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Shorter Walks, Better Shopping: How Airport Design Is Changing

March 28, 2019
8 min read
Shorter Walks, Better Shopping: How Airport Design Is Changing
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A surge of air travelers is pushing airports to renovate and expand like never before — and many are going with modern designs that can accommodate revolutionary changes in technology.

Over the years, passengers have probably noticed the changes in design, away from the often small and drab terminals of yesteryear and toward ones that are brighter and airier.

But the changes airports are making now go beyond fresh coats of paint, more windows and higher ceilings. Rather, the big renovations taking place are often designed to give airports the flexibility to introduce new passenger-friendly technologies. The philosophy behind much of the airport construction is being drawn from other industries, such as retail, that view people as customers with choices, not just bodies to be herded through security and onto a plane.

“The most important thing is fluidity,” said Jim Cherry, former CEO of Montreal’s Trudeau airport (YUL) and strategic aviation adviser to Arup, one of the world’s largest airport-design firms. “If I’m going to get off an airplane, I want a good indication of where I want to go, I want a short turn time. I want it to be an easy process. I don’t want things that drive passengers crazy.”

The airport business is competitive, he said, and flyers have choices, especially among large hubs. Airports that fail to keep pace and offer an unappealing experience can lose out: “There are people who fly three or four times a week. They develop habits and patterns. They say, ‘I’m not going to go that way because it’s an annoying way to go.’”

While some airports are renovating aging facilities, many are also expanding to accommodate projected increases in the number of travelers. The number of passengers worldwide is projected to double by 2037 to 8.2 billion annually, according to an estimate by the International Air Transport Association last year.

At the same time, the estimated cost of renovating and expanding airports is rising dramatically. The Airports Council International, a trade group, estimates that North American airports have $25.6 billion in annual infrastructure needs, up 60 percent since 2011.

As airports undertake some of those big construction projects, travelers can expect changes in the airport experience at all steps in the process, from arriving at the airport to passing through security to arriving and their destination and dealing with luggage. A glimpse of what the future might look like:

Less parking, more kiosks

Some of the changes at airports around the world are taking place before you even step foot inside. The popularity of ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft is prompting airports to re-examine plans for adding parking garages, sometimes in favor of expanded drop-off locations. One consultant’s report last year recommended airports consider “sofa-to-gate” travel as part of the customer’s experience, and examine concepts including “the ease and efficiency of arrival at the terminal, the quality of signage and wayfinding within the airport precinct, [and] the fluidity of traffic circulation.”

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Once inside, passengers can expect to see the trend continue toward more check-in kiosks rather than desks, for those who still check in at the airport at all. And those check-in desks will be more often flexible spaces with TV monitors listing the airline, rather than fixed for each airline. That way, airlines can more easily expand and contract their operations.

Photo rendition courtesy of New Orleans Department of Aviation
A rendering of the new terminal at New Orleans airport (Courtesy of New Orleans Department of Aviation)

Security, reimagined

The 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in an era of enhanced airport security, sometimes in ways that were incompatible with old airport design. In some cases, bulky screening equipment doesn’t fit well, such as at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA), which always feels crammed. Renovated airports are likely to be designed to incorporate the latest technology.

Those technological advances are aimed mostly at making the customer experience smoother. For instance, some airports such as Atlanta (ATL) and Amsterdam (AMS) have been experimenting with facial-recognition devices that can speed travelers through check-in and security. “The aim is to give employees, partners and passengers superpowers thanks to data and technology,” a spokesman for Amsterdam’s airport said.

In the future, instead of waiting in line to remove belts and laptops for X-ray machines, experts say it might be possible for security checkpoints to consist of little more than merely walking down a corridor whose walls are embedded with scanners. Airport designs will have to provide the space for different possible configurations of security machines.

“People are going to be looking more and more at what technology can we use, what can we bring to bear, that is going to enable that fluidity?” Cherry said. “What can we do to make it easier? A tunnel, corridor, touchless security system — I think it will come some day.”

Luggage goes offsite

Handling luggage is one of the most cumbersome parts of the airport experience for travelers. Experts say one day, we could eventually see airlines and airports push luggage drop-off and pick-up away from the airport.

Some airports already are allowing baggage check-in off-site. For instance, in Hong Kong, travelers can drop off their checked luggage up to 24 hours ahead of their flights at the city’s train station, and not see their bags until they arrive at their destinations.

Heading in the other direction, travelers staying at a Disney resort in Orlando have the option of using a service called Disney’s Magical Express, in which passengers arriving at the Orlando airport (MCO) can skip baggage claim, board a bus to their hotel, and have their luggage delivered to their rooms by Disney staff.

With advances in bag tracking, such as embedding wireless trackers in luggage tags, it is not impossible to envision a future in which those kinds of off-site drop-offs and pick-ups become more common, especially in conjunction with technologies such as smartphones and self-driving cars.

DENVER CO - DECEMBER 14: Travelers make their way through Denver International Airport as construction taking place as part of the Great Hall renovations project on December 14, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Construction at Denver International Airport on December 14, 2018 (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Local shopping

The days of the national chain restaurants — the Cinnabons, the Burger Kings — set apart from the airport gates are going away. In their place, experts say, are more distinctive, local restaurants with some character and soul. And the seating will be spread around, not just concentrated by gates.

“Airports don’t want you to feel that you’re just at any airport in any city,” says Pam Keidel-Adams, an airport planner with Kimley-Horn, a large planning and design firm. “Airports are focusing more on that whole customer experience, knowing where you are and having a regional flavor to that in the look and feel of the concourses and the terminals.”

She pointed to the renovations underway at Denver’s (DEN) Great Hall, which will integrate security, gate access and restaurants and shopping in an open, two-story design with a high ceiling.

Some airports, including several in the United Kingdom, monitor passengers’ movements through Wi-Fi, allowing them to collect data on improving the airport experience when in the terminal. Airports are also making signs more visible and working to make the route to change planes more intuitive.

But who pays for it all?

With more and more airports needing renovation, and construction costs rising, finding money to build the airports of the future can be a challenge. A major source of airport revenue for renovations, the Passenger Facility Charge that is added to the cost of each ticket, has remained at $4.50 in the United States since 2001. Recent efforts to raise it have stalled in Congress, with airlines opposed to the efforts because of fears of higher ticket prices.

With that pot of money limited, airports are getting creative, said T.J. Schulz, president of the Airport Consultants Council, a trade group. Some are partnering with private businesses for the money to renovate. In some cases, airlines are chipping in directly.

“A number of airports are fully leveraged out, and it will be quite a challenge,” he says. “But airports will get this work done one way or another.”

Featured image by Getty Images