Ellis Island was once the most famous and glamourised national gateway to the US. An award-winning architectural landmark, it was often referred to as the ‘Island of Tears’ because of the experience of some travellers who were denied entrance into the country after a long voyage.
As the jet age moved into full swing, and now with international travel becoming more commonplace, scenes of grand entrances at ports like Ellis Island have largely been replaced by hurried passengers being screened through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) services at international airports across the country.
In an effort to remain competitive, terminal facilities must focus on improving the passenger experience and creating a welcoming ‘sense of place’ as passengers enter the US, with the success of a CBP often being based on its ability to process a certain number of passengers-per-hour.
With heightened security measures and changing passenger expectations, the design of international terminals may play as large a role as it ever has in delivering a positive experience to international travellers.
The new Maynard H Jackson Jr International Terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is an example of a terminal complex that will change people’s opinion of US airports.
Creating an entirely new terminal at the world’s busiest passenger airport allowed designers a clean slate to address current, and anticipated, traveller demands while enhancing the operational efficiency of the airport.
Indeed, many of these design concepts implemented in Atlanta should be considered when either designing upgrades at international facilities or when the time comes for expansion at an existing airport.
“The design is centred on delivering a memorable experience for arriving passengers through bright open spaces sensitive to human comfort, the integration of new technology, and a focus on providing traveller amenities,” says Jacob Wohlgemuth, AIA, Gresham, Smith and Partners’ architect of record for the project.
Deplaning passengers, who may have endured uncomfortable seating or restless sleep on their flights, are greeted by an inspiring daylight environment that keeps light (both natural and simulated) in the forefront.
Lighting is intentionally placed to diminish the cavernous sensation one often feels while walking through arrivals facilities, and high and expansive ceilings are modulated in scale by blue cove lighting.
As passengers are deplaning from a variety of origination points across the globe, signage and wayfinding is of utmost importance, and should be clear and easy to read.
The primary arrivals hall is centrally located among the 12 aircraft gates to minimise average walking distances. While the hall is below grade, clerestory windows counter that notion, allowing light to reflect from a high, gracefully curved ceiling to passengers at the 20 processing booths across the breadth of the hall.
The streamlined ceiling, evocative of cirrus clouds suspended freely from the building’s structure, adds to the natural flow of movement through the large hall.
Large-format high-definition video monitors are located at the beginning of the US CBP process. The programmable monitors allow interchangeable images to be displayed to all international passengers waiting in line for immigration documentation within the CBP Primary Processing Hall.
Electronic signage designates the varied lanes for US Citizens and for Foreign Visitors. This type of technology also allows for ease of flexibility between the information being relayed as well as the language(s) in which it is being displayed.
The result is a higher level of customer service in the ability to acknowledge the cultural diversity of truly global travel, and a variety of operational configurations for US CBP.
Kiosks for ‘trusted travellers’ are also available as part of a US CBP programme called Global Entry. Pre-approved, low-risk passengers are able to use these automated kiosks to expedite clearance when returning to the US.
Passengers simply scan their passport or US permanent resident card, place their fingertips on the scanner for fingerprint verification and make a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the passenger a transaction receipt and directs the traveller to baggage claim and the exit.
The walk to the baggage claim hall is straight, brief and, conveniently at the same level, as the CBP Primary Processing Hall. The baggage claim hall is clear of visual obstructions by co-ordination of column spacing and baggage claim carousels, and minimal baggage conveyor enclosures.
Passengers enter near the centre of the hall where a nearly 40ft wide corridor allows freedom of movement, and baggage carts are conveniently located without restricting the space.
The baggage carousels are oriented with the typical waiting areas away from the central corridor to promote passenger flow through the hall.
Exit control from baggage claim is in a spacious 36ft wide corridor, which terminates the US CBP process in an exit lobby with a stone accent wall. The wall, utilised as a wayfinding tool, designates the decision point between the exit to the Meeter and Greeter Hall or to continue to the re-check lobby for connections to a domestic flight.
The arrivals lobby has ample floor area and convenient concessions to support friends and families awaiting the arriving passenger.
One of the greatest process improvements is the elimination of a second baggage screening process for passengers terminating in Atlanta.
The CBP Hall has been designed so that once Atlanta-bound passengers have been cleared, they can proceed directly to an arrivals kerbside for a waiting taxi, or access airport shuttles to the parking deck and the consolidated rental car facility.
Removal of the need to screen luggage will cut down on overall passenger wait times and markedly improve the overall passenger experience.
Al Pramuk, executive vice president of aviation with Gresham, Smith and Partners (GS&P), notes that the firm was excited to contribute its expertise and serve as architect of record in co-operation with joint venture partner Duckett Design Group.
He says: “The City of Atlanta, the Department of Aviation and a multitude of stakeholders really came together throughout this project to achieve the goals for this spectacular facility, which will serve as a new global gateway to the US, connecting people to the world.”
The growth potential of international air travel in the US remains strong. Indeed, traffic growth is not only growing but accelerating.
While passengers entering the country in the days of Ellis Island experienced processing that took hours and sometimes even days, today passengers are looking for ease of entry similar to having an E-ZPass on a toll road, and the industry is responding.
Indeed, we are seeing the emergence of user-friendly airport design that is specifically aimed at accommodating today’s international traveller.
Anyone familiar with the feeling of anticipation when about to embark on a long international flight, who has felt anxiety when landing in a country where people are unlikely speak their native language, can testify that these changes are most welcome.
About the author
Robert Fuller, AIA, NCARB, is a senior architect with GS&P and has more than 17 years of experience in aviation-related design. He can be contacted at