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BLOGS Last modified on March 16, 2015

BLOG: Airport design – The changing face of airports

From propellers to double deck superjumbos, the changing face of passenger aircraft has been highly visible over the years and much remarked upon, writes Chris Dering, managing director-aviation, Bechtel.

What may be less obvious, however, is how the airports we all pass through have evolved over time. 

The airport experience

In today’s competitive world, airport operators have recognised the need to focus on customer service and to enhance the airport and passenger experience.

Increasingly, airports are offering a diversity of choice of retail, services and entertainment to differentiate themselves from others. For example, in the Bay Area of San Francisco, there are three airports competing for the same business, and consequently they need to create an environment that will draw passengers to their airport. 

Ultimately, we are moving towards passengers choosing their airport as much as they would choose an airline. Both have worked more closely over recent years to offer a joined up ‘product’ – Fast Track in processing, for example.


The passenger experience has also been enhanced by new technologies.  When the new Terminal 3 was opened at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, waiting times were reduced by the introduction of 100% common use systems, which enable airlines to time-share facilities.

The introduction of self-boarding gates also helped to cut down on waiting times, while the installation of dynamic signage on more than 1,100 LCDs and LED screens helped passengers find their way through the airport.

In the UK, London Gatwick airport is currently undergoing the biggest transformation in its history, aiming to become the airport of choice, not only in London but in Europe.

The airport opened in the 1950s with just 186,000 passengers in its first year of operation.  Today it is the world’s most efficient single runway airport, serving 36 million passengers a year. 

It recently completed a £1.2 billion capital investment programme and is proposing a further investment of £1 billion between 2014 and 2019, as part of the airport’s vision for every passenger to expect world-class service and facilities.

This desire to provide people passing through airports with an optimum experience is also influenced by the growing view of airports as gateways to a national phenomenon that is particularly prevalent in the Middle East region.

Middle East regional super airports

Geography and demographics have a role to play in how airports are changing. The Middle East region is advantageously located for air traffic, with two-thirds of the world’s population living within an eight hour flight.

Well-timed infrastructure investments in the region have helped airlines to maximize the benefits of this convenient geography. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of state-of-the-art airports in the region, including:

Dubai International Airport is now one of the world’s busiest international hubs processing 66 million passengers a year. Furthermore, Dubai has an even larger vision. Al Maktoum International Airport is being considered as Dubai’s airport of the future, projected over time to become a ‘super hub’ with an annual capacity of 160 million passengers and 12 million tonnes of freight. 

The airport is part of Dubai World Central, a new urban city development that will include Dubai Logistics City, Commercial City, Residential City, Aviation City and Golf City.


Hamad International Airport in Qatar is setting new standards in enhancing the passenger experience.  The new airport, which opened in April 2014 with a planned capacity of 30mppa has numerous iconic structures including a 600,000sqm terminal building. 

State-of-the-art passenger and baggage processing facilities are supplemented by high-end retail, cafés and restaurants, a spa, hotels, squash courts and a public mosque. Qatar is already planning on further expansion to attain 50 million passengers per annum capacity.

Muscat International Airport in Oman is undergoing a major expansion programme, including a new airfield, a new passenger terminal, office buildings, a four-star hotel and parking garages.  These facilities will include the latest technologies in an attractive complex setting.


Sustainability has risen increasingly to the fore in recent years in terms of airport development and operations. 

Airport owners are now more aware of the advantages of sustainable design, construction and operations, not just in helping to comply with increasing carbon emissions, but in maximising the passenger experience and taking advantage of long-term cost savings associated with implementing sustainable design technologies.

At Hamad International Airport, the orientation and high-tech glazing of the passenger terminal building was selected to help minimise the impact of heat gain within the building from the hot climate. 

The terminal has a canted north and south curtain-wall and high-performance insulated glass to reduce solar exposure.

In addition, the use of demand ventilation controls using carbon dioxide occupancy sensors, displacement air ventilation systems, daylight sensor controls and an energy management control system has created a truly energy-efficient airport.

Significant numbers of airports globally are now working to a single ACI endorsed approach to achieving carbon neutrality within their existing and planned infrastructure developments.

The perception of the aviation industry being the worst polluter of our planet is slowly changing thanks to these kinds of initiatives. The environmental impact of airports is better understood than at any time previously in the history of aviation.


Airport planning

At Bechtel, we have been designing and building airports for 75 years and have witnessed many of these changing trends up close.

Airport planners need to be flexible to adapt to these changes. For example, airports need to adapt to new requirements such as changing security or border control developments.

Airports also need to be able to adapt to accommodate new aircraft fleets, the most notable recent example being the A380.

There is one characteristic of airports where we have seen a quantum change, and which can be summed up in one word – complexity. 

Today’s airport operators need to navigate an incredibly complex landscape when planning and designing airports.

Delivering airport expansions and upgrades in today’s world may best be described as the art of managing complexity, requiring an understanding of financial, development, delivery and operational models. 

It is critical to understand these aspects each in their own right and how they impact each other, from planning through to commercial operations.

Let us consider for example how the development phase might impact on operations. 

During this phase, it is important to consider the end objective – what the airport operator wants to offer its customers, and how to deliver it.  At the same time, however, consideration needs to be given to how these ambitions will impact on the 24-hour operations of an airport during delivery. 

For example, the introduction of new technologies may add risk that impacts critical operations.  Equally, in a world of fast-changing technologies, a technology chosen today may no longer be the smartest choice a few years down the line during operations.  

Such dilemmas can be overcome by making allowances based on the best information and industry expertise at the time, thereby introducing flexibility and avoiding future constraints on operations. 

Like a game of chess, it is important to navigate multiple moving parts whilst looking several moves ahead in order not to lose sight of the end goal.

At Bechtel, we have understood for a long time that flexibility in planning and the ultimate built solution will go a considerable way to managing this inherent complexity and provide our clients with a solution that can adapt to the ever changing landscape of the airports industry.


Future trends

Technology will continue to transform our experience at airports. We only have to consider how the check-in process has evolved in recent years, with many passengers now using mobile devices or checking in off-site.  

How we pass through border controls is also likely to continue to evolve. 

At Abu Dhabi International Airport, for example, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility at Terminal 3 is a purpose-built facility that allows passengers on some flights to the US to carry out all immigration, customs and agriculture inspections in Abu Dhabi prior to departure.

Having cleared the CBP facility, passengers are able to check in their baggage to their final US destination. Upon reaching the US, passengers will be processed as domestic arrivals, allowing for faster processing at their arrival airport. 

From the moment we leave our homes, new mobile technologies will enable a more personalised approach to our journeys.  

Online service providers will be able to track our planned routes and travel options, and offer us even greater choices. 

Of one thing we can be sure – the complex planning that goes into providing travellers with a smooth journey will remain.

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