Designing the Traveler Experience

Each year, over 3 billion passengers worldwide take to the air for their travel, a number on the upswing; in fact, the International Airport Transport Association (IATA) anticipates an increase of 930 million passengers by 2017.  As more people travel by plane each year, it’s inevitable that global air passenger standards have dramatically evolved from enduring tired, drab passenger terminal holdrooms to expecting high-quality, convenient, and environmentally-friendly spaces that offer a distinct and interactive sense of place.  As a consequence of the dramatic growth in air transportation, airports are easily the single most important opportunity for a city to shape visitors’ impressions. It’s an inevitable touch point – a gateway moment that gives regions and cities a strategic opportunity to reach out to, impact and influence each and every traveler passing through. Airports the world over are now the new 21st century rail stations that connect the traveling populace to the city.

However, there is more to this. The traveler’s “gateway experience” isn’t limited to the brief time one spends in the terminal – rather, it encompasses the entire journey from the moment a passenger leaves their home to the time they enter the passenger terminal complex and ultimately, to their post-security experience. We must design for every single passenger.  Today’s passengers represent a diverse group reflecting a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, needs and desires. On any given travel day, there are thousands of first impressions being made: from a toddler making her maiden voyage, to an elderly traveler with special needs. A positive passenger travel experience is the outcome of a successful integration of many visible as well as behind-the-scenes systems that impact airlines, operators, vendors and municipal or regulatory agencies; all culminating in the customer experience.


In the United States, intermodal transportation solutions and customer parking options are rapidly improving and beginning to provide truly fluid regional connections from one’s doorstep to the aircraft gate. Advances in off-site check-in alternatives, remote bag check services, consolidated rental car facilities and regional intermodal connections all contribute to an improved journey to the airport. These off-airport connections are enhanced by the proliferation of new technology; particularly smartphone applications that enable passengers to effortlessly follow and modify their flights, make advance purchases, find the most convenient transportation connections and track parking availability.  All of these off-airport factors can contribute to a significantly improved and efficient travel experience even before one reaches the terminal building curb.


Today, a significant amount of a passenger’s time in US airports is spent after they get past the security checkpoint and the passenger terminal design, in turn, must carefully consider this post-security paradigm to enhance the overall experience on the secure side of the terminal building. With a seismic shift in design focus on a passenger’s extended dwell time on the post-security, secure side, now more than ever, airports, airlines and concessionaires are focused on engaging their captive audience with amenities and luxuries airports aren’t traditionally known for.  For example, a number of airports have invested in large-scale interactive public art installations (many made possible by the federally-funded Percent for Art program), child-friendly playgrounds and attractions, wine-tasting stations, massage and wellness centers, workstations with charging pods, secured outdoor spaces to get some fresh air, and even access to yoga studio spaces.

In addition, as passengers are more connected than ever at airports– from SMS smart phone boarding passes to ordering meals at the gate to accessing real-time flight status – technology has emerged to serve a critical role in both the arrival and post-security experience, ultimately impacting decisions on how to deploy the bricks and mortar in passenger terminals.  The more passengers are connected and in control of their time spent at the airport, the more time they have to do other things – like shop, dine, go to exhibits, performances and experience all that an airport has to offer once they past the security checkpoint.


Airport designers are tasked to create industrial-strength, iconic, yet highly flexible transportation spaces that are at once inviting, human-scale and proudly reflective of a region’s best attributes – something that isn’t always an easy feat! Every airport is keenly aware of the importance of delivering – as a prominent “gateway” to the community – unique passenger terminal facilities that capture the spirit, or essence of the region and can reflect a sense of community character.  In the fast-paced airport environment, first impressions are literally made in a nanosecond.  A thoughtful understanding of the building’s operational and performance goals as an air transportation facility is priority number one in order to ultimately realize the airport’s place-making objectives.  More specifically, an integrated planning process is critical to determine where and how to co-locate functional programs, technology solutions, passenger services and amenities, way finding and travel information that enhance passenger flows and enables them to soak in the Gateway experience.

We’re currently working on the concept design of Provincetown Municipal Airport, one of 2 airports in the United States located within a National Park Service property.  Taking lessons learned from airports across the nation that have managed to capture the city or region’s assets with its unique terminal designs, we are seeking to do something similar and bring the Cape Cod National Seashore – it’s sun, shadows, salt spray, sea grasses and dunes – into the passenger terminal building.  Travelers using these airports in the Cape and Islands spend a bit of their time at the airport outside the building; and keeping this in mind, we have in turn focused on blurring those boundaries between inside-out and secure-non-secure in our new terminal design to capture the unique attributes of traveling through the Cape and Islands.  How you activate design to tell a unique story about a community and region to enhance the passengers’ travel experience while improving the operational and financial performance of terminal buildings is why we believe place-making in transportation matters.

Airside view of proposed concept for a replacement passenger terminal, Provincetown Municipal Airport. Image courtesy of Provincetown Municipal Airport, XChange Architects

As we reconsider the evolving demographics of passengers, there is a unique opportunity for us to recognize this and help airports capture latent revenue that will both significantly enhance the travel experience and impact the airport operator’s and tenant’s bottom line – whether that be in the terminal or up in the air.  At the end of the day, the designer’s job is to synthesize the divergent perspectives of all parties – from operators to tenants and vendors to customers – to provide flexible, cost-effective and user-focused design solutions for airports.



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