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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on December 9, 2009

Efficient design



How can good design effectively increase an airport’s capacity, efficiency and convenience? Curtis Fentress investigates.

Commercial airports are among the world’s largest and most complex buildings. Most of them must operate 24 hours a day year-round, which poses great challenges for maintaining and modernising these spaces.

Ultimately, airports must strive to operate most efficiently and cost-effectively while getting the highest capacity out of their limited resources. At pivotal times, this requires a fresh perspective and some new ideas.

To achieve the most efficient configuration from kerbside to airside and accommodate capacity demands, one must first consider the passengers and their specific needs. There are three basic types of passenger, and a range of people that fall along the spectrum. Traveller types also vary by region and culture. Understanding the passengers and their needs guides the design for proportional airport spaces that efficiently serve their users.

The first passenger type is the ‘expert traveller’, also known as the ‘road warrior’. Typically, this group would include Cheng, the middle-aged Asian businessman. He travels by plane two to four times a week, has carry-on bags only and is ‘travel smart.’ He is very familiar with security procedures and knows how to get through security quickly and efficiently.

The second type of passenger is the ‘knowledgeable traveller’, and this group typically includes Diane, a young British woman. She travels once every two to four months for business or leisure, checks a bag on occasion and is familiar with check-in and security procedures.

The final type of passenger, and possibly the one we are most familiar with is the ‘leisure traveller’. This could be absolutely anyone, but for the sake of this article, let’s categorise them as Thomas, an American dad with three young children and lots of luggage. He occasionally travels for holidays or vacation and is unfamiliar with check-in and security processes. His family may require special assistance or extra time.

Air travel today begins long before passengers arrive at the airport, with online booking and remote check in. Upon arrival, each passenger needs a designated travel route, an intuitive path that directs them clearly and efficiently to reduce confusion and stress. There is a ‘natural order’ and a different set of required processes that each will follow.

Cheng, the expert traveller, needs intuitive wayfinding from kerbside to gate, with the shortest distance and least obstacles. He skips the ticketing hall and blazes straight through security, where he prefers a designated fast line, even if it’s a fee-based membership. For Diane, the knowledgeable traveller, remote bag drop and common-use self-service kiosks are easier, faster and more convenient. Thomas, the leisure traveller who juggles bags and children, needs options for easier bag check and extra time and assistance for check-in and security.

Arriving passenger needs are less varied. Measures such as reducing travel distances and using moving sidewalks can improve speed and efficiency. Bottlenecks and congestion should be identified and mitigated in the luggage claim and ‘meet and greet’ areas. Also, common-use bag claim carousals optimise the efficiency of baggage handling.

Understanding passenger types and staying focused on their needs will enable airports to better serve their customers while maximising the efficiency of their facilities.

One must be mindful that traveller types and needs can differ between regions and cultures. For instance, passengers in the New York City area are likely to have fewer checked bags. In India, the whole family may greet a returning passenger at bag claim, which requires a larger ‘meet and greet’ area.

When designing gateways, it is important to understand the essence of a place and its people. ‘Let culture guide the design.’ Express a sense of the city, while making spaces easy to understand and navigate.

Through experience and exploration, Fentress Architects has identified eight design concepts and ideas that can effectively increase the capacity, efficiency and convenience of essentially all airports, now and in the future.

Think long-term. Determine capacity needs by establishing an appropriate forecast and planning horizon, which should be factored into a masterplan looking 10-20 years ahead. Then scale facilities to accommodate projected growth, monitor and adjust according to traffic levels.

Be flexible. Create flexibility in areas subject to change, such as ticketing, security, baggage handling and concessions. Minimise obstructions and fixed elements to improve flexibility and passenger flow.

In Colorado, the Great Hall at Denver International Airport, which now hosts two large security checkpoints and concessions, features a column-free space that quickly and easily adapted to the extensive security measures implemented after 9/11.

Design for people. ‘Discover the natural order’ to create intuitive wayfinding. Utilise passenger flow simulations to identify and mitigate bottlenecks as well as minimise ‘decision points.’



Streamline connections to and from the airport and between facilities. Providing an efficient intermodal transit system to/from airport can reduce the volume of emissions from personal vehicles and lessen the strain on parking space.

Free the ticketing hall. Utilise online and remote check-in and e-ticketing.

Create a system that offers flexible bag drop options, such as common-use bag drops at hotels, convention centres, city centres, parking garages and kerbside.

Consider implementing a ‘smart kerb,’ where passengers can check their bags at kerbside before parking their car to reduce travel distances with luggage.

Also, provide common-use self-check-in kiosks for efficiency and convenience. Then, a portion of the ticketing hall could possibly be adapted for retail, security or bag claim at existing airport terminals.

At San Jose International Airport in California, Fentress’ modernisation for Terminal A relocated the second floor ticketing counters to double the adjacent security checkpoint capacity and reduce wait times. The existing ticketing hall was expanded to provide common use kiosks and 60% more ticketing stations. Kerbside bag drop is also now available.

Streamline security. Consolidate security checkpoints with expansion space for additional lanes. Inform passengers of security procedures, wait times and flight departure times with signage and video displays. Ensure sufficient space and benches post-security for passengers to comfortably gather their belongings at their own pace.

Innovate in baggage handling. Consider implementing Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags for checked baggage. Computer chips, which replace paper tags and barcodes, would serve as a unique ID containing passenger and flight information to assist in baggage handling and tracking.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, is currently testing this technology. Future possibilities include self-check for bags, in which ‘overweight’ bag fees are automatically charged to the RFID owner’s credit card.

In-line bag screening systems are a large space demand, so look for new ways to integrate them more efficiently. A relatively new concept for remote bag check and screening is to have bags arrive at the airport separately (even hours prior to the passenger’s arrival) and be screened outside the terminal in a stand-alone airside facility, instead of occupying terminal space. This also frees passengers of their bags, especially for those who are staying at hotels and have later flights.

Door-to-door baggage handling (a new service by United Airlines) and remote bag drop, in which travellers check their bags at bus or train stations, car parks or the city centre/terminal, such as in Hong Kong and Tokyo, is a popular growing trend in Europe, Asia and the US. Las Vegas recently launched this baggage service from hotels on The Strip.

Adapt the gates. Plan for the best aircraft utilisation and maintain flexibility in the expansion and addition of gates. Design seating space and configurations appropriate to passenger needs. Wire the gate room seating to be electronics friendly, offering Internet (even Wi-Fi) and electrical outlets to improve passenger flow and reduce congestion at charging stations. Additionally, keep restrooms and concessions close.

Let technology work for you. Share! Utilise common-use technology and equipment for efficient management and flexible use of ticket counters, kiosks, gates and baggage claim, which maximises the operational capacity and utilisation of existing infrastructure.

New technologies in development include the use of barcodes on cell phones to replace printed boarding passes.

As the trend for remote check-in and bag drop grows, new technologies will facilitate innovations in baggage handling, security screening and other areas, improving efficiency while alleviating space constraints.

Flexibility is crucial for airports to best adapt to day-to-day and future needs. And, foremost, understanding passenger types will allow airports to better scale airport spaces to effectively serve their passengers’ needs.

Implemented well, these strategies can produce high-efficiency, high-capacity airports that rise to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Airport World 2009 - Issue 6

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