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Five transformations shaping airports of the future

| Will Jenkinson | Principal and Regional Leader of Aviation and Transportation, HOK Chicago

Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, which includes a high-end swimming pool in its amenities. Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, which includes a high-end swimming pool in its amenities.
An outdoor fire pit, part of the modernization at Long Beach Airport. An outdoor fire pit, part of the modernization at Long Beach Airport.
O’Hare International Airport’s aeroponic garden is a visual amenity for travelers, as well as a source of produce for on-site restaurants. O’Hare International Airport’s aeroponic garden is a visual amenity for travelers, as well as a source of produce for on-site restaurants.
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport includes a skating rink with artificial ice. Seoul’s Incheon International Airport includes a skating rink with artificial ice.

Many of our first and last impressions of a given place occur at the airport. We often experience the local foods, interact with workers and perceive how the regional community values design and technology. A positive experience can go a long way. Here are five transformations influencing the future of airports across the globe, ultimately enhancing the traveler and worker experience.

1. Spotlighting local culture and values

The earliest cities were organized around avenues connecting plazas and piazzas. New and rejuvenated airport terminals now plan their gate concourses as avenues—thoroughfares dotted by local business, connecting the plaza, or “marketplace.” After all, millions of people pass through these spaces each year and they are becoming the airport’s modern equivalent of a pedestrian city. Concessions are starting to become emblematic of regionalized culinary scenes—this is already the case in San Francisco, Denver and Munich, for instance. Cultural elements are emerging as well, reflecting the interests of the civic region served by the airport.

The ever-ubiquitous newsstands and coffee shops remain, of course, but airports are gaining more discernable characteristics symbolic of the places in which they are located. And it goes beyond the interior design of retailing; airports embody the spirit of their cities when it comes to design and architecture, from the characteristics of the skyline to the attitudes of the community.

This approach to regional design has been most successful when the travelers’ entire journey, into and through the airport, has been considered, such as at Long Beach Airport. The Californian airport modernization project combined clean design elements to update the old Art Deco terminal while incorporating elements of Hollywood.

Integrated security and passenger processing

Approaching two decades since 9/11, the testing and experimentation with the way the entire check-in, security checkpoint and boarding processes are organized and optimized continues. Instead of disparate processes, evolving technologies like biometrics, Internet of Things (IoT) and big data are creating a more efficient, tightly integrated and automated process. Opportunities to greatly improve security and passenger experience, while simultaneously reducing costs, are taking shape.

As threats and associated protocols evolve, security vetting may eventually migrate away from the traditional security checkpoint zone, enabling planners to find new uses for security lobbies and ticket counter spaces. Technology could also potentially eliminate the redundant checking of credentials by airlines, TSA and Federal Inspection Services facilities, greatly reducing passenger processing time, improving passenger experience and reducing space requirements.

Data collection will assist airports in learning how travelers and other users move through the terminal and where they dwell. By identifying potential pinch points, terminal operators and airlines can optimize the passenger experience and maximize non-aeronautical revenues. The IoT will be used for baggage and passenger tracking throughout the journey, reducing stress, as travelers will know where their luggage is at each leg of the trip.

The process of baggage delivery and reclaim within airports is also undergoing change, which will potentially eliminate long waits in cramped baggage claim halls. Instead travelers will choose where they want their luggage delivered—at the rental car center, a specific curbside, or even directly to their hotel or final destination.

Integrated processing—eventually including Transmission Network Control System data for real-time staffing adjustments—will reduce time needed for security and passenger processing. Streamlining travel will promote the use of airport plazas, recreational spaces, concessions and other amenities.

Transit designed to connect

Just as autonomous vehicles will change how we get around our cities, we will witness new ways of moving people and deliveries around the airport. As airports continue to expand and grow, we will begin to see more autonomous vehicles carrying travelers around these “airport cities” and streamline the travel experience.

Interconnectivity between the commercial districts of cities and airports will improve. High-speed rail is being touted as a solution for reducing airport travel time and carbon emissions in a number of cities, and our aging population will need this help to navigate airports and cities. High-speed rail will also provide an alternative to crowded public transportation and gridlocked traffic that continues to be the bane of traveler experience.

Toronto Pearson Airport’s new Terminal and Regional Transit Center is an important case study where the airport is the catalyst for bringing transit to its doorstep and envisioning a new urban realm of development. This new land/air hub will provide a critical public interchange that will entice users away from personal cars for travel to and from the airport.

Autonomous vehicle and high-speed rail transportation solutions will serve travelers better, but they will potentially also reduce the need for vehicular parking and, as a result, contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of airports.

Outdoor and green spaces

Today, when a traveler passes through the entrance to an airport, they often don’t come into contact with the outdoors again until they arrive at their destination. Travelers are ushered from one climate-controlled space to the next, ending at a gate boarding bridge, then onto the aircraft. And then all of it again, in reverse. This experience often includes a long-haul international flight in between. Airports also have tens of thousands of employees without access to green space.

However, growing commitments to wellness will drive change here. Future airports, especially those in mild climates, will increasingly integrate outdoor spaces and pocket gardens within secure areas of terminals. We’re seeing this already with Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3, which has a landscaped space, sheltered by a large canopy that functions similar to a grand civic plaza and at Long Beach Airport, where travelers experience an open-air meet-and-greet plaza, garden, wooden boardwalks and a patio.

The benefits of these green spaces go beyond passenger wellness and can offer airports local, sustainable, food sourcing options for terminal-bound restaurants such as the Aeroponic Urban Garden in Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

A place for fitness and wellness activity

For a disproportionally large number of travelers, air travel today means sacrificing fitness, sitting for hours on end, and eating junk food. Between emerging healthy concessions and dedicated yoga and fitness spaces, airports are starting to embrace a role in promoting wellness, health, even relaxation.

We are also beginning to see more U.S. airports emulate the ideas of global airports like Singapore Changi, Seoul Incheon and Doha Hamad which, in recent years, have opened a butterfly garden, swimming pool and indoor skating rink within their terminals.

We anticipate the integration of boutique fitness studios, gyms and even on-demand trainers so travelers can maximize layovers and never have to miss their favorite HIIT cardio workouts.

The new Terminal B at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport embraces many of these trends. The terminal incorporates an outdoor balcony with a panoramic view of the NYC skyline, access to children’s play walls and other amenities, while bridges that interconnect the terminal building with the concourses also have exciting exterior views. Regional in its design, and rational in its planning, the new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, a product of public-private partnership (P3) delivery, has been crafted with almost all of the emerging experiential trends noted above. It stands as an example of the new 21st century approach to terminal planning and design.

About the author

Will Jenkinson, Principal and Regional Leader of Aviation and Transportation for HOK Chicago, leads aviation, airport and transportation hub design projects, including many of those referenced in this piece. HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm with a network of 23 offices worldwide, providing design excellence and innovation to create places that enrich people’s lives.