For a while, the biggest attraction for passengers and visitors at airports was the aircraft themselves. In the days before shopping malls, food courts, arcades and WiFi, people would stare out of windows or from high roof terraces, mesmerised by airfield operations in all their strangely intricate beauty.
In the 1960s and 70s, the roof terraces on the Europa Building at London Heathrow and the International Arrivals Building at New York JFK were major tourist attractions, drawing high numbers of visitors who weren’t even flying, as well as passengers without much else to do.
But several things happened in the 1990s and early 00s. Travellers got blasé about aviation as flying became increasingly common. Airports offered more and more shops and services. And post 9-11 security was tightened.
All these factors combined to put observation areas and viewing platforms out of favour.
Security worries were particularly problematic. In the United States, viewing areas were especially hard hit, and many were shut or else enclosed. In the UK too, Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham all saw their viewing terraces closed down. Only Manchester now actively courts British spotters and visitors.
But now there’s resurgence afoot. Landside viewing terraces and observation areas – open to all – are slowly coming back into fashion.
And there appears to be two reasons behind the U-turn – economic and political. Airports can, after all, charge money for the privilege of visiting an observation platform, and in these days of tightened money belts, every little bit of ancillary revenue helps.
But perhaps even more importantly, as aviation becomes a political hot potato – while competition between airports for customers increases – opening up the airfield to public viewing helps to win plaudits from passengers, aircraft enthusiasts, and local communities alike.
“Our SkyDeck is part of our commitment to provide the best services to both passengers and airport users, including ‘meeters and greeters’, as well as aviation fans,” says a spokesman for Hong Kong International Airport (HKG).
“It is an open area where people can get a panoramic view of Terminal 1 as well as the apron.”
HKG offers various entertainment areas, of which their terrace is one. Their spokesman explains: “The SkyDeck is set within the Aviation Discovery Centre, which is decorated throughout with aviation-themed exhibits and graphics. It’s just minutes away from the other three entertainment zones – i-Sports, Asia Hollywood and 4D Extreme Screen – at Terminal 2.”
Airports are increasingly seeing the value of incorporating terraces into new buildings. Tokyo Haneda inaugurated a brand new alfresco viewing terrace last year, featuring cool modern seating, as part of its terminal refurbishment work. While Moscow Domodedovo announced in April 2011 that a viewing terrace would form part of its new terminal, currently under construction.
Kate Donegani from Vancouver Airport tells Airport World: “It’s important to offer an observation area at YVR because it’s a place where the community – travellers, airport employees and neighbours – can connect with its airport.
“When we opened the observation area on July 16, 2009, it had been more than 30 years since YVR had a space for the community to experience the workings of an international airport.
“Our public observation area is open 24/7 and is free to all visitors. Features of it include a scale model of Sea Island, providing a bird’s-eye view of YVR’s home. Information panels along 42 metres of floor-to-ceiling windows tell the story of YVR, and telescopes mounted at the window provide a closer look at YVR’s active airfield.
“Interactive touch-screen kiosks illustrate different aspects of YVR, including stories about the people who work here, the airport’s past, present and future growth.”
Vancouver Airport Authority, which manages YVR, is a community-based organization. As such, it places a lot of importance on having space where it can tell “its story” to the millions of travellers and visitors that pass through its facilities annually.
“Visitors are impressed by the beauty of our airport and the excitement of the world of aviation,” adds the spokesman.
Germany is particularly fond of viewing terraces and observation areas. Düsseldorf Airport’s (DUS) Friederike Ferdinand explains: “The outdoor observation deck on the roof of the new Concourse B at DUS is a fascinating and golden opportunity for our passengers and visitors to experience the world of aircraft traffic from a special view – with take-offs and landings of the aircraft and all the necessary preparations on the ramp.
“You can hear the sound of the machines too. It’s a fascinating view of the airport grounds. We demand fees for access to cover the costs for operations.”
Munich has one of the best offerings in Europe. Lufthansa’s new Terminal 2 was built with a viewing terrace on top, while the Besucherpark – visitor’s park – off to the side of Terminal 1 boasts a museum, vintage aircraft and a man-made hill (entry €1) with sweeping views of the airfield.
“We have been voted Europe’s best airport now for several years in a row. For us it is a challenge to make a stay at our airport as interesting and convenient as possible for interested visitors as well as for passengers,” says the gateway’s Peter Prumm.
“Munich Airport is not only a location to embark or disembark an aircraft. We have a concept to always increase our attractiveness to passengers and the local community as well as visitors and guests from all over the world.
“Visitors’ areas are only part of this – we also have a range of events like our Christmas market, polo tournament, guided tours, event-viewing on huge open air screens (like the football championship) and much more.”
Does it provide ancillary revenue? “No, what we offer is not to make money, but as we said before, viewing areas are part of our general concept to be attractive,” insists Prumm.
Japan is another country where viewing terraces are common. Tokyo Narita offers one, as does Osaka Kansai (KIX).
Ritsuko Tajima from KIX explains: “Kansai values viewing facilities because they can meet the demand of customers who want to watch the aircraft and also make them feel relaxed being in an airport.
“The majority of visitors are families with small children and we believe that these facilities will enable future aviation fans and thus, aviation demand to be expanded. We expect around 500,000 people to visit each year.”
The terrace will be upgraded again this July by setting up a rooftop park, as well as educational facilities where students can learn the history of KIX and aviation-related information.
KIX does use their terrace to generate revenue. Says Tajima: “It also plays a role as an ancillary revenue source. We have places where visitors can enjoy their time, such as souvenir shops where aviation goods are sold, and a restaurant where visitors can try in-flight meals.”
Amsterdam Schiphol opened a new alfresco ‘Airport Park’ airside in May 2011 – featuring open airfield views – but its famed landside viewing terrace in the main terminal is one of the biggest in the world.
“Each year over 600,000 people visit the Panorama Terrace,” says Schiphol’s Asmait Tesfay. “We will expand the terrace this summer with an experience: as of June 1st, people will be able to see a Fokker 100 aircraft from the inside and outside. The entrance to the Panorama Terrace is free.”
Tesfay adds: “Schiphol is keen to remain Europe’s preferred airport. To offer our visitors a view, and in the near future an experience, contributes to this aim.”
This article features in Airport World 2011 - Issue 3