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The Trouble With Airports, and How to Fix Them


During this summer of frequent flight delays and cancellations, many travelers spent more time in airports than expected, often subjected to blaring TV news, rock-hard seats and scarce electrical outlets. Add anxiety over Covid-19 and disagreements regarding mandated masking and it’s little wonder incidents of bad behavior have surged in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration reported more than 4,000 cases of unruly passenger complaints this year through August, initiating more than 700 investigations to date, compared to 183 in 2020.

Deep into a six-hour travel delay recently, as I was pondering the role of airports in aggravating travelers, I found my way to Denver International Airport’s Concourse B-West and a set of new gates with floor-to-ceiling windows, modular furniture, high-top library tables with ample outlets, clear signage, no TVs and — the biggest surprise — an outdoor lounge with views west to the Rocky Mountains. Fleetwood Mac’s bouncy “Don’t Stop” played over the sound system, signaling a more inviting approach to what the industry calls “hold rooms” or gate waiting areas.

Travel’s comeback this summer, as tenuous as it is, has the entire industry — including airport managers and architects — thinking about doing things better.

“Covid was a shock event that caused a great disruption, and accelerated thinking about giving back the joy of travel,” said Alex Thome, the head of the airport division in the United States at Stantec, which has designed airports in Denver, Toronto, Nassau and elsewhere.

Much of that joy disappeared after 9/11 when security needs forced airports to accommodate body scanners and more expansive checkpoints. But a clutch of new terminals and recent upgrades to existing concourses from New York City to San Francisco demonstrate ways both small and large — from muting the televisions to installing indoor gardens — that airports are trying to ease psychic turbulence on the ground.

Compared to global gateways in cities like Singapore and Tokyo, American airports have a lot of work to do to improve the passenger experience. According to SkyTrax World Airport Awards, an annual set of awards based on passenger satisfaction surveys, the highest rated airport in North America is Vancouver International in Canada at number 24. Houston George Bush Intercontinental, at number 25, is the highest-ranking American airport, with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International next at 42. Only 14 American airports are in the top 100, which is currently led by Hamad International Airport in Qatar.

“In the U.S., we view airports as a service provided not necessarily as a civic building, whereas the rest of the world wants to view it in a city context,” said Ty Osbaugh, an architect and the leader of the aviation practice at Gensler, which has designed airport terminals in numerous cities, from Pittsburgh to Incheon, South Korea.

In the United States, airport infrastructure funding sources include federal grants; operating revenue from things like tenant leases and parking; and the passenger facility charge fliers pay when they purchase their plane tickets. According to Airports Council International, the trade association of commercial airports in the United States and Canada, the passenger facility charge has not been raised in more than 20 years and stands at $4.50 maximum; meanwhile, airports have an infrastructure backlog of $115 billion.

“Airports aren’t standing still, but the challenge is airports are designed with the assumption that every flight will depart on time and there’s never bad weather or problems,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the president of Atmosphere Research Group, a market research and advisory firm to the travel industry. “When those problems are large and cascade, like bad weather that grounds and delays flights and you have more people in the terminal, everybody’s grouchy.”

Across the country, the average airport terminal is more than 40 years old and further challenged by the growth of air travel. Denver International, for example, opened in 1995 with capacity for 50 million fliers; in 2019, it handled more than 69 million.

Even if travelers have to occasionally cram into an overcrowded gate area as late flights beget late flights, there’s something airports can do to calm the setting: Dial the noise down.

Before the pandemic, when the airport was setting passenger records, San Francisco International rolled out its “quiet airport” program, a noise reduction plan that has eliminated TVs in seating areas of terminals and narrowed the scope of broadcast announcements, rather than airing them terminalwide.

“We’ve seen a terrific reduction in audio clutter by design, to make the facilities more relaxing for passengers,” said Doug Yakel, a spokesman for the airport. Fliers can still catch news and sports on TVs in airport restaurants and bars, but, he added, “There’s really no need at the gates since content is available on passengers’ own devices.”

Denver International’s gate expansion project, which includes B-West gates and will add three more enlarged concourse areas by 2022, does not display any talking screens (large screens instead silently flash messages about mask wearing and social distancing along with ads).

Again, foreign airports were the first to go silent. At London City Airport in England, for example, announcements are only made for flight disruptions or emergencies, not to call passengers to the boarding gates.

Exposing passengers to nature by way of plants is another stress reliever airports are adopting as designers champion “biophilic” — or nature-loving — plans.

“The last thing you want after traveling in a stale tube is being in a hermetically sealed airport environment,” said Matt Needham, the director of aviation and transportation at HOK architects, which created parklike areas in the new La Guardia Terminal B in New York City and in outdoor terraces at Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Fla. “We put it everywhere we can. It makes a difference.”

At the new terminal in Pittsburgh, expected to open in 2025, passengers will have outdoor terraces both before and after security (the airport is exploring digital queuing at security, which would make the pre-checkpoint gardens attractive).

“We have the incredible opportunity to build one of the first terminals post-pandemic,” wrote Christina Cassotis, the chief executive of Pittsburgh International Airport, in written responses to questions, noting that wellness is central to the design, which includes indoor air quality monitoring.

The outdoor areas Denver International is adding to its concourses, including firepits, aim to capture Colorado’s outdoor spirit.

Plants add to maintenance budgets, of course, so some designers are finding alternative ways to embrace nature. “Natural materials can echo biophilic design without fully bringing in plants and outdoor space into the project,” said Laura Ettelman, a managing partner at the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and one of the lead architects working on the new Kansas City International Airport in Missouri, now under construction and expected to open in 2023.

New airport designs increasingly acknowledge the diversity of travelers and their basic human needs.

San Francisco’s new Harvey Milk Terminal 1 includes a “recompose” area directly after security screening where benches enable passengers to put their belts and shoes back on and refill their water bottles (there’s also a place to dump water pre-security). A children’s play area has padded flooring, and a museum area features exhibits from the airport’s SFO Museum, with benches and dimmed lighting.

At Kansas City International, an airplane simulation room will offer those with anxieties about flying — particularly those on the autism spectrum — a mock ticketing kiosk, gate door, boarding bridge and aircraft interior, which potential fliers can book and visit before they purchase flights.

Passengers will also have access to a multi-sensory room, a calm space with low lighting, as well as a meditation room. Restrooms will include all-gender options and changing tables for caregivers of adults with special needs.

“We’re leaning forward into amenities that are inclusive and accessible,” said Justin Meyer, the deputy director of the airport.

Before designing the new terminal that opened in Salt Lake City last September, HOK architects observed large groups greeting returning Mormon missionaries, who are often gone for two years. As a result, they created a family room, which includes a world map and a fireplace, for gathering between the secured area and baggage claim.

Bathrooms are getting a lot of attention, with enhancements such as natural light at those near Denver International’s expansion gates, and adopting “smart restroom” technology in Dallas-Fort Worth International, with digital screens at the entrances indicating the number of stalls vacant.

Many airports have done a good job of attracting branches of local restaurants and shops to conjure a sense of place for the traveler who might only experience Chicago or New York City on a layover.

Now what architects mean when they reference sense of place is something more literal: Can you see the city or the mountains? Are the directions clear?

At La Guardia’s Terminal B, bridges that connect the concourses to the terminal rise above passing aircraft and offer views to the city skyline.

“You have an intuitive sense of wayfinding that also relaxes travelers,” Mr. Needham of HOK said.

In Salt Lake City’s new terminal, which opened in September 2020, HOK took inspiration from the canyons of southern Utah to create a central chasmlike route through the terminal with clear sightlines to the city and mountains beyond. Overhead, a sculpture of finned ridges by Gordon Huether suggests the striations of a sandstone canyon.

Ultimately, however, only so much is within the control of architects and planners, who must allow for the unexpected.

“A lot of things are external to architecture, but the way we accommodate them is by creating flexible environments,” said Scott Duncan, a design partner at SOM who is working on two satellite concourses planned for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

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