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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on September 19, 2017

Creating experiences

Embracing the experiential as well as the functional aspects of airport design can create truly memorable, enjoyable and efficient facilities, writes April Meyer, Alliiance principal and senior terminal designer for interiors.

Imagine walking through your favourite airport. Whether you’ve done it once or hundreds of times, the experience of air travel and the airports you traverse create an indelible impression.

Perhaps this is because of what airports represent – travel, adventure, escape, or maybe it’s their size; they tend to be impressive structures, rife with activity both human and machine.

What may be more difficult to imagine is the underpinnings of such a place. What does it take to effectively design a space with so many moving parts and strong associations?

This question is at the centre of airport design and the corresponding answers evolve constantly. There is however, a crux, fixed and fundamental, which is how to deliver the best possible passenger experience.

This includes much more than simply ‘getting from point A to B’. The Alliiance aviation team has, for decades, focused on advancing design considerations that maximise passenger experience by integrating key concepts of sense of place, hospitality, and intuitive wayfinding.

Although industry changes and technological advances such as shifting security concerns and adaptation of mobile technologies necessarily push the evolution of airport design, there are several, perhaps more obscure, societal drivers that are changing the expectations of passengers as well.


For some years, I’ve been immersed in understanding the role of generationality in this process. As a Gen Xer, I understand well, the preferences of my fellow post-boomers. Pragmatic and self-reliant, we find comfort in division of work and play.

I personally thrive in quiet and like to stand at a desk while I work (verses, say, laying across a sofa). Millennials, on the other hand, work and play flexibly. They have an “any place, any time” mentality towards life.

These two groups, albeit adjacent in time, and not representative of the full spectrum of passenger types, illustrate some of the diversity in lifestyle preferences that are a major driving force in current design trends. From ‘Dilbert cubes’ to the mobile employee, a well-designed space can support the needs of many to work and be engaged in the world beyond the airport.

Parallel to generational considerations is a move towards creating more hospitality-oriented spaces in all areas of our daily life, including airports. This means creating a variety of environments for working, lounging, or being entertained within the airport.

This shift mirrors an increased move away from sterile brand continuity in the hospitality industry itself. Hotels, restaurants and retail space are becoming, by and large, more focused on creating a richer sense of brand recognition through quality experiences in regionally inspired spaces designed as a unique expression, something Alliiance has been promoting for years in airports.       

Customisation, which is the common thread between these trends, is now a matter of course with design as the basis. Our current projects in diverse locations such as Louisville, Kentucky; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Memphis, Tennessee; and Réunion Island, located 900 kilometres east of Madagascar, unite many of these trends in new and unique ways.


The evolution of the experiential side of airport design since the early 1990s has followed an arc which, in loose chronological order, has included integrated regional sense of place, increased concession quality and variety, increased service-based amenities, streamlining of processes, and more recently, the introduction of more hospitality-related environments, equitable access design, and merging of airport brand with a more transcendental, holistic notion of ‘place’.

Although now the term is frequently overused and over-simplified in the industry, when Alliiance initially pioneered the notion of ‘sense of place’ in the early 90s, it was more a macro version of customisation, that authentically celebrated regional culture and environment in a sophisticated and integrated manner, not a theme park imitation of the locale.

If properly implemented, it sends a resounding, yet elegant message to passengers that they have indeed ‘arrived’ at their destination. The airport is the gateway to its region and the first and last place travellers experience, and should be authentic and appropriate in its expression.

In both Grand Rapids and Louisville, this notion of appropriate ‘sense of place’ was adapted to meld with overall airport branding efforts. In both instances, the design work was co-ordinated with simultaneous branding efforts including new visual identities
and logos.

In Louisville, the Alliiance team (including graphic/environmental designers at Kolar Design) merged the research and design efforts of both architecture and graphic design into a seamless mutually informing process.

The process involved community and staff in a series of workshops that included not just imagery and discussion of the physical attributes of the region but, importantly, the cultural, social, historical, and emotional components of the city and region as well as the service and operational aspirations of the airport.

The exercises included semantic studies and ultimately the creation of narratives that co-ordinated and bound formal design, colour and function with ‘story-telling’.


As the design advanced, opportunities were developed for subtle, abstract, and integrated references to the resulting overarching sense of place message within the architecture.

This included new terrazzo floors and finishes, as well as feature areas, which more literally tell the Louisville story with written word and images.

Louisville artists Elizabeth Swanson and Mike McKay are contributing to the project with a soon to be installed public art sculpture that complements the overall project message of ‘Setting A Higher Standard – Distilling Great Experiences’.

This uniting theme is simultaneously a nod to the Bourbon industry of the region, as well as a tradition of craft and quality throughout Louisville’s culture including industry, community engagement, celebrations, food, and the arts.

The new logo, the architecture, and art, along with the airport’s mission, all resonate and reinforce each other as a result of the holistic process taken. It is personally exciting to have witnessed and participated in the evolution of this approach to airport design with the resulting blend of meaning and beauty.

In conjunction with creating a ‘sense of place’, or rather on the other side of the same coin, airports have transformed in the age of customisation into an extension of the hospitality experience, the bespoke experience.

Fancy a taste of bourbon? Check out the Bourbon Academy Tasting Room where, in parallel to Alliiance’s terminal enhancement project, local flavour is featured in a distillery inspired space
where visitors can sip and learn about bourbon and the heritage
of Kentucky.

In Louisville, passengers will also find a Starbucks Evenings as well as namesake KFC, with revamped interiors that pay homage to the Colonel and are complete with a bucket themed chandelier and a Colonel statue perfect for photos and selfies.

These concepts, developed by HMSHost in conjunction with Tinsley Family Concessions, are elevated in both quality and sensitivity to the overall project message mentioned earlier.

They participate in and complete the cohesive brand Louisville now portrays. In addition to authentic restaurant and retail experience, passengers want flexible space to use as they please – to rest, work, visit and even meditate.

Not only is there an imperative to provide greater flexibility, but these variety of experiences are increasingly more intermingled to create a more flowing and dynamic experience.


For example, as part of the Memphis International Airport Concourse Modernization project, Alliiance, with Memphis-based UrbanARCH, designed a variety of lounge seating areas, flexible work and relaxation hubs, and feature areas dubbed ‘pocket parks’ amongst gate hold areas that also contain traditional beam-seating options.

‘Dignified waiting areas’ have been added at restrooms outside of the flow of circulation and enhanced with environmental art. Concessions are integrated into gate hold areas, and the entire experience occurs in an open airy and progressive environment rooted in the project vision, ‘Connect, Transform, and Inspire’.

Likewise, as part of the ‘global design vision’ Alliiance developed for Réunion’s Roland Garros Airport, passengers in future departures areas will flow through a fundamentally hospitality-oriented environment with a high percentage of lounge seating options, communal and work hubs intermingled with concessions and amenities.

The overall experience on this mezzanine level departures areas, overlooking more traditional existing waiting areas, will feel akin to a high-quality airline lounge flavoured by a sophisticated take on the essence of the island.

And while airy lounges and sophisticated concession offerings are all well and good, one must be able to find them first! Navigating an airport can be a source of frustration and anxiety. From seasoned travellers to those flying once or twice a year, a feeling of confidence in one’s ability to get around plays a significant role in the passenger experience.

While signage certainly has its place, intuitive wayfinding – moving from point to point, ideally towards a visible destination, with the help of visual and physical clues – helps draw people through a space without the need for intensive signage.

The means to accomplishing intuitive wayfinding starts with maintaining simple and clear circulation flows as well as high levels of visibility and orientation at all times.

This was a core goal of the Memphis Concourse Modernization project. The ‘Connect, Transform, and Inspire’ theme was partially reflected through the notion of ‘Memphis Walk’, which is an architectural idea more about a series of experiences connected by interior architecture elements than a literal path.

Despite the connotations of meandering that ‘Memphis Walk’ may imply, the circulation and sightlines are all very clear and open. This is important in reducing stress as passengers can see the gates and stay oriented at all times.

In the Réunion project, Alliiance effectively utilised a ‘visible destination’ in the form a waterfall, which anchors one end of the main ticket lobby.

Visible from the other end of the ticket lobby, it serves as a stylised wayfinding element to draw passengers up the vertical circulation to a landside concessions zone prior to security and the kiss-and-fly lounge. This transition happens naturally, fostering an engaging, enjoyable experience, while celebrating Réunion’s iconic waterfalls.

Most of what has been discussed here relates to the experiential aspects of terminal design, which is not to say that technological, programmatic and traditional ‘functional’ aspects of planning and design are not equally important to a properly functioning airport.

The takeaway, as I see it, should be that the approaches outlined above individually contribute to providing a more relaxed, enjoyable, and ultimately meaningful, experience. And if the ‘experiential’ and ‘functional’ are co-ordinated together they are dramatically more potent.

It is this more holistic approach merging customised, flexible hospitality environments, intuitive wayfinding, and ‘sense of place’ with the airport brand that we believe is one of the most powerful advances in airport design.

Indeed, we feel that it champions the best possible passenger experience – casting a positive light on the indelible impression made by the experience of airports and air travel.

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