For many, a visit to the airport can be an obstacle course of long lines, hurried passengers, and moving walkways crowded with the only people who aren’t in a rush. Air travelers are often so focused on making it to their destinations that they don’t realize the meticulous thought that has gone into the futuristic sky portal they’re moving through.
“Airports are one of the youngest building types” says Derrick Choi, a senior architect at Populous, a firm that designs a panoply of sizable structures, including airports. Choi notes that one of the world’s oldest airports, London’s Heathrow, started out as a “tent in a field.” But as planes and air travel changed, so did the buildings that guided passengers from the curb to a lofty cruising altitude.
Modern airports serve many functions—they’re often a combination of transit hub, shopping mall, and civic square. They welcome tourists, ferry business travelers, and contain enough amenities to entertain restless passengers when a Nor’easter hits the east coast the day before Thanksgiving.
Not surprisingly, an incredible amount of meticulous planning goes into building an airport terminal. In fact, most airports are designed to guide and influence you in ways you would never even guess. For example:
1. They use nature to nurture.
Even though the average airport is a steel and glass megastructure that looks to be straight out of a science fiction movie, many use natural elements or earthy tones to bring the calm of the outside world into busy terminals.
Laura Mandala, Managing Director at Mandala Research—a travel and tourism research firm—says that “airports are increasingly incorporating nature-like elements into their designs.” These elements can include using stone in construction, placing plants in terminals and boarding areas, and installing multiple windows to let in natural light.
The scientific benefits of natural elements are well-documented, and they might be particularly beneficial for nervous flyers—an experiment in Environmental Science & Technology showed that stress recovery improves for subjects who view scenes of nature prior to their stressor.
This practice is evidenced in the planned modernization of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal 3. In a press release, design firm Smithgroup JJR highlighted many natural elements in its redesign plans, some of which have already been rolled out.
“The arrival experience on the north curb immerses visitors into the Sonoran desert flora with unique vegetation forms,” the release read. Once inside the terminal, there are windows and skylights throughout, and “the result is a space naturally illuminated and connected to the environment.”
2. Airports try to copy Main Street, U.S.A.
In addition to serving cities, many airports can seem like cities unto themselves. Consequently, to encourage shopping and dining, airports try to mimic the layout of a city marketplace or small town street.
All those shops you see after security? They’re arranged that way for a reason, says Darin Held, a principal at Bloommiami, a firm that helps activate brands in airports.
“When you go into an airport terminal, you’ll see that all the stores are kind of clustered together,” says Held. “This gives you a Main Street-type feel so that you’re able to shop a promenade.” The airport shopping experience, Held shares, is meant to feel as familiar as strolling in and out of the boutiques on your favorite public street.
This mimicry is being seen more and more in airport architecture, especially in the post-9/11 security era when travelers arrive early to ensure they’ll get through TSA lines.
“Once you’re done with security, there’s a desire to have a central space that you can go to, which has every[thing] in one space—food court, retail, [things like that].” This can create a more inviting environment than, say, the long narrow terminals at LaGuardia that have frustrated passengers for years.
“I think one of the most prominent examples [of this] is the Seattle Central Marketplace concept,” says Choi. “It has large, expansive glass. It gets everyone out there in one central space, and then they go off to their gates.”
According to Choi, the central terminal has long been a popular design choice for international airports, and has only more recently been seen in the United States.
Perhaps taking their cue from the famous plazas and piazzas of the old world, these large public spaces seek to bring people and merchants together to create a dynamic and energizing space for passengers to mingle before flights.
3. Windows help to ease stress and orient passengers.
One of the most striking features of Seattle-Tacoma’s Pacific Marketplace is the massive window wall—a pleasant design aesthetic, yes, but also a significant feature of any airport terminal.
Large, jetway-facing windows are a necessary component of any terminal design. As noted, there are significant benefits to having sunlight and a connection to nature in the sometimes cold and remote surroundings of an airport concourse.
But these windows also play a major role in helping passengers know where they are. A glimpse of the runways and planes outside help “travelers orient to the whole” says Mandala. She points out that occasionally the suitcase-rolling masses will have to “walk down miles of hallways with no orientation to the rest of the airport.” While lengthy corridors may be needed to get people from A to B, windows showing the airport exterior give passengers a landmark of sorts to follow.
It all goes back to creating a less stressful environment for travelers: “Orientation helps reduce stress” explains Mandala. Anyone who’s ever seen someone (or been the person) screaming at a ticket agent knows that the whole airport experience could benefit from some relaxing elements. Overall, Mandala contends, “windows are important for the wellness factor of the traveler.” She states that windows help “reduce the feeling of being a ‘rat in a maze’ and keep travelers connected to the outside world.”
4. They try to guide with a nudge instead of a shove.
Most people think of signs as a key part of getting around the airport terminal, and while they certainly are, many airports seek to help people find their way without having to resort to a never-ending labyrinth of signs and arrows.
“Architecture should guide the traveler through the airport,” explains Mandala. How a terminal is designed usually plays significant part in improving the wayfinding experience of air travelers. Prior to planning a redesign for New York’s JFK Terminal 5, which handles some 20 million passengers annually, professional services firm Arup created a 3D terminal on in-house software to study how people might move around the space, according to a profile in Popular Mechanics.
Seeing virtual passengers find their way through the digital terminal helped the company confirm and fine-tune their vision of a simple, spacious layout. Completed in 2008, JFK’s Terminal 5 is a model of reconfiguring airports for the post-9/11 landscape.
When it comes to navigating the T2’s and Gate A’s of an airport, “There needs to be a sense of order, with some regularity of where travelers can find things” notes Mandala. Creating smaller passenger areas within a larger terminal is a large part of that. “Differentiation of space,” Mandala explains, “are the architectural cues that help a traveler identify where to go and what function happens in which area.”
Especially considering that airports are global hubs, filled with different languages and backgrounds, using visual elements rather than signs to communicate proves much more effective. Points out Mandala: “Some places should reflect energy and movement while others relaxation or connectivity.” Passengers can be nudged to keep moving by “colors, lines, and angles to encourage the flow of travelers from one place to the next.”
Gate areas, conversely, can use carpet, televisions, and softer lighting to tell passengers that this is a space where they can sit down and find some peace of mind. Natural elements play a role in this as well—“Atriums with trees can be relaxing” says Mandala. These subliminal spacial cues help to make navigating the airport easier, thus creating happier travelers.
5. Keep Walking: Though some long hallways are necessary, others are by design.
While likely all airports would love to play around in a virtual simulation to create the perfect terminal, not all of them have that luxury. Many airports, especially in the U.S., were built in the jet age of the 1960s, and some date back even farther than that. The design of these airports, Choi reveals, were driven “not by architects, but by engineers.” They were just trying to figure out runways and jetways and rarely left enough space for the swell of passengers that would emerge in the later half of the 20th century. As a result of this, long hallways can be a regular part of the airport experience.
But not all hallways are created equal. In the case of international arrivals, says Choi, there’s actually a challenge to “create a long enough journey that can allow passengers to walk slow enough that there bags can catch up to them at the bag claim.” Large international flights necessitate that bags are stored in large containers on the plane. Removing the bags and getting them to the arrivals area takes time—so airports subtly stall the passengers with lengthy corridors.
These spaces need not be devoid of substance, though. Choi believes that these long walks are “opportunities to really say something.” Advertising can play a role in these spaces, though sometimes brand interests are less subtle.
Take, for example, the practice of some European airports which necessitate that passengers walk through a duty free store right after security. Held states that “you are thrown into, without your say, a shopping experience.” While some may bristle at such in-your-face commercial design elements, Held claims many enjoy entering through the gift shop. Following the unpleasantness of the security line, Held explains that “you’re immediately hit with a sensory experience” that is well-curated by many “luxury-type brands.”
The truth is that wherever you’re walking in an airport, it is almost always a deliberate decision coming from architects, engineers, or advertisers.
6. Think Local: Airports seek to stand out by bringing their hometown favorites into the terminal.
Perhaps one of the newest and most welcome ways airports seek to connect with their passengers is by adding more local vendors, chefs, and cultural elements into the terminal space. Whereas many airports used to feel like facsimiles of one another, using the same Hudson News and only swapping out the local sweatshirts and novelty snow globes, airport terminals of today are enthusiastically incorporating more of their unique civic flavor into the terminal.
“Traveler research since the late 1990s has revealed travelers’ desire to experience more of the destination they are visiting,” explains Mandala, “Travelers want to feel transported to another place and not experience a ‘cookie cutter’ version…that looks the same as every other destination.” Including more local fare helps an airport stand out in the minds of travelers in ways they may not have before.
Held reveals that he needs look no farther that his home city of Miami for examples of this trend: “In Miami, we have a company called Half-Moon Empanadas that makes the best empanadas in town—a small bakery-type operation—they’ve got a kiosk in the airport.” He also mentions a new restaurant in the Miami airport opened by beloved Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan that serves up rum and Cuban sandwiches. Held says he’s also working with a Miami cigar shop owner to bring a “Cuban experience” to the airport with cigars and cigar rolling.
Yes, these are businesses, but they also serve a function for passengers, contends Held: “so that the traveler gets a sense of place. That place is unique and different from anywhere else they may be traveling.”
Choi points out that “localizing” airports can help them entice travelers to return, especially for any airport that’s not already a major hub. Choi discusses working with Oakland International Airport—“They wanted to project the idea of being the alternative and more affordable and more efficient gateway to the Bay Area.” They discussed pop-up shops and the idea of bringing “the best of East Bay” to the airport. This led to working with one of Oakland’s most celebrated up-and-coming stores, Oaklandish, to bring a (now annual) holiday pop-up store to Oakland International’s terminal. In today’s competitive airport landscape, says Choi, “Everyone’s trying to create a unique identity.”
Actively bringing in local vendors allows airports to make a more lasting impression on travelers, hopefully enticing passengers to utilize their facilities in a world with a greater range of choices. As opposed to the early days when Boeing 707s ruled the air and passengers usually had just one local airport on their radar, today’s customers enjoy a plethora of resources to help them make their decision.
Creating airports that spurn good internet reviews or, even better, great word of mouth (Ask any Los Angelino about flying out of Bob Hope Airport) can lead to lifelong airport loyalty. Since the number of air travelers is expected to grow in coming years, airports face an even greater challenge to make terminals that guide, sooth, and engage honeymooners and business travelers alike. It remains in each airport’s best interest to influence passengers in ways they may not even realize to have an enjoyable and relaxing travel experience. And that’s great news for anyone who wants to keep the skies a little friendlier.