Getting to one’s destination may be the goal of air travel, but the journey through airports is changing. In the past 40 years, exponential growth in airline passenger travel has become a worldwide phenomenon. According to the Montrealbased International Air Transport Association, annual international flight exceeds 4 billion passengers, and the Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, D.C., reports that 2.6 million people fly in and out of U.S. airports every day.
Many airports were built decades ago and are not designed to function for today’s volume nor the shifting realities of technology, security and social preferences. “Airports are among the most complex and highly frequented transportation hubs, but they are also increasingly important places for work, commerce, recreation and culture,” says Curt Fentress, principal in charge of design of Denver’s Fentress Architects. “With global commerce and the demand for air travel increasing, airports of the future must place quality, comfort and the passenger experience at the forefront of the design.”
The events of 9/11 in 2001 dramatically changed air travel, and long security lines to eliminate threats to the traveling public became the norm at airports. Travelers can’t gauge the time it may take to get through security, so they need to arrive early. When the lines aren’t as long as anticipated, however, passengers have spare time on their hands. This creates a big business opportunity for post-security retail, services and amenities. “Airports have a captive audience of high-end customers willing to spend money, and that’s a good group to market to,” Fentress explains. “In addition, the money from retail is nonrestricted revenue, which is essential for airports to build new facilities.”
Restaurant options are important; meals are no longer served on all flights and today’s travelers prefer a wider variety of international, healthy and organic choices. Airport patrons also want non-traditional shopping and higher-end retail stores, such as Chanel and Brooks Brothers. Services are in demand, too. Business travelers taking multiple trips a week or passengers with long layovers may seek a massage or salon for a haircut.
To offer comfort and entertainment options, airports are now providing unconventional amenities, such as yoga rooms, therapy dogs and digital play experiences. In the Incheon International Airport (ICN) in South Korea, Fentress Architects even added a wedding chapel. These upscale retail and diverse amenity offerings mean that outdated terminals must be renovated or new ones built to draw customers. “We have options when we travel,” Fentress asserts. “I choose to fly and connect through cities with airports that I prefer, and I avoid certain airports that are worn out, create a bad experience or are inefficient.”
One way airports are improving efficiency and the passenger experience is through digital technology. Self-service technologies are evolving to become more user-friendly. Computerized kiosks for self check-in processes are ubiquitous, and new self baggage-drop kiosks automatically checkin luggage and dispatch it into the bag sortation system. Airports are providing flight, gate, walk times and other important information to passengers through beacons, sensors and digital technology, such as tablets in restaurants. New third-party service providers are leveraging tablet technology to conveniently deliver food and drinks to passengers’ individual locations at departure gates.
Technology also gives individuals more control over security line wait times. For example, biometric technology (facial recognition, fingerprints and retinal scans) has become an increasingly important part of airport security and removes the need to present documents at multiple stages of the journey. Biometric technology may someday replace passports and airline tickets, as well. Although technologies reduce wait times and free up space for other activities, Fentress believes there will always be some sort of waiting line at airports. “The line provides a way for security officers to observe people, look for those who are nervous and identify potential threats,” he notes.
Several airports also have performed trials using robots that respond to passenger questions or conduct security or cleaning services. Because airport layouts can be confusing places, augmented reality (AR) wayfinding may soon allow passengers to use the camera function on their devices to view AR directions to their destination within the terminal.
Airports are becoming multimodal transportation hubs that stimulate economic development as they integrate with cities, and some are taking on a role as real-estate developers and urban planners. The Denver International Airport (DEN) plans to develop its 16,000 acres of unused land with diverse commercial uses and seamless airport access. “Airports are also integrating humanistic spaces reminiscent of civic plazas or town squares into their designs,” Fentress says. “[DEN] has a plaza with activities that it promotes in concert with events in the city. For example, if the local hockey team is in the playoffs, [DEN] may transform the plaza into a temporary ice-skating rink.”
Other civic examples include Fentress Architects’ design of the new South Terminal Complex at the Orlando International Airport, which incorporates daylit, garden-filled civic spaces that serve as central gathering places for passengers, and ICN’s performance and cultural exhibition areas.