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From the Design Quarterly: What does it mean to fly well?

February 28, 2020

By Cecilia Einarson

Airports are emerging as places where travelers can travel well

This article first appeared as “Flying well” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 08.

Air travel’s reputation as unhealthy, unfun, and unpleasant is under attack. More accurately, the previous reputation of air travel and airports drove dramatic change in the industry, and we’re still seeing that play out in design and amenities. People want to travel in a more relaxing way. Why, you might wonder, should airports change? Today, airports are competitive because passengers are well-informed and have more choices. Those that can serve their passengers better will rate higher and invite more business. Those that build reputations for hospitality, comfort, and even wellness, will score higher on the all-important industry surveys and prosper.

The early adopters and investors in wellness features have a chance to lead the industry and set the bar. And travelers are expecting more from airports than ever—they want to continue their health and wellness routine, start their trip on a note that’s more pleasant than exhausting, and kill time between flights with food, drink, and retail experiences beyond fast-food chains.

Passengers’ demand for travel experience is well-aligned with airports’ interest in growing their non-aeronautical revenue, which helps airports fund their infrastructure expansion programs, reducing their capital needs.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Terminal 1 Redevelopment. Toronto, Ontario.

Pay-as-you-go extras

You may be noticing more and more people in airport VIP lounges. That’s because we’re willing to pay more for what they’re offering—saunas, changing rooms, relaxation spaces, even places to sleep—amenities that help us travel well. Expect that these kinds of spaces—from relaxation areas to prayer rooms and mediation spaces—will multiply. At the other end of the spectrum, in the always-on, wired world, travelers will continue to book personal rentable office spaces by the hour.

Wellness is becoming part of the way we want to travel now. It’s becoming part of the culture of airports.


There’s a current trend toward healthier eating and airports are responding in ways that most of us would not have imagined a few years ago. Healthier food is taking two forms at the airport. First off, the airports are finding ways to incorporate more locally based vendors so pleasure travelers can taste a bit of regional culture as soon as they arrive. There’s change at the other end of the spectrum too. Convenience-store-like or self-serve areas stocked with prepared fresh food and healthy options for travelers are growing. At these kiosks, travelers can grab a smoothie, salad, and wrap and pay for it all at a paperless kiosk while in transit to their gate.


Airports are exploring ways to offer travelers something beyond retail, namely experiences. This is where wellness is really making inroads. The traveler can choose spa services like a massage, manicure, or haircut. They can also find a stationary bike to pedal that simultaneously charges their phone. For those travelers that are not as fitness-oriented, or the culturally curious, airports will begin to offer more culture within their confines. In Narita airport, passengers waiting to transfer flights can take a woodblock printing lesson and come away with some knowledge of Japanese craft and a stamped piece of handiwork as a memento.

It’s another way of approaching wellness which leaves the visitor feeling happy, welcomed, and with a positive memory for that next trip.

Edmonton International Airport Terminal Building Expansion. Edmonton, Alberta.

Green spaces and more

Bringing nature and the outdoors inside (as much as possible with security in mind) is a booming trend in airports. The most spectacular example of this is found at Singapore’s Changhi Airport which features the Rain Vortex—a 40-foot waterfall as well as orchid and butterfly gardens amidst its many diversions. But even smaller airports can take simple steps toward integration of nature—like Edmonton International Airport’s green wall. Airports that can bring nature inside and give travelers spaces that boost health and well-being while maintaining security will emerge as the cutting edge. Elsewhere, we’re seeing designers create more opportunities for travelers in transit between airport buildings—as in Santiago, Chile, where travelers can relax in parklike settings.


Animals soothe us when we’re stressed, and now they’re meeting us in the airport where we may be nervous and overwhelmed. Airports are adjusting to the increasing presence of emotional support animals that are joining travelers on flights. The accommodation for these animals reduces stress for those travelers, but it has required some adjustment in airports, too. Facilities are adding animal relief areas outside and in, while they also determine which animals are appropriate and how to balance issues such as traveler allergies with traveler pets. Some airports are going a step further and bringing the emotional support in themselves.

At Denver International Airport, animals (dogs and cats) are made available for travelers at various times during the week so that travelers passing through can pet a friendly pup and feel better. The Less Airport Stress Initiative (LASI) at Vancouver International Airport brings ambassador dogs from St. John Ambulance's Therapy Dog Program into the terminal to provide all airport users with support to help manage their travel anxiety.

Vancouver International Airport, Pier C. Photo by Dan O’Neill. Vancouver, British Columbia.

Fitness for all

Yoga classes, gyms, tracks for runners, climbing walls, and pre/post workout facilities have crept into airports to serve the traveler’s passion for fitness. They are now available for travelers in many airports. If a traveler has the time, they can stay fit while in transit.

Vancouver International Airport, which handles 26 million passengers a year, is also the workplace of more than 26,000 staff and employees. Employers see value in providing fitness options to their workers as well as their users. And when employees are less stressed, that translates to a more pleasant and higher-rated travel experience for passengers.

Wellness is becoming part of the way we want to travel now. It’s becoming part of the culture of airports. And while there is still no amenity that offers an instant cure for jetlag, airports are exploring a host of options so we can travel as healthy as possible. Someday, flying healthy won’t sound like a contradiction.

As the Airport Sector Leader and based in the Vancouver office, I've led airport projects in seven countries around the world including airports in Vancouver, Iqaluit, and Santiago, Chile.

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