat match the light levels outside is another way to create a more soothing environment. “At most airports, when the sun goes down, they crank up the lights to try to create the same amount of life in the terminal at night as they do in the day,” said Chicas. “But Vancouver International Airport embraces the time of day. The lights get dimmer at night. It’s still light enough to be able to see where you’re going so you’re never disoriented, but it’s much more quiet. They do this to embrace the actual environment.”

Sound, too, has an impact on wellbeing. “I think lowering the acoustics and decluttering sound stimuli is really important for de-stressing people,” said Moore. “All that sound gets people wound up.”

In the SOM-designed Terminal 2 at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in India, the never-ending drone of announcements is delightfully absent. “Unless it’s an emergency, they don’t have any repeating announcements. They don’t let bars and restaurants play music in the public space,” he said. “Instead, they have this wonderful Indian sitar music playing in the background at low volume. If you’re in an uncrowded area you can hear it.”

Another component of helping travelers feel more comfortable is giving them the illusion of choice. When you’re in an airport, you’re a captive audience in a confined space. But by presenting different options — like multiple types of seats by a gate — airports make the passenger feel as if they have some level of autonomy.

Seating by a gate at Seattle Paine Field (Photo by Ed Pizzarello/TPG)

And when it comes to those seats, comfort goes well beyond back support and cushioning. “Airports try to minimize the number of people who have to sit with their backs to a walkway. That makes people tense,” said Augustine. “Even though you know everyone's been X-rayed, you don’t like people walking behind you. It’s disconcerting.”

It’s a biological reaction that comes from our ancestors. “People feel most comfortable when they have a view of the area around them but they feel secure,” Augustine added. “In our early days as a species, we’d sit up in a tree or at the mouth of a cave being able to look at the world.”

Designing for Food, Drink and Retail

Now, all that focus on alleviating stress — you guessed it — is not necessarily something the airport is doing just to improve your experience.

“A happier person is going to spend more money than someone who is miserable and anxious,” said Chicas. “One thing all airports have in common is a laser-like focus on customer experience. I’m not saying traveler — they’re really seen as customers because they’re the financial lifeblood of these airports.”

Passengers spending money on concessions is one of two main sources of revenue for airports (the other being airlines renting out gate space) so it’s absolutely in the best interest of airports to keep travelers happy and willing to spend.

When it comes to concession space, there are two primary models: “call-to-gate” and “gate-centric,” if you will.

In many international airports, a gate is not announced until just a few minutes before boarding. Therefore in those airports, concessions are usually clustered into a hub just outside of the security checkpoint. As you walk out onto the concourses, you’ll find very few stores or restaurant options, since passengers are simply walking through to board the flight.

In the US, however, gates are announced hours in advance. Many Americans don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of trying to find their gate right before boarding. “They want the ability to control the journey. They’ll say, ‘I know where my gate is, now what’s around me?’” said Hudson.

So, in gate-centric terminals, it’s key to keep a variety of concessions spread out throughout the concourses so that happy, relaxed passengers — in this case, ones that have already located their gate — can meander over and open their wallets. “If you don’t have a short walking distance from the amenities that you’re offering to the gate, people will freak out,” Chicas explained. “If they can’t see their gate from the bar or the shop, it creates a level of anxiety.”

(Photo by altrendo travel / Getty Images)
Shopping and travel are becoming one and the same, with duty-free options in the airports all over the world(Photo by altrendo travel / Getty Images)

But no matter the style of airport, there are several unifying techniques to transform passersby into paying customers.

For instance, those winding pathways through the duty-free shops? Absolutely intentional.

“We link straight lines and lines meeting at right angles with efficiency and productivity, so those kinds of lines are great in security checkpoints,” said Augustine. “But beyond that, you want travelers to be in a more relaxed mindset while they’re waiting — you can switch to curvy lines.” Studies over the last century have indicated that humans prefer curves to straight lines, particularly when it comes to architecture. Whether you’re just emerging from the chaos at security or stepping off your plane after a long flight, you’re more likely to linger in a space with curves. Hence, the undulating pathways of duty-free.

And when it comes to dining, there are myriad ways to inspire travelers to stop for a bite. As US airlines began taking away meal service, food and beverage at the airport suddenly became more important than ever. One technique to inspire purchases: Create the impression that you’re not just dining at the airport, but grabbing a meal in whatever city you’re in.

“At San Francisco's Terminal 2, there are very local concessions, inspired by the farm-to-table movement. They have freshly-grown vegetables, local wine selections, local bottles of water — you feel like you’re in San Francisco,” said Hudson. “That drove up concessions revenue by 23%. The strategy not only improves the customer experience, but also makes the airport happy.”

You’ll see a similar situation at Terminal C at Newark Liberty International. "Each food service is given a distinct identity to reinforce that dining is in a ‘place,’ not just in an airport,” says Rockwell, who redesigned the terminal last year. “It adds a sense of personalization, intimacy, and flexibility among the controlled chaos at the terminal.”

Managing Expectations

Luckily, it’s not all about the airports controlling your behavior — they do need to keep up with passenger demands as well.

“All the new recreational offerings at airports have to do with the sophistication of the traveler. They have expectations that they should be getting more than a seat on the airplane for what they’re spending,” said Chicas. So you end up with airports like Singapore’s Changi, which is a veritable playground for adults and kids alike.

“There is a sense of airports stepping up their game, I think,” added Rockwell. “It’s not uncommon to find amenities on par with the best hospitality or food and beverage offerings you might find on a city block."

Let’s just hope that the upward trend extends to the inflight experience as well.

Featured image by Getty Images