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Beyond the terminals: How airports are helping strengthen communities and promote culture

March 19, 2021

By Ana Cappelletti

Amenities are helping airports evolve into more than a place for travel

The idea of creating a miniature city under one roof has been around for more than half a century, first inspired by towns squares throughout Europe. Today it’s our airports embracing this design concept.

Airports have become more and more like shopping malls, reinventing themselves to benefit from their captive audience. On the downside, they also reflect the image of the mall as an island floating in a sea of parking. How can airports further evolve to become more than a place for travelers and enhance the passenger experience, integrate into the local community, and, in the process, increase revenue while ensuring financial resilience?

The Changi and Munich airports are examples of destinations with unique amenities and attractions for travelers and residents: museums, art galleries, cinemas, indoor gardens, swimming pools, markets, high-end retail, and unique restaurant brands. Denver International Airport has a conference center and a public plaza large enough for festivals and cultural events—accessible by a 23-mile rail line from downtown—intended to attract and engage the broader local community. At Vancouver International Airport, travelers and locals can enjoy easy layover trips to a luxury designer outlet mall located near the terminal buildings.  

The McArthurGlen Designer Outlet at Vancouver International Airport.

Community champion

As an “ambassador” for the local city and region, airports can make the first cultural connection and a memorable final lasting impression. In the recent past, airports were often similar and lacked distinguishing cultural elements. For many travelers on connecting flights, the airport might be just a brief stop along the journey and their only experience of the local culture.

In the same way that World Expos are venues for promoting awareness and appreciation of other countries and cultures, airports should take cues from the country pavilion model in reflecting the unique identity of the region they are in. This doesn’t just improve the image of the country or city, it also fosters civic pride in the local community.

Currently, many airports are missing the opportunity to become part of the community fabric. By expanding and making their offerings accessible to locals, they can increase their audience and further their reach. In times of travel downturn, as in the case of the current pandemic, they could continue to operate and generate revenue. 

Airports are important platforms that enable local tourism sectors to promote a country’s economic capacity and attractiveness as a destination.

Increased traffic inside the airport

Imagine the airport terminals as destinations and attractions, where travelers and locals mix seamlessly, moving freely through a building, not partitioned in pre- and post-security areas, allowing them to enjoy shopping, fine-dining, and watching live entertainment while taking in local art installations.

Soon, this scenario will be possible thanks to invisible biometric processing and new security scanning technology that can turn airports from an exercise in queues and controlled admittance into access and stress-free areas. Well-wishers could accompany travelers and spend time at restaurants and shops until the travelers board the airplane. International visitors could join locals at civic and seasonal celebrations, which would spark interest in coming back for extended visits. 

Vancouver International Airport offers visitors a glimpse into the community’s culture.

By taking advantage of public transit connections to downtown, the extensive lands surrounding airports could be leveraged to offer a taste of the outdoors developed into public landscaped parks with walking trails, sculpture installations, amusement parks, and even large-scale sports venues. Amenities like these would not only increase a city's degree of livability but also improve the travel experience. Imagine being able to catch a ball game during a layover without ever leaving the airport.

Airports are important platforms that enable local tourism sectors to promote a country’s economic capacity and attractiveness as a destination. Here are a few examples of airports you’ll want to add to your itinerary:

Vancouver International Airport: When arriving at one of Canada busiest airports, travelers can enjoy this vibrant space that houses the largest collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous Art in the world. It also an aquarium with more than 5,000 sea specimens.

Munich Airport: This airport offers visitors unique amenities including the “Air-brau” brewery, winter market, skating rink, surfing pool, and mountain biking events. During the Christmas season, the airport celebrates the holiday with extensive decoration, a German Christmas market, live entertainment, and visits from Santa.

Changi Airport: Layovers at this Singapore airport can be fun with the choice of three movie theaters, a swimming pool, a wellness spa, or a butterfly garden.

Incheon International Airport: South Korean activities, performances, and celebrations can be found throughout the terminals as well as an ice rink, casino, and golf course.

Hong Kong International Airport: Another airport enticing passengers with extra entertainment, Hong Kong International hosts a four-month cultural festival, showcasing music and art, virtual reality experiences, and workshops where passengers can make personalized gifts.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol: One of the busiest airports in Europe, Schiphol brings Dutch heritage to the departure area. Two of the city’s most popular museums—NEMO Science Museum and Rijksmuseum—have branches in the airport. The Schiphol Airport Library opened alongside Rijksmuseum and offers passengers access to a collection of 1,200 books by Dutch authors (translated into 29 languages).

For many travelers on connecting flights, the airport might be just a brief stop along the journey and their only experience of the local culture.

The airport experience can be more than a utilitarian stop along the travel journey by facilitating residents’ and travelers’ interaction. It can transform airports into beacons of community pride reflecting its identity, and for visitors, into gateways to what lays beyond the fence. 

  • Ana Cappelletti

    Ana is a senior designer with interior architectural design experience in Canada and internationally. Providing design leadership, project management, and consultant coordination, she thrives on transforming initial concepts into physical realities.

    Contact Ana
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