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OTHER ARTICLES Last modified on April 30, 2012

Back in vogue

What are airports doing to cater to the baby boomer generation who are among the world’s most prolific travellers? Cedric Curtis considers the challenges and opportunities for gateways.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am part of the ‘boomer generation’.

We consider this in the positive sense as we are richer in life’s experiences and ready for whatever is next.

Collectively, ‘boomers’ are those members of a cresting wave of individuals who were born in the post-World War II era. This was an optimistic time of returning servicemen and women and those who started families in earnest well into the succeeding decades’ go-go economy.

In the US alone, a wave of 77 million baby boomers will age into their mid-60s and 70s. The impact that this generation will have on travel – and particularly on airports – in the coming years, will be pronounced.

The unprecedented influx of boomers into the pre and post retirement generation ushers in a class of consumers who:
• Will be workers with seniority or active retirees with the desire and means to travel
• Are generally savvy with technology
• Are accustomed to service, convenience and value for money

While the current economy, or personal choice may forestall retirement for many today, an article in USA Today of census data by the Center for Retirement Research pegs the average retirement age in the USA for women at 62 and for men at 64.

This census data also points out that the number of Americans living to age 90 and beyond has tripled to almost two million in the last three decades and will likely quadruple by 2050.

What this means is that boomers represent the leading edge of a new kind of traveller – the mature world citizen who is living longer and embracing an independent lifestyle.

As boomers continue to age they will also demand accommodation for changing physical or cognitive limits. They will expect good service, dignity in their treatment, and minimum barriers to their movement and quality of life.

For the boomer generation, air travel is ubiquitous; it is generally taken for granted that virtually anyone with the desire to travel can get on a plane and go anywhere. As a general rule, boomers are comfortable with flying for both business and leisure travel.

The aging of America and the world will soon be reflected in the infrastructure at airports. Interestingly, the secret to the successful design of new airport terminals may lie in the past as well as the future.

That is, they will need to anticipate the future of new technology and sustainable building innovations while embracing the past by recalling a more neighbourly time when people communicated and socialised in a more personal manner.

The boomer generation has witnessed a startling evolution of society. They have seen the birth of personal computers, the Internet and space flight; and the demise of full-service gas stations and battalions of agents manning airport ticket counters as self-serve devices have popped up everywhere.

Those who have witnessed these changes are often amused at what passes for customer service today. Boomers are vocal, if nothing else, and command sizable clout in the evolving aviation marketplace. They vote with their wallets.

What do they want? Four things in general: choice, convenience, communication and accessibility.

Boomers are used to having things ‘their way’, (cable TV and Starbucks, for instance). They understand the value of money, and will readily comparison shop for airline fares, hotels, food and retail purchases.

Airports, therefore, must have a good variety of food and retail offerings at street pricing, with a mix of local and national brands. At the same time, boomers are becoming increasingly conscientious about healthy lifestyle choices and social and environmental stewardship.

To meet this challenge, airports must adopt sustainable practices. Airport concessionaires must focus on providing retail, food and beverages that meet the social and environmental thresholds of fair trade, being sustainably produced and packaged, and of both tasting good and being good for you. 

Likewise, airport developments must provide a passenger terminal environment that is clean, durable and orderly, with natural lighting, good air quality and comfortable noise levels.

Mandates to design, build and operate airport facilities to LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) standards are increasingly commonplace, creating requirements to conserve energy, water, and effectively manage consumption and waste streams.

The next highest priority for baby boomers is convenience. The perception of convenience – or lack of it – has profound repercussions. A June 2008 study by the US Travel Association, cited one of the top reasons by travellers for not flying was “air travel hassles”.

The study revealed a deep frustration among air travellers that caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the 12-month period at a cost of several billion dollars to the US economy.

This represented lost airline, hotel, restaurant and traveller tax revenues because of reduced spending by travellers.

Boomers, like most others who have lived through the events of 9/11, understand the need for safety and security that has resulted in the arduous passenger and baggage screening processes used today.

Nevertheless, they look forward to improved procedures and technology that will enhance the concept of free-flowing security screening passenger checkpoints with minimal waiting times and dignified inspections.

And in a like fashion, there are other airport operations that play a part in perceived convenience: clean and well maintained restrooms, dependable shuttle buses, a good mix of concessions, and functioning elevators, escalators, moving walks and even drinking fountains.

Convenience and comfort really go hand-in-hand. An adequate and comfortable variety of seating options, visually pleasing interiors, plants, artwork, good lighting, airport TV network channels and updated flight monitors all combine to ease anxiety and add to passenger comfort – and satisfaction.

The boomer generation craves clarity and connectivity. They want intuitive, easy-to-follow way-finding, strong (complimentary) Wi-Fi signals, places to charge electrical devices and updated digital information displays.

They want lots of self-service options, but they also want a real person who can answer questions if needed. This last item is an important point. The boomer generation is comprised of both those who are very tech savvy and those who just get by with it. This latter group of boomers and the follow-on generations of mature elder citizens often prefer to speak to a real person.

The implication for airports is that designs need to continue to include accommodation for both self-service and full service options as well as desks and ‘roving’ personnel who can direct, orient passengers and offer helpful information.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in the US in 1990, and since then its guidelines have become infused into the everyday built environment.

The growing number of ‘mature travellers’ may serve as a catalyst for accelerating revisions to the accessibility standards connected with passenger processing, technology and evolving designs of airport terminals.

Accessibility has some catch-up to do as mature passengers embrace independent lifestyles. A flat glass screen on a self-service ticketing device is not much use to visually impaired passengers who cannot read the screen or feel the ‘buttons’.

Also, passenger boarding bridges with steep slopes, no handrail extensions and short transition plates present mobility issues, and the bewildering cacophony of competing sounds in a busy concourse or holdroom often presents hearing and cognitive challenges.

Interestingly, a recent Canadian Transportation Association study on disability cited ‘living with pain’ as the number one disability of the older travelling public.

A challenge going forward may be to plan and design airports with features that will make the travel experience less physically taxing such as shorter unassisted walking distances and fewer elevation transitions.

The boomer generation is a growing demographic worldwide. But, just as important, this generation may be around for a long time to come – possibly another 30 to 40 years. Therefore, it will have an impact on airports and other travel from now on. The implications leave a lot to evaluate – and to act on.

One day, everyone reading this will have a new appreciation of the challenges that come with age. Those thoughtful physical features and plentiful amenities that now seem like luxuries will be an essential part of tomorrow’s airports.

About the author
Cedric Curtis, AIA, is vice president and aviation building service group leader for RS&H. He is a baby boomer and proud of it.

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