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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on April 19, 2017

Vision of the future

What next for airport terminals? Joe Bates reviews a handful of ongoing expansion projects and talks to some of the industry’s most influential architects about possible design changes in the future.

What will new airport terminals look like in 20 years?  

Will they be some of the biggest buildings on the planet or are we going the other way and the next generation of passenger facilities will be smaller, more compact and accessible?

Nobody really knows, of course, and what individual airports end up building will ultimately depend on demand, the type of traffic handled, the amount of land available to develop, planning permission and, of course, budget.

However, one thing that we can take for granted is that technology will continue to evolve and arguably the adoption of new IT systems over the next few decades will change the face of airport terminals forever as many of the facilities we take for granted at airports today may no longer be necessary by 2030 or earlier.

Perhaps the most obvious one is the traditional airport Departures Hall. Will they still be necessary in their current format in a decade’s time let alone in 20 or 30 years?

The relatively new ability to check-in and print bag tags at home, of course, means that things are already beginning to change and traditional check-in desks are slowly starting to disappear.

Singapore Changi’s planned new Terminal 4, for example, is essentially being designed to be a 100% self-service facility, while easyJet recently completed the installation of the world’s biggest bag-drop area at London’s Gatwick Airport.

The new technology at Gatwick allows passengers who have checked in online to take their bags straight to a machine upon arrival, where they can print their eezeetags supplied luggage labels, apply it to their bag and load it straight onto Gatwick’s newly modernised baggage sorting system.

“The new self-service kiosks provide a glimpse into the future of airport design and enable our customers flying from London Gatwick to have unique use of the most innovative state of the art facilities,” enthuses easyJet’s head of Gatwick, Chris Hope. 

The creation of a self-service terminal in Singapore just shows how quickly things can change in the aviation industry as only five years ago operator, Changi Airport Group (CAG), removed 24 self-service kiosks from its terminals as it believed that they weren’t getting enough use.

So what has caused the change of heart in moving more towards 100% self-service technology and does this mean that today’s travellers don’t want to speak to people anymore? 

CAG’s executive vice president for airport management, Tan Lye Teck, says: “The adoption of self-service options is in line with the wider global push towards such initiatives to improve productivity and efficiency at the same time as providing passengers with more choices, greater flexibility and increased convenience.

“Introducing self-service options doesn’t mean we are abandoning the human touch. Far from it, in fact, because the technology frees up even more time for staff to continue to deliver a first-class Changi Experience by being there to assist passengers who may need help, with a warm and friendly human touch.”

Costing around S$1.3 billion, Changi’s new 195,000sqm Terminal 4 will raise Changi’s passenger handling capacity by around 25% from the current 66mppa to an impressive 85 million passengers per annum when it opens in late 2017.

In response to how big a role IT will play in shaping the design and operation of the airport terminals of tomorrow, Unisys’ vice president and global head of travel and transportation, Dheeraj Kohli, says: “We see it playing a pivotal role, particularly in the ever-increasing application of mobility, beacons, biometrics and other technologies for seamless passenger flow, freeing-up precious floor space and optimising operations and security.

“New airport designs will be radically different to the US airports of the 1960s as they will be green, convey a sense of space and offer calm and tranquility.

“This will involve unobtrusive security, spacious reception lobbies, a variety of shops, retail offerings and quality dining. The building itself will be terrorist and cyber secure and, above all, fully support the mobile passenger experience with seamless Wi-Fi and wayfinding.”

He goes on: “We expect them to be more passenger-friendly. Today’s airport is gate-centric: passengers go straight to their gate for fear of missing a flight and, once there, they are lucky to find a power outlet, let alone food and entertainment. 

“Disney learned long ago about the value of providing entertainment for customers waiting for a ride, so too will the next generation of passenger-centric airports. 

“As a result, airports will be even more focused on the passenger experience and ensuring a constant flow of information to them throughout their journey through the terminal. Mobile devices will become not only the tool that
keeps you up to date, but it will also allow you to find your way around the airport.”

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Grand designs

So what do some of the world’s leading airport architects think the future holds for airports in terms of terminal design?

Curtis Fentress, principal-in-charge of design at Fentress Architects which has designed some of the world’s most iconic terminals, says: “The most successful terminals in the future will be hyperspaces designed to create a unique sense of place for each location. 

“Total flexibility will be key as there will be continuous changes in technology and airline operations. Airport terminals of the future must be designed in a way that the passenger process is functional, safe, memorable, and uplifting to the human spirit.”

Stantec’s executive vice president, Stanis Smith, believes that airports of the future will contain very different facilities than they do today with more airside space needed for facilitating and entertaining passengers and less landside for processing travellers.

“Technology is enabling the processing functions within an airport terminal to be completed more efficiently using less space. This is arguably the single biggest paradigm shift in airport design to have happened in decades and means that the era of the grand check-in hall is over,” he says.

He adds that technology will also decrease the space needs for customs and immigration processes, as automated passport readers become commonplace. 

However, he doesn’t necessarily think that terminals will become smaller, instead believing that airside areas will become bigger as gateways concentrate on enhancing the “airport experience” post security.

“Over the past few years many airlines have increased the number of seats on their aircraft, and have increased their load factors. Low-cost carriers in particular have reduced on-board services. All of this has put pressure on terminals to provide more space for passengers who are waiting for their flights, and has increased the need for airports to provide better and more comprehensive service offerings, particularly food, beverage and retail,” adds Smith.

“The terminal of the future will therefore celebrate the ‘passenger experience’ functions first, and while it will also provide appropriate accommodation for the passenger processing functions, those will be treated as transient spaces rather than ceremonial ones.”

He points to the recent relocation of the entire pre-security retail/food and beverage programme in Toronto Pearson’s Terminal 3 to post security as an example of what he believes is the shape of things to come. 

The introduction of virtual reality and gaming technologies are just two of the things Smith says Stantec are currently discussing with airports that want to create new airport experiences.

Meanwhile independent consultant, Ben Lao of BenL Consulting International, suggests that the airports of tomorrow will have new-look Departure halls, double-deck concourses and greatly enlarged holdrooms.

He also believes that many space intensive procedures and processes such as baggage handling might be moved to separate buildings for security reasons and to free up huge areas for other activities.

“Resizing the terminal lobby footprint for the outbound function and relocating the baggage sorting areas will reduce the overall passenger terminal building by as much as 20%, if not more,” states Lao.

“Furthermore, scanning luggage away from the terminal will heighten the safety index of those who at one point or another occupy the building.”

American Airlines agrees that times are changing and that the design of the airport of the future will have to be more flexible, sustainable and more experience-focused for passengers than ever before with greater attention paid to often overlooked airside facilities such as holdrooms which today, for the most part, it claims are bland and dull.

The carrier’s managing director for government and airport affairs, Rhett Workman, is also adamant that they must be designed in collaboration with the world’s airlines to avoid creating facilities than are impractical, overly expensive and not sustainable.

He says: “We just want facilities that are practical, functional, efficient and work for us from an employee and customer perspective – Taj Mahal type buildings with waterfalls aren’t the number one priority as they are expensive to build and maintain.

“The design of the airport of the future also needs to be flexible so that facilities can easily be reconfigured to adapt to change, for as we all know, the aviation industry is not static and change is constant. For these reasons it is very important for us to have a seat at the table from Day One when new facilities are being planned, designed and constructed.”

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Shape of things to come?

Arguably, the airport of the future is already being built today at Dubai World Central–Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) as, according to operator Dubai Airports, it will be developed as 12 medium-size airports on one site rather than as one giant hub ultimately capable of accommodating 200 million passengers.

Under its blueprint, DWC will comprise 12-nodes built across the airport’s vast 140 square kilometre site, each of which will be equipped to handle 20 million passenger per annum and act as identical, self-contained, independent facilities, effectively creating 12 different airports.

Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, says that this format will make DWC one of the most “customer centric” airports on the planet where nobody has to walk more that 400-metres to their connecting flight.

“In my view we are heading in the wrong direction by building ever bigger airports because bigger is not necessarily better,” says Griffiths.

“It inevitably means longer walking distances, less intimate experiences and greater difficulties in customers making connections. And let’s face it, there’s hardly any statistic that’s more important at a connecting hub than the ability for passengers to conveniently and easily connect between flights.

“We will be creating something that is manageable, navigable and easy to use at Dubai World Central and it is all being enabled by technology.”

With a huge eight kilometre distance between the nearest and farthest hubs, Griffith says the onus will be on Dubai Airports and the airlines to ensure that inbound passengers enjoy swift and hassle free journeys through DWC by assessing operations on a daily basis and directing flights to the best connecting nodes for the bulk of its passengers.

He adds that airports have to learn to treat every customer as an individual and every individual differently as nobody is the same and all travellers have different needs.

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