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Navigating airport terminals: How accessible design helps passengers avoid turbulence

The easier the experience, the less stressful air travel will be

By Stanis Smith, Executive Vice President, Buildings (Vancouver, BC)

Whether it’s called Accessible Design, Universal Design, or Inclusive Design, the movement advocating greater accessibility in architecture is gaining momentum, particularly with respect to the design of airport terminals.

Often, the needs of the passenger, who ultimately is the paying customer, are not particularly well-served when travelling. Most passengers travel infrequently, once or twice per year on average, making air travel a stressful experience.  

As a result, passenger confusion and anxiety is rampant. From checking baggage, to clearing security checkpoints, to simply finding your gate, the need for airports to be easily navigated by passengers is becoming a priority. Terminals need to be designed so that way-finding becomes simple and intuitive.

In Moncton, New Brunswick, passengers can stand in the pre-security check-in area and see aircrafts at the gates. Signage is less relevant in a terminal where you can easily view the aircraft that you will be boarding. As simple as this design strategy may sound, it is surprisingly difficult to achieve.

There are many other design strategies that can be used to subtly or explicitly reinforce way-finding. Flooring patterns, ceiling patterns, the use of lighting as a directional device, and the use of colours and textures can all help to guide passengers in the direction they need to go without signage. One of the most effective strategies is the incorporation of artwork and exhibitry into the terminal at key changes of direction. When properly located, these features can serve as effective place-makers and points of reference.

One of the most well-known examples worldwide is Bill Reid’s monumental “Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” a stunning bronze sculpture with a jade-coloured patina that is the central focus of the Vancouver International Terminal, and is a frequent reference point and meeting place for passengers, greeters, and well-wishers in that terminal.

Closely associated with orientation and wayfinding are the needs of passengers with mobility or cognitive disabilities, not to mention the aging demographic.  

Progressive design firms are considering the needs of persons with disabilities from the very beginning stages of design through completion, and are engaging in consultation with disability organizations and experts. The key is to consider every aspect of the visitor experience, beginning with the approach to the building. How easy is it to find parking that provides unimpeded access to the front door? How the use of stairs, elevators, and escalators be reduced or eliminated? How intuitive and legible is the signage? How easy is it to find and use washrooms, and make it possible for those who need assistance from family or helpers of the opposite sex? All these questions need to be answered in order to design airport terminals that ensure everyone has equal access to airport facilities.

It is encouraging to see that airport clients, and their architects and interior designers, are now focusing on the passenger experience as they create terminals that are not only cost-effective and functional, but create a passenger experience that combines intuitive way-finding with an environment that is stress-free, calming, and differentiated.

Stanis is Executive Vice President for Stantec’s Buildings Group and is also Stantec’s Market Sector Leader for Airports. He is a former Associate Board Member of ACI-NA and ACI-World and is an acknowledged expert and frequent speaker on the subject of Airport Design. One out of every three North American passengers go through an airport where Stantec has designed a major project, and during any given week, Stanis is likely to be one of those passengers.

Vancouver International Airport - Bill Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwai

Often, the needs of the passenger, who ultimately is the paying customer, are not particularly well-served when travelling.

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