People with luggage in a building.

What’s next for airport terminal design and planning?

Research Project Name

Airports without Waiting?

What We Did

We reviewed existing white papers, surveys, and studies in three key areas of interest for the future of airport terminals: the passenger experience, changing revenue models, and sustainability. A significant amount of research is currently focused on the impact new technology has on the travel experience, and is largely published by technology companies. However, gaps exist in wider research on how this technology boom affects the architecture of the near-future terminal. We sought to interpret existing data and predictions from a design perspective to understand the effect on airports, while also expanding our investigation to address the terminal and travel experience more holistically.

A primary focus of our investigation relates to large regional or hub terminals with significant amenity and processing space. Gensler’s recently completed and in-progress terminal design projects of this type served as case stories for our investigation. We used these projects to understand how current trends have begun to manifest themselves in present-day terminals, and speculate on what this means for the future.

The Context

The aviation industry is highly dynamic and competitive, and as the globalization of business and culture continue apace, air travel is increasingly essential to the global economy. The aviation industry is also ripe for change and innovation—the significant CO2 impacts of air travel and volatile fuel costs make sustainability a key concern for the future, while the stress and frustration often induced by travel highlights the importance of a new and improved passenger experience. Communities today expect more out of their local airport than transportation access—they want a responsible neighbor that conserves energy, water, and material resources, while minimizing pollution and waste.

Alongside these issues, the business of air travel is changing as well. An evolving aircraft fleet mix, satellite-based air traffic control systems, and innovations in biometric and self-service technology are changing airport infrastructure needs, passenger flow, and baggage processing. New revenue models are greatly diminishing the importance of aeronautical revenue, derived from airline tenants, displaced by other sources such as retail, customized passenger services, and mobile advertising to take up the slack in an “end-to-end” passenger experience.

The Results

The present-day airport is about waiting. Wait to park. Wait to check-in. Wait to be screened. Wait to board. The near-future airport will be about moving. Passengers will experience a personalized journey through the airport, with increasingly seamless transitions and blurred lines between terminal spaces as security becomes “invisible” and services become tech-enabled and individualized. This shift will be realized through secure near field communications technology, allowing passengers to use an NFC-enabled phone as a boarding pass to automatically open security, airline lounge, and boarding gates. This shift has already begun—“self” bag tagging and “self” boarding have been implemented in 115 instances around the world according to the lATA [International Air Transport Association].

Personal mobile technology is also complicating the debate on who “owns” the passenger, with both airport and airlines exploring individualized advertising to and communication with passengers in search of new revenue sources. In 2015, 78 percent of airlines plan to tailor content they provide via their direct distribution channels and by data mining passenger profiles. Recent surveys show 61 percent of passengers are open to direct, mobile advertisements if they are relevant and have some level of control. Passenger surveys also reflect the need to de-stress the travel experience and the importance of non-traditional design features: 31 percent of passengers cited an outdoor park area as the most wanted airport amenity.

Not only will the experience of the airport change, but the terminal building itself must change. To meet community and sustainability expectations, smart buildings must become genius buildings. The near-future airport campus will utilize an “all of the above” sustainability strategy, harvesting its own energy and water, recycling its own waste, and growing its own aviation fuel. As airports seek to increase capacity within physical expansion constraints, many may push toward to a 24/7 model—though the opportunity for increased capacity will have to be weighed against nighttime noise impacts and limited demand for late night/early morning departure times. Ultimately, the near future terminal building will be a sophisticated machine, continually adjusting systems based on millions of real-time weather and passenger movement data points.

What This Means

Experiences shift to local, craft, deluxe. The localization and “luxification” of the airport environment will increase as airlines and airports compete for dwell-time revenue, incorporating non-traditional design elements such as biophilia and well-being focused amenities that reduce stress and give passengers a grounded sense of place.

Processing space becomes amenity space. Traditional airport spaces will recede to the background. Remote check-in will minimize the ticketing hall, portal security screenings will eliminate the centralized security checkpoint, and call-to-gate technology will blur the boundary between retail and departure lounge spaces.

Traditional space boundaries disappear. Aircraft gates, customer service, and back-of-house areas will be designed to allow for ultimate flexibility, eliminating long-term leases and expensive custom fit-outs. Digital tenant branding will define spaces on an as-needed basis, changing with the touch on a keypad.

The “non-process” changes everything. What if there were no queues at ticketing, security, immigration, or the boarding gate? Biometric, self-service, and personal mobile technology will reduce waiting, allowing passengers more time to work, eat, and shop.

What’s Next?

The near-future airport is already beginning to emerge via progressive, experience-focused terminal designs in new and renovated terminals around the world. Design strategies focused on passenger comfort and well-being have already gained traction and are showing success, as measured by both passenger satisfaction and terminal revenue. As personal and airport technology continue to improve, terminals must continue to embrace opportunities to employ strategies and solutions that emphasize ease of movement, passenger experience, and sustainability.

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Matthew Aguilar, Matthew Johnson, Charles G. Morley, Pranav Seth, Nupur Sinha, Jim Stanislaski

Year Completed