Skift Take

Airport architects are busy rethinking the terminal experience, and that's a good thing. But don't expect any major changes, at least not soon. Instead, travelers will get incremental improvements.

It’s not happening fast enough for many travelers, but many of the world’s airports have over several years morphed into community spaces, where travelers can spend time in a yoga room, beer hall, butterfly garden, or children’s playground before they fly.

So far, this is a trend most often seen at forward-thinking airports, such as Singapore Changi, with its butterfly garden, Hong Kong’s airport with its IMAX movie theater, and Seoul Incheon with its indoor skating rink. In the United States, one of the most innovative amenities is the yoga room at San Francisco International — a unique spot, but nothing amazing.

Those global perks get considerable media attention and often ensure these facilities make various lists of the world’s best airports. But the impressive amenities are still most often reserved for the world’s largest gateways, often in the Middle East and Asia, usually at airports with big construction budgets. The typical American or European hub is still more interested in having luxury shopping and decent restaurants rather than butterfly gardens.

That could change soon, according to three architects who spoke recently with Skift. The three — Terence Young of Gensler, Andy Bell of Corgan and Pat Askew of HKS — said they expect more medium- and big-city airports will emulate major Asian and Middle East gateways by making airports more fun, with a greater sense of community.

Soon, they said, they expect more airports will be places travelers actually want to go, rather than where they must go. That doesn’t mean travelers in Seattle or Paris will get over-the-top amenities like Singapore, where there’s a four-story indoor slide, but it should mean they’ll be more pleasant experiences.

Here are the architects’ predictions on the airport evolution travelers will see soon(ish) in more places.

A Community Experience

The three architects said they expect airports in a decade or two will become a place people want to be, rather where they where they go for transportation.

“It happens a lot on the international scale,” Corgan’s Bell said. “But I believe we’re starting to see trends in a domestic shift toward this return to the jet age where the airport isn’t just a piece of infrastructure for commuting, but it’s a place to go and experience.”

Young, design director for Gensler Los Angeles, said he envisions airports acting like a town square, allowing travelers to do everything they might in their home neighborhood. That means airports could have a playground for kids to “burn off some energy,” or a “bougie” coffee shop, or even a yoga room, he said. Some airports already have some of these features, including San Francisco, for which Young has designed, but few have created the community-style feel Young envisions.

Future airports will have shopping too, but the experience might be different. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many airports began offering a mall-type experience. That works, Young said, but only to a point. Today, travelers may not like being manipulated into shopping to pass time. They may browse stores if they’re bored, but if they’re anxious or stressed, they might not buy anything.

If airports can give consumers a more well-rounded “town-square style” experience, Young said, they might feel more comfortable. If they’re more relaxed, Young reasoned, they might buy more.

“We are giving that waiting time back to people as if they are still in their community, as opposed to, ‘I am going to the airport and I have to wait for an hour,'” he said.

Ideally, the architects say, airports would be for everyone — not just people flying that day. Ultimately, whether to allow non-ticketed passengers will be a decision for security officials and airport executives. Pittsburgh recently became the first U.S. airport to allow people without flight reservations to enter since Sept. 11, but this may not become a trend.

Regardless, Young said he suspects airports can create more of a community feel by catering to the thousands of employees who work at them. Today, workers come and go, without creating much of a sense of community. But what if they wanted to hold their happy hours at the terminal, rather than a few miles away?

If workers create a culture of “pride of place and ownership of community” at airports, Young said travelers would benefit.

“They should not be the hidden people,” Young said. “They are the residents of that city, and travelers are the visitors.”

A rethinking of lobbies and security

Are grand airport lobbies obsolete?

Askew, of HKS, said he thinks so. Already, he noted, many passengers barely interact with an agent before they fly. Even if they check a bag, they might only have a brief chat with an airport contractor or airline employee before placing luggage on the belt. Yet the space allotted to lobbies remains as massive as years ago. Meanwhile, travelers still wait in cramped gate areas.

“That’s going to change the architecture of a terminal,” Askew said. “The big room will need to be someplace else. It really needs to be where the passengers are waiting for the airplane. Where people spend their time is going to be the space where the airports spend more money and give more area for people to do things.”

As security screening evolves, airports someday could change further. The architects aren’t security experts, but they know enough to suggest future terminals may not have screening stations. Instead, they say, technology could allow airports to constantly screen people — and their bags — as they walk through terminals. If security services adopted the technology, architects could rethink space now dedicated to screening.

“That will make the security portal less of a portal and more of an open causeway,” Young said. “You won’t know you are being screened and you’re being scanned constantly.”

Less Parking

A decade or two ago, planners might have predicted airports would shed parking because passengers would take public transit. At some airports, particularly outside the United States, trains and buses are efficient, though at many others, travelers still use cars to reach the airport.

But while 10 years ago travelers in cars parked in airport garages, that’s no longer always true. Many prefer Uber and Lyft — services so popular many airports have reported a significant decline in parking revenue.

That’s not the only issue. The architects say airports must prepare for driverless cars, and rethink whether they need parking garages at all.

“In our lifetime, we will see some form of manifestation that the car will drive itself,” Corgan’s Bell said. “How will airports respond to that? There might be a need for less parking, and more curbside.”

Driverless cars will have to be parked somewhere, but Young said owners are just as likely to send their car home as to leave it in a garage. When it’s time for the pickup, the driverless car will return for the traveler.

Few airports are knocking down garages yet, but Young said Gensler often builds new ones that can be turned into office buildings.

Today’s garages could also become terminals. Eventually, Los Angeles International likely will construct a new Terminal 0, in what is now a parking lot next to Terminal 1. The lot is operated by a private company, but the land is owned by the airport.

More Green Space

Young calls it the, “holy grail.”

He said he wants more airports to install parks with plants and trees, and maybe birds or other wildlife. That’s easier said than done — for two reasons. Parks often can’t be outside — or at least close to runways — because their inhabitants can cause danger to airplanes. “The most difficult thing about putting parks into an airport is birds,” he said. “Birds and airplanes don’t mix very well.”

And, at least for now, airports will have trouble building parks inside because terminals, like all commercial buildings, use coated glass for their windows to block some of the sun’s strength. Singapore’s airport has created a butterfly garden, with a big water feature, and Young called it a strong “first foray” into bringing wildlife indoors. But he said airports can do better.

Perhaps, he said, an airport can alter indoor lighting overnight to create conditions where a park can thrive. Then, during the day, it can maintain a better lighting experience for travelers.

“We know we can do it” Young said. “We just have to work with engineers and clients that are willing to do the maintenance on them. Water features and plants and things like that, they require horticulturist, and a lot of maintenance. It’s not for lack of vision.”

But Askew, of HKS, said he’s not sure airports will ever bother with the expense of indoor parks.

“Instead of the parking garage, there might be a park there,” he said. “We’re working on a terminal project that is going to have a park in front of it. But I just don’t think you’re going to have much of a park inside.”

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Tags: airline innovation, airline passenger experience, airports, design

Photo credit: Architects at HKS designed an airport of the future for a recent competition. HKS

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