Q&A: Customer-Centric Airport Architecture

We sat down with Derrick Choi, of Populous’ Boston office, and Brett Wightman, of the firm’s Brisbane office, to discuss trends in customer-centric airport architecture.

How do we give travelers a reason to get to the airport early? 

  • Derrick Choi (DC): There are always reasons to arrive early at an airport!  As the majority of air travel in North America is “within borders,” historical pre-boarding arrival times for domestic journeys were considerably less time-intensive than international ones.  As such, the paradigm of a seamless and fast processing experience at US airports remains and important criterion for North American travelers.  Since the post-September 11 security changes, U.S. passengers have begrudgingly come to terms with the idea of getting to the airport early – primarily to avoid delays associated with passenger checkpoint screening.  As such, airport sponsors, their tenants and air carriers now have an added responsibility to create an inviting, convenient and productive stay for their guests who are advised by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to arrive 90 minutes and 120 minutes, respectively, prior to domestic and international departures. Let’s face it – most travelers in the US, unlike their global counterparts, are not exactly swarming to their airports early to shop or to dine.  But airports around the US have – over the course of the last decade – been working hard with concessionaires and service providers to transform travelers’ perceptions of the airport experience.  Today, user convenience, control and productivity is king for the US traveler and we, in the States, design aviation environments that keep these priorities in mind.

  • Brett Wightman (BW):  Much like sporting events provide various game day offerings, airports in Asia are now looking to provide a variety of airport based facilities to extend the travel experience. It is important that travelers feel at ease and comfortable while in the airport to allow them to fully enjoy the experience. By providing early check-in facilities, passengers will be able to check in baggage early and more freely become involved in the facilities now offered at airports.  In the future, the key may not be so much about getting the passenger to the airport early, but about the airport playing a greater role in the passenger’s journey. Integrated transport interchanges located throughout a city will allow travelers to check in baggage early and then go about their daily activities such as shopping or business.

How do cultural norms and expectations of the air travel experience dictate design in different regions?

  • DC:   Every community has a story to tell and airports – sometimes unwittingly – reflect that.  For instance, municipalities with large military communities, such as Norfolk, VA, have unusually large meeter-greeter populations (airport speak for well-wishers and loved ones) and their passenger terminals are  generously scaled, with a unique veranda-style double height pre-security departure lobby that has been designed to host send-offs for service folk and their families.  Communities like Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and Seattle, Wash. have thriving seasonal cruise ship tours that have certainly influenced the connected, intermodal feel of their terminal buildings. Because arrivals and departures interface between air and sea, these buildings are critical to deliver the high level of service that is demanded from their seasonal tourist population.  Likewise, the passenger terminals in McCarran Airport in Las Vegas have an unusual spatial distribution of slot machines; reflecting its immediate context and effectively provide a customer amenity like no other airport.  It is no surprise that one often wonders if there are more slot machine seats than gate seating at that airport!  With no letup in sight for global air travel, US airports are working hard to create more inviting arrivals experiences.  The arrivals experience should aspire to be an inviting, gateway moment and opportunity to connect a visitor to a city by integrating their cultural and institutional gems into the arrivals experience.  In my city, Boston, our international terminal has been hosting exhibitions in it spacious International arrivals hall, often curated by the Design Museum of Boston to showcase contemporary design and the City’s rich arts culture.
  • BW: Airports throughout Asia Pacific differ greatly and are at various stages of development. Airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Incheon are really setting the benchmark and are providing world-class facilities and innovations in the traveler experience. We are now seeing new airports springing up weekly throughout China, Indonesia and India where the travel experience is still in its infancy. As the middle class in these countries becomes more affluent we will see a greater correlation between individual countries, cultures and their airport offerings.Air travel in Asia is at a fascinating stage and it’s not uncommon to see savvy minded business people interacting with first time travelers. Unique to Asia is the involvement of the entire family in the travel experience. Airports are filled with families seeing their relatives off or welcoming them back from a journey. The arrivals, departures and meeter and greeter areas of Asian airports all need to be upscaled to deal with this family orientated experience. Although creating various commercial landside opportunities, it also adds additional pressure on already struggling ground transport options.

Fundamentally, is there a difference between what makes a competitive facility in Asia versus someplace like the US? What are the differences?

  • DC:  Factually speaking, we need to first be clear that airports in the US are not precisely run as “businesses,” unlike many parts of the world, where private-public partnerships are taking the reins from the municipalities and dramatically rethinking how airports should be managed and developed.  We, in the US, have the bulk of our projects dependent on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding.  In order to achieve world class facilities, on par with many of the new airport passenger terminals being realized all over the world, the funding mechanism for US facilities should be somewhat re-conceptualized to help deliver an consistent standard of design excellence throughout the country.  International gateways, like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Miami, etc., have the resources of both healthy municipal finances and a steadily rising flow of international customers allowing for new international gateways to raise the bar for their terminal designs.  This level of excellence and convenience for terminals needs to be brought to travelers throughout the US.  To that end, the model of running parts of airports as a business – focused on hospitality and serving the customer first – should be seriously considered at many airports.  While these are challenging times with heightened expectations and limited financial means, it’s an excellent opportunity for airports to explore out-of-the-box solutions.A fundamental difference between US airports and international airports is that the US traveler, compared to their international counterparts, spends shorter periods of time in a terminal. Domestic passengers are seldom looking to spend lengthy amounts of time at the airport – most want to be on route to their destination as soon as they arrive at the airport.  Considering this, an “Aerotropolis” or airport city development, may not be as applicable for US passengers as it is for Europeans and Asians.  However, the further an airport is from the city center, the more viable non-aeronautical commercial developments become (e.g. hotels, conference facilities, etc.)  A textbook example is Denver International Airport – 25 miles from the city center – and its soon-to-be-completed rail station and airport hotel development.
  • BW: The operational models of many airports in Asia are moving in a unique business minded direction. To help manage the massive drive to increase infrastructure and capacity many airports are looking at private investment to help support their expansions. Singapore Airport is now managed by the Changi Airport Group a privately run company. In India, a number of international airports were handed over to the JV companies, with another six happening this year.It is an exciting time in Asia, in addition to core aeronautical infrastructure and services, airports have developed significant non-aeronautical commercial facilities, services and revenue streams. While some airports in Asia Pacific have already embraced such transformation, a host of others are in the process of doing the same.
What emerging trends in aviation design are going to be most critical over the coming decade?
  • DC: What we are seeing now and what will continue in the immediate future is the confluence of design and technology to deliver unique global passenger experiences that achieve three basic things:
  •  Challenge the current passenger experience paradigm by creating truly convenient, productive and navigable environments that work for a wide spectrum of travelers.
  • Enable a dynamically responsive and interactive travel environment that brings the airport to the customer and, by extension, brings the community into the airport.
  • Deliver a truly successful traveler environment that responds to customer demographics while delivering the bottom line of enhancing essential non-aeronautical revenues streams to the airport sponsor and its tenants.
  • BW: Aviation design is evolving rapidly in Asia, in many cases we are seeing a “leap frog” effect where airports & airlines are moving directly to the next level of digital innovation, without the system and technological legacies that exist in the West. Areas where we envisage the most notable effect on the passenger are:
  • Permanent bag tags being embedded in all luggage from purchase which will follow a worldwide standard
  • Bag drops will be provided at a variety of locations including rail stations, hotels and shopping malls
  • By 2025 the vast majority of airlines and airports will have implemented self-boarding meaning passengers may not see an airline representative until the aircraft door
  • Landside integrated entertainment facilities. Hotels, resorts, casinos, arenas, sporting facilities and retail precincts will be more densely tied into airports as land prices increase.
  • Creation of innovative transit facilities which are able to merge both airside and landside passengers.


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