Airports Compete for Traveler Satisfaction

Dining, shopping, and entertainment, not just air travel, await passengers at today’s terminals.

Overall, Oslo International Airport’s expansion has increased capacity from 19 to 30-million passengers each year, with a further potential increase to 36-million passengers. Through stacking of domestic and international zones, all travelers are able to use all gates, which improves the passenger flow and journey times. Photo: © Knut Ramstad, courtesy Nordic—Office of Architecture

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

The golden age of glamorous air travel may be over, but that doesn’t mean travelers don’t expect things their predecessors never dreamed possible. Today’s passengers expect more dining, shopping, and entertainment opportunities on their way to and from planes, and they hope the trip to the gate will be as agreeable and expeditious as possible. Airports, ever conscious of negative perceptions and branding, are competing to accommodate those wishes.

Just getting to the proper gate at the right time is a priority for most passengers, and wayfinding is a combination of tried-and-true methods and new technology. “Signage is what it is, but we also see the emergence of smartphone apps that combine data like a person’s location and their booked flight with updated information about gate number, delays, and changes to help the traveler get where they need to be at the right time,” said Eskild Andersen, Architect MNAL, CEO, and partner at Nordic—Office of Architecture, Oslo, Norway (nordicarch.com).

On the other hand, far less technical means can be useful. “We actively use natural light as a part of wayfinding,” Andersen said. “It is an intuitive thing to walk towards the light or into areas that are better lit. Other than that, we like to keep things as open and transparent as possible so people can see where they should be going.”

“Walking distances should be kept short and passenger flow as efficient as possible, but this should not be new thinking,” Andersen added. “Again, we find good signage and using light as a guide to be efficient,” he said.

Efficiency and passenger well being have been key drivers of the design throughout Oslo International Airport. Designed by Nordic—Office of Architecture, the compact layout of the building, transparency, and open spaces enhances visual legibility and wayfinding, providing reassurance and peace of mind for travelers. Photo: Nordic—Office of Architecture

Airport dining and shopping are changing, too. Andersen sees “a trend where one moves away from the usual buy-in-store model towards a showroom where you try out and order what you like, then pick up your goods at a later time or point in your travels. This is quite a new phenomenon and not a wide-spread practice yet.”

The demarcation between dining and gate seating may be undergoing re-evaluation, as well. “Dining is an ever larger part of the airport experience,” Andersen observed. “At Bergen Airport, Flesland, Norway, for instance, there is less ordinary gate seating and more seating linked to dining areas. This does not mean people have to buy anything to be allowed a seat, but it does encourage more spending,” he said.

Getting to the airport, not just to the gate, is another consideration that is important to airport designers. “We design the traffic forecourt and the whole traffic flow around rewarding the use of the preferred means of transport to the airport. Using public transport will give you shorter walking distance. In most cases this will mean that rail/light rail connections will give you the shortest walking distances, followed by buses and taxis. Finally, parking for private cars is moved further from the terminal. Taxi depots are a short way off, and an automatic system sends cars in as needed rather than having a lot of taxis clogging up the forecourt at all times,” Andersen explained.

The new departures hall Oslo International Airport is airy and day-lit. Internal green walls and water features enhance the passenger experience as they move through the terminal. While the green walls and water features are suggestive of Scandinavian forests, the retail units in the newly designed duty-free areas have been conceived as organic stone forms associated with Norwegian landscapes. Photo: Nordic—Office of Architecture

Technology is extending its reach to those private cars as well. “The parking systems are moving towards full automation where your car gets registered upon entering, and you are billed for the time spent upon exiting the parking structure without having to go to a machine and pay,” Andersen related.

Security procedures at airports have increased in scope and may not have been accommodated in the original design, making for a patchwork layout that is inefficient and frustrating for travelers. Andersen advocates “loose fit architecture, where there is room for change. There is a lot we don’t know [about the future of security], but solutions are likely to take up more space, and so we strive to provide more room than is currently necessary to avoid the need for expanding and adding on solutions, but rather repurposing the areas that are available.

“Keeping things open and inviting, with good ceiling heights, and in general making people feel relaxed is very important, and it also makes surveillance easier,” Andersen added.

Environmental factors, just as much as technology and security, are important to today’s airport. “These are issues we think a lot about in designing airports and a reason Oslo International Airport was the first airport in the world to achieve a BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, Watford, UK, breeam.com) Excellent rating,” Andersen commented.

Bergen Airport is the second busiest airport in Norway. In 2017, the airport was upgraded with a new passenger terminal building and an improved taxiway system. The airport now has the capacity to serve 7.5-million passengers/year. In addition to the new terminal, Nordic—Office of Architecture was responsible for the masterplan on airside and landside, as well as auxiliary buildings. Photo: Nordic—Office of Architecture

At Oslo, “we have a snow depot where the snow cleared from the runways in winter is stored to cool down the airport in summer, as well as heat regain from ventilation and wastewater. There are geothermal wells, and we even have a system that pulls heat from municipal wastewater,” he said.

“At Bergen Airport we have a double-glass façade which helps keep in the heat in winter, but can easily be ventilated to keep the building cool in summer. There is heat regain from ventilation and mechanical systems, and there is an innovative system using large tanks containing a saline solution that, when water of differing temperatures is passed through, starts processes that release energy that is used for cooling the airport. With 15.7 in. of insulation and materials chosen based on an extensive environmental audit, Bergen Airport also definitely took environmental factors into account,” Andersen continued.

Size counts, too, Andersen said. “One of the most important factors remains the size of the terminal and having an efficient layout of the whole building. A building with a smaller footprint is always going to have less of an environmental impact than a larger one; it means less space to heat and cool and, of course, less materials needed in construction. For instance, by having a flexible gate system that allows both inbound and outbound traffic to use the same gates, you can significantly reduce the number of gates and with that the overall footprint of the airport,” he said.

LED lighting technology has made a massive impact on airport design, too, according to Andersen. Not only does it have a significant impact on energy consumption, “it is now small enough to allow it to be fully integrated in the architectonic solutions,” he said. In addition to daylighting being a wayfinding aid, Andersen focuses on harvesting as much natural light as possible.

“Whether it is about technical solutions, materials used, insulation levels, the need for artificial light, the size and flexibility of the building—it all plays a role in energy efficiency. A flexible airport can handle growth better, making it last longer,” Andersen said.

Media Features Engage Air Travelers

Moment Factory was commissioned by Los Angeles World Airports as the executive multimedia content producer for seven experiential media features inside the Tom Bradley terminal. The goal was to re-invent the passenger experience of the terminal “in order to bring back the romance, magic, and wonder of travel.” Photo: Moment Factory/V2com

To adapt to the changing face of travel and the unique challenges of 21st century retail, airports are innovating like never before. Architectural media features are quickly becoming a key ingredient for creating the kind of iconic visual identity and unforgettable experience that appeals to travelers.

Singapore’s Changi Airport (CAG), voted by air travelers as the World’s Best Airport (Skytrax, skytraxratings.com) for the sixth consecutive year, is taking its passenger experience to a new level with Terminal 4. Changi Airport Group commissioned Moment Factory (momentfactory.com), based in Montreal, with offices in Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, and New York City, to produce two media features—the Immersive Wall and Peranakan Love Story—designed to entertain passengers as they navigate the airport.

The Immersive Wall creates a totally new kind of security area, where epic content on a 10-K LED screen transports travelers before they’ve even passed through the scanner. Throughout the day, a variety of compelling ambient stories evolve in constant succession. From a fantastical trip behind the scenes of a Rube Goldberg-style baggage carousel, to picturesque landscapes of landmark destinations, or a virtual bas-relief sculpture, the Immersive Wall transforms the security zone with an engaging and entertaining atmosphere.

In the “heritage zone,” real and virtual traditional shop façades create an authentic backdrop for local culture and storytelling. Appearing static at first, the two LED façades spring to life with an engaging neighborhood love story that brings two Peranakan families together.

Singapore’s Changi Airport Group commissioned Moment Factory based in Montreal, to produce two media features—the Immersive Wall and Peranakan Love Story—designed to entertain passengers as they navigate the airport. Shown here is the Peranakan Love Story installation. Photo: Moment Factory/V2com

The idea for Peranakan Love Story was developed in collaboration with the iconic Singaporean singer Dick Lee, and was inspired by the row of traditional Peranakan shop façades being built inside the terminal. Using large-format LED screens and a trompe-l’oeil approach to content, Moment Factory decided to bring one of these façades to life with a playful and local love story. While visitors shop and get something to eat, their mood is lightened by the story of two families coming together through a marriage.

The Changi installation is not Moment Factory’s first foray into airport multimedia displays. The firm was commissioned by Los Angeles World Airports as the executive multimedia content producer for seven experiential media features inside the Tom Bradley terminal. Moment Factory worked with Marcela Sardi of Sardi Design, Miami Beach, FL (ardidesign.com), and Mike Rubin of MRA International, Miami Beach (mraintl.com), experts in immersive environments and destination development to integrate a multimedia presence, helping people see their journey with fresh eyes. The goal of this collaboration was to re-invent the passenger experience of the terminal “in order to bring back the romance, magic, and wonder of travel.”

Airport Hotels Are Suddenly Cool

Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, the main atrium of the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is the heart of the hotel and meeting area, creating an open layout with a 137-ft.-high glass roof, which provides the space with natural daylight. This open layout showcases a new lobby concept, that brings together, in a single open-plan area, unique “islands” that serve as multifunctional spaces, including a reception area, lounge, and bar. Photo: courtesy Hilton

Airports are reshaping themselves into trendy destinations with creative and upscale dining options, high-end shopping, art installations, and more passenger amenities and diversions. This trend extends to airport hotels, which travelers who have recently stayed at an airport hotel describe them as boring, expensive, crowded, and outdated, according to a Hilton Hotels and Resorts, Tysons, VA (Hilton.com) report.

At the same time, room demand at airport locations has grown from an average of 55-million room nights in 2010 to 65 million in 2015, according to Hilton. Airport hotels are an increasingly important segment in the hotel industry, the hotelier concludes.

Hilton states that this demand in part may be driven by the increased combination of business and leisure travel. This “blended travel,” in which business guests extend their stay to include a weekend of leisure, has contributed to the interest in airport hotels as leisure destinations, Hilton says.

Hilton’s Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is less than a 10-min. walk from the main terminal through a covered walkway directly connected to the international terminal, or a short ride on the courtesy bus. Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, Delft, Netherlands (mecanoo.nl), alongside British interior design company The Gallery HBA, London (hba.com), the area stands out with its cubic design, round edges, and eye-catching facade. The twist of the building matches the curve of the bordering highway, which integrates the building in the environment.

The final touch is given by the random arrangement of 5,500 diamond-shaped panels that add to the building’s distinctive appearance. Every bedroom on the outer bay of the building has at least two of these windows, which frame the view over the Dutch landscape.

Contemporary Dutch influence can be found throughout the public space and guest rooms. The architects designed the main atrium to be the heart of the hotel and meeting area by creating an open layout with a 137-ft.-high glass roof, which provides the space with natural daylight. This open layout showcases a new lobby concept, that brings together, in a single open-plan area, unique “islands” that serve as multifunctional spaces, including a reception area, lounge, and bar, according to Hilton.

Similarly, Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport will be turned into a hotel, meeting, and entertainment site—one of the fanciest airport hotels in the world, in the words of the Wall Street Journal.

The Saarinen building was almost torn down twice before preservationists intervened. A 50,000-sq.-ft. convention and meeting space is being built underground, and two seven-story hotel towers will have a total of 512 rooms.

Click here for the July 2018 edition of Ken’s View.


— Nordic—Office of Architecture

— Moment Factory

— TWA Hotel at JFK

— Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

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