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From the Design Quarterly: 7 facets of the changing airport

December 14, 2018

By Alexander Thome

Refocusing on passenger experience is central to a new—and more comfortable—vision for air travel

Your airport wants to become a destination. It wants the passenger experience to be seamless, comfortable, culturally-enriching, locally-sourced, and enjoyable. That’s right. It wants us to start our vacation before we’ve even boarded our aircraft. It wants to be part of the community.

This might seem counterintuitive to some. Decades ago, air travel was a luxury, a status symbol; now it’s a commodity with travelers searching the web for the lowest prices among dozens of carriers. Now, millions fly. In fact, at any moment, a million of our fellow humans are airborne. A megacity in the air!

It’s more accurate to say that airports want to change, because they must. Air travel is increasingly competitive. There are multiple airport options in many metropolitan areas—and airports compete with each other to be the all-important hubs for domestic and international air travel.

The A-B Connector at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Vancouver, British Columbia. Sense of place is important in airport design, and here an artist designed two totem poles made of glass to represent the two rivers of the Fraser Valley.

Each airport terminal is in direct competition with the terminal from which passengers arrive, or that which passengers are travelling to.

Like any business owner, airport operators are always looking for revenue and cost savings—many are owned by budget-conscious local municipalities. Increased revenue from expansion and passenger fees is limited, so airports are increasingly focused on enhancing the passenger experience, particularly through addition of dining and retail within the airside zones of the terminal. A captive audience will enjoy the amenities, while contributing to non-aeronautical revenues of the airport.

In order for passengers to arrive happy, relaxed, and ready to shop or dine, we need to rethink how people move from passenger drop-off through to departure gate and vice-versa.

Let’s consider seven facets of the changing airport and how design is responding to each.

1. Seamless experience

For most people, security lines are the first things that come to mind when they think about air travel. There is a point in every journey where we stop and go through a line for screening and magnetometers and whole-body scanners. This is stressful and frustrating for many travelers. It’s a bottleneck. Airports are looking for technological solutions to ease this stress and reduce the time in line—some are experimenting with a range of technology from a token system that facilitates passive screening to voluntary facial recognition. The ultimate goal is to make the experience seamless—that means security, too. There’s a business driver for this, too—getting the passenger to the airside of the terminal as quickly and relaxed as possible makes it possible for them to partake of a bite and a drink or more in their dwell time.

Tech-related solutions are coming but there are other strategies that can ease the pain of security and they can be applied right now. At Toronto Pearson International Airport Terminal 3, we installed CATSA Plus, a bag screening system innovation which enables multiple people to place bags on the scanner at once resulting in a multi-person security processing. It reduces the amount of time passengers take to go through security and has already increased throughput substantially in Terminal 3.

Additionally, by ensuring the preboard screening process is located to optimize views toward the apron, we give passengers a chance to see waiting planes on the tarmac while they’re still in the queue. Seeing the destination helps reduce passenger anxiety.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 04 | Intersections

Toronto Pearson International Airport Terminal 3 in Toronto, Ontario, where greatly expanded food, beverage, and retail options are enhancing the passenger experience.

2. Don’t mind the wait

To gain a competitive edge, airports are looking to amplify their food, beverage, and retail offerings. In Toronto’s Terminal 3, we’ve worked on greatly expanding these options to enhance that passenger experience inside the airport. Hold rooms can be made more engaging and integrated into the dining experience, so that diners can see their gates. We must orient people, make it easy to see where they need to go and give them an impression of travel time to their gate. Otherwise, people go straight to the gates, bypassing food and beverage options. But every aspect of passenger experience is crucial. Washrooms are important to passengers, too. They must be conveniently located, clean, touchless, and intuitive.

Natural light and visibility can go a long way toward enhancing passenger experience. Generally, airports are deep buildings, but in Terminal 3 in Toronto, our designers managed to bring lighting via skylights to give the passengers a reason to look up, creating sightlines between the departure and arrival floors. It creates, in a sense, a community—giving passengers a feel for the other streams and functions of the airport.

A sense of place is clearly obvious at Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau, Bahamas.

3. Sense of place

It’s important for the airport to make visitors feel like they’re part of the place. You shouldn’t have to walk out the door of an airport in the Bahamas or Denver to know where you are. Design must help define that airport for that city it represents. Vancouver sets a high standard with a user experience that ties into the regional natural beauty of British Columbia. When you arrive in Vancouver, you know it. In Denver, this local branding might focus on Colorado’s culture of health and wellness with lots of natural daylight, casual comforts, and the spirit of the modern West. Locally-sourced healthy dining options—from the best local taco or burger to regional micro-brews—give travelers a taste of the unique local culture.

Art and music plays into this sense of immersion and discovery. Major airports can make a feature of an international art collection, or feature pieces that become cultural experiences and wayfinding aids on their concourses. Vancouver implements art with every project. In the new AB Connector, YVR engaged an artist early in the design, and as the airport sits on First Nations land, the art had special significance. The artist designed two totem poles made of glass to represent the two rivers of the Fraser Valley. A water feature below strengthens the whole concept and evokes a multi-sensory response.

The McArthurGlen Designer Outlet in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an example of bringing the public to airports even if they aren't planning to fly.

4. Airports as cities

In their sheer size and number of occupants (tens of thousands of workers in major North American areas), airports qualify as small cities unto themselves. We need to make them smarter, more efficient and sustainable.

Instead of isolated buildings that people fly in and out of it, airports are reaching out to the public as never before. In Vancouver, we developed the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, bringing the public to shop at the airport, even those that don’t have flights.

Airports often own buffer land outside the airport space itself and are increasingly looking at this land to generate revenue. As a result, there is a very real opportunity for intersection with commercial and retail developers. In Denver, Stantec is helping to create a Net Zero energy community on airport land that includes, housing, office, warehouse and retail, all the types of facilities one would find in any city, near the airport.

5. Experiential shopping

Travelers aren’t likely to buy big ticket items in airport retail settings and take them away, but they’re open to experiences that can fill their down time, and retail is adjusting accordingly. With experiential retail, travelers can sit in an electric vehicle, test ride a bicycle, get fitted for a made-to-measure suit, give a new putter a try, and order all of the above to be delivered later.

6. Activated travelers

Today’s travelers crave interesting, memorable experiences, especially when vacationing—and increasingly we will see these made available at the airport. Travelers can already get a massage and in some places hop on a stationary bike that re-charges their mobile device as they pedal. Seamlessly incorporating these experiential aspects of air travel is a major focus.

7. Universal access and convenience

As air travel becomes more commonplace, we must make airports friendlier to a broader swath of the population—the younger and older members of our community and passengers with special needs. We can see this happening already. Some airports advertise nursing stations at every concourse. Designs now include bottle warmers, plugs for the pumps and leather lounge chairs in nursing stations. To boost accessibility for the older traveler, we’re making sure our visual and auditory clues are much clearer.

A monumental shift at the airport

Designers have a significant role to play in making terminals viable, sustainable places smartly integrated into the community.

We’re working toward designing airports as destinations. It’s a monumental cultural shift from seeing an airport as a place to kill time before a flight to create an experience so rich that passengers start thinking, “Maybe we should head to the airport a couple hours early to shop and have dinner.”

  • Alexander Thome

    Focusing on architecture and transit-related projects, Alex has worked on multiple large-scale projects that improve travel for millions of people.

    Contact Alexander
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