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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on June 7, 2012

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Robin Stone discovers that the popularity of airport carpets continues to grow, with some even being considered works of art.

As thousands of pairs of feet wreak their daily damage, the humble airport carpet may appear to have a shorter shelf life than most.

Quite apart from everyday wear and tear, there’s also the cleaning conundrum to address – not an easy one in an environment where business is conducted virtually 24 hours a day.

The result, according to self-confessed carpet aficionado, George Pendle, is that airport carpets are on the decline – a state of affairs which he describes as “one of the greatest aesthetic tragedies of our time.”

Too many gateways, he claims, are doing away with carpets and replacing them with tiled floors and old-fashioned linoleum. The situation has become so serious that he has set up a dedicated website –
www.carpetsforairports.com – to champion the traditional concourse carpet.

Whether Pendle’s pessimism is borne out by the facts is at best questionable, for as any regular air traveller will tell you there are still acres of carpets – stretching into the distant horizon at some of the bigger concourses – covering terminal floors and departure lounges the world over.

The two perennial headaches airport operators face are both directly influenced by passenger traffic volumes: How long will carpeting last before it needs replacing? And, how do we keep it looking reasonably clean, with so many feet tramping over it every day?

Pennsylvania-based carpet cleaners, Airport Chem-Dry, says that routine cleaning can actually prolong the life of an airport carpet, thereby killing two birds with one stone. Over the years it has introduced state-of-the-art technology such as ‘hot carbonating extraction’ carried out by professional technicians.

Hot carbonating extraction was the brainchild of Robert Harris, an entrepreneur who spent years researching the chemical properties of cleaning formulas, and then carrying out exhaustive experiments in which he tried cleaning areas of dirty carpets with one formula, and then another.

Eventually he struck gold with a revolutionary carbonated solution that not only cleaned beautifully, but was also safe and non-toxic. The process, says the company – which has 4,000 sites across the world – ‘resists resoiling’, meaning that carpet fibres stay cleaner, longer.

It is true to say, however, that the advantages and disadvantages of the concourse carpet remain keenly contested by two very different camps.

The proponents maintain that a carpet-covered floor is an essential ingredient in bringing a measure of peace and tranquility to a busy environment – one that is often congested and occupied by fraught travellers.

Carpets are more comfortable underfoot, and foster a feeling of serenity in the traveller’s subconscious. Perhaps they remind them of their own living room at home (albeit somewhat bigger).

In the opposite corner are the detractors who claim that carpets are expensive to lay, and don’t last much more than 10 years at most, given the hammering they take from myriads of shoes and trolley wheels, liberally sprinkled with pieces of discarded chewing gum.

Carpets, they conclude, are high maintenance, entailing massive cleaning bills if they’re to be kept looking respectable.

Leading carpet manufacturers, unsurprisingly, disagree. Axminster says that at Sydney Airport, the carpet installed in 2000 to coincide with the Olympic Games – described as an “organic swirling bright blue pattern, inspired by the aerial view of currents and ripples in water” – was still in excellent condition more than 10 years later.

Once carpets are either removed or replaced with other surfaces most passengers invariably notice something straight away – a marked increase in decibel levels.

Carpets have the effect of improving acoustics by deadening or softening the usual hubbub of an airport terminal, making it easier to hear – and be heard.

As airport terminals continue to focus on national culture and customs, a strikingly designed carpet can have just as big a role to play as murals, paintings and other works of art.

Indeed, in some cases the pattern and colour of the carpet is an integral element in the overall terminal design. Iranian artist Seyed Alavi, for example, created an aerial view of the Sacramento River, which was then woven into a carpet covering the floor of a pedestrian bridge connecting the airport terminal to the car park at Sacramento International Airport.

Alavi explains the thinking behind his work on his own website. “Depicting the larger geographical area helps to reinforce a sense of belonging or connection for the traveller. In this way, the carpet can also be read and experienced as a ‘welcome mat’ for visitors arriving in Sacramento.”

Brintons, which boasts a specialist ‘airport division’ and has just unveiled its Public Spaces collection, recently completed a major contract in India. The company’s regional sales director – APAC region, Xander Okhuizen, described the carpet laid down in Delhi’s Terminal 3 as “one of the most visually stunning carpets that has ever been installed in an airport.”

It incorporates eye-catching colours and designs reflecting India’s varied culture, including street scenes, monuments, foods, spices and festivals.

Okhuizen adds: “The designs and colours are really vibrant and invigorating. Delhi sets a new benchmark for having a carpet that is both business-like – something you expect to see in an airport – but also very culturally stimulating and energetic.”

Quite apart from its aesthetic benefits – and comfort underfoot – carpeting, it seems, even has a role to play in airport security.

In the US, General Electric has utilised carpet in a new security programme called the Secure Registered Traveler (SRT) system. As part of that initiative, the company has developed a ‘quadruple resonance’ carpet that detects threats in shoes without passengers having to take them off.

Quadruple resonance technology is related to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is used in medicine to provide images of the human body. It utilises radio frequency to identify different chemical compounds or internal body structures, and is able to identify 10,000 different chemical substances including chlorine and nitrogen – key elements of explosives.

The SRT looks something like a cashpoint with short walls. The passenger walks onto a few feet of resonance carpet that checks shoes for traces of explosives while smart card technology captures iris and fingerprint images which are then checked against biometric information stored on a special ID card.

The technology has been in use for some time at New York’s JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports as well as in Cincinnati, Little Rock, Orlando International and others.

It is only right that we leave the final word on the subject to the undisputed champion of airport carpets, George Pendle. Visitors to his labour-of-love website are greeted by a globe, pin-pricked with with red dots, each one representing an airport.

Enthusiasts have submitted around 150 photos, and you click on to a dot, zoom in, and have a look at the carpet. It’s a blast.

“Airport carpets have spread a multi-faceted but uniform aesthetic to the furthest reaches of the globe,” he says.

“In their geometric precision, sensitivity to colour, and ability to absorb and hide stains, airport carpets are aesthetically unique. These aren’t carpets but canvases upon which we walk.”

Big and bold
The 165,000sqm carpet at Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport is arguably the world's biggest airport carpet.

More than 350 workers in the Indian city of Pune and 20 weaving machines worked for 14 months to produce 2,000 rolls of carpet for the job, each weighing 400 kilogrammes.

Airport operator, GMR, expects the carpet – which is made from 80% wool and 20% nylon – to have a lifespan of at least 10 years.

The 100,000sqm of custom woven Axminster carpet spread across the arrival and departure halls, meeting points, waiting areas, lounges and retail environments in Singapore Changi's Terminal 3 is also one of the biggest.

Teams of carpet designers from Brintons worked with Woodhead Wilson, the Civil Aviation Authority in Singapore (CAAS) and Arista Interior Decor Pte Ltd on the project for five years.

The completed carpet required over 200,000 kilos of yarn, equivalent to fleeces from 65,000 sheep.

One of the reasons Changi Airport Group decided to install the giant carpet at T3 was because it felt that it would "provide a softer feel on the foot and create a more pleasent waiting experience for the passenger".

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