Airport Design Takes Off

With global terrorism, environmental concerns, and increasing numbers of passengers, airports must change to meet new needs

There's a memorable scene in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me if You Can. Leonardo DiCaprio, as a Pan Am pilot, is striding through an airport, trailed by a bevy of skittish air hostesses. Their elegant uniforms, the refined atmosphere of the terminal, the general air of optimism—it all reflects a bygone time, a golden age of air travel, and a striking contrast to today's airport experience.

There are many reasons for the change, not least of which are two of the biggest issues of our time: fluctuating oil prices and the threat of global terrorism. The need for increased security checks not provided for within the original architectural design of airports has led to bottlenecks and retrofitting. Add to that, "People are going through security well in advance of their flights and this has an enormous effect on a facility," says Ron Steinert, principal at aviation architectural design specialist, Gensler, and a long-time observer of the industry.

In other words, more passengers checking more bags and waiting for longer means a need for more luggage storage, more seating, better food, and better entertainment and retail. "How many T-shirts or souvenir mugs do you really need to buy?" Steinert asks. "Passengers are looking for a broader variety of specialty retail—and asking for it to be street priced. So I can go to the airport and pay the same price for a Swarovski necklace for my wife as I would downtown. All of this takes space."

Major Delays

Many of those problems can only get worse. Take the number of travelers, which continues to rise exponentially. "Seven billion passengers will use the world's airports by 2020," Robert Aaronson, director general of the Airports Council International, said in December. "But given the current pace of construction and constraints on airport capacity, airports globally are likely to be equipped to handle only 6 billion passengers. A 1 billion shortfall in passenger capacity means extreme congestion, or turning away customers, at certain airports—a poor choice indeed for a vital industry," he added.

And the airport infrastructure is aging. In the U.S., Denver has the only major new airport to have been built in the past 30 years. In Europe, only Athens and Oslo built new airports in the last decade. Even terminal extension is a slow process. It took six years for Terminal Five at London's Heathrow to get the thumbs up, seven years for the approval of a second runway in Auckland, New Zealand. "In Narita, it took over a decade for a new runway, and when it was finally approved, it was too short for movements of any aircraft larger than a Boeing 767," says Aaronson.

"Everywhere but the U.S. has embraced either a privatization of airports or a public/private relationship where airports are companies set up to provide an airport—and the airlines fly there or not," says Steinert. "Elsewhere, airports are run as businesses and become self-supporting—and can make a profit. It's illegal to have a privatized airport in the U.S."

It's Just Business

A bill going to Congress in September, 2007, may change at least some of the funding mechanisms, with airports hoping that the current cap on the Passenger Facility Charges (a per ticket charge paid in addition to ticket tax which remains within the airport itself) will be lifted, or even removed altogether. "We need to take the funding of airport infrastructure out of the hands of airlines and put it into the hands of airports," says Steinert.

"There has been a real sea-change towards this. In the old days, the airlines thought of airports as a service industry that provided space to them and their passengers. Now, airports see airlines as providing a service to their customers. It's a total change in the way airports are looking at themselves. They're realizing that they have to run themselves as businesses, to make money and provide a high level of service, or passengers will go elsewhere. Take the East Coast of the U.S.: There's an airport virtually every 10 miles. If you don't like one, you'll go to another."

As such, design is playing a part within airports eager to distinguish themselves from the competition. Korea countered Japan's island-based airport at Kansai with its own, at Incheon. Japan came back with another at Narita. Dubai is currently betting big ($4.1 billion) on becoming the largest airport in the world, with a terminal dedicated to processing the superjumbo plane from Airbus.

Green Design

The biggest growth in the industry is definitely to the east. The domestic market in Asia Pacific is predicted to surpass that of North America (the largest market since the outset of commercial aviation) by 2025. As a result, it's no surprise to see much of the construction activity is taking place in that region. China has fast-tracked airport construction, with plans to build 48 new airports in addition to Norman Foster & Partner's massive new facility in Beijing, slated to open in time for the 2008 Olympics. India's Minister of Civil Aviation indicated recently that he will support the development of new routes and new city pairings to help relieve congestion.

But it's not a simple matter of supplying more planes and more flights. Quite rightly, there's also increased pressure from environmental groups to cut down on the emissions and footprint left by both airplane and airport. "We have to find solutions that can make an airport process people faster and find better and more efficient ways to get planes on and off the ground," says Kent Turner, senior principal at the New York City office of architectural firm HOK.

Turner recently concluded six years work on Boston's Logan Airport, the first U.S. airport to receive LEED certification for conforming to sustainable design principles. "I don't know if it will take a great leap of technology but it's hard to imagine that the classic jet engine burning tons of fuel will be happening years down the road."

Vision vs. Reality

In many cases, airports have taken the marquee architect approach: Foster in Beijing; Richard Rogers in Madrid; Renzo Piano in Kansai, Japan; Helmut Jahn in Bangkok, Thailand; and Frank Gehry, who has an as-yet unapproved design in the woks for Venice, Italy. It's a tactic that hasn't met with resounding approval from all within the industry, who argue that every airport should be unique to its locale, rather than simply the newest feather in an architect's cap.

Sometimes, the architect's vision remains unrelated to reality—Kansai is all but empty, leaving the majestic halls which Piano envisioned thrumming with travelers feeling a little deserted. There have been complaints of too few practical necessities, such as restrooms and concession stands, as well as non-intuitive foot traffic patterns at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.

"In Europe and Asia, 'black cape' [big name] architects are a desired commodity because the owners of those airports think that it will make them better than their competitors," says Gensler's Steinert. "But these are grandiose, Taj Mahal types of statements. All too often, those architects provide an image and another firm tries to execute the design."

Of course, Steinert would say that—Gensler has designed 44 terminal buildings around the world, including the forthcoming JetBlue-specific terminal at JFK in New York and Terminal Five at Chicago's O'Hare, and yet is hardly acknowledged in the same breath as the big-name architects mentioned above. But he makes a valid point: Superficial design that looks impressive, but doesn't serve the needs of the customers, isn't what is required here.

Function First

A grand architectural statement may not, in the case of airports, be what is called for. "It has to work functionally first, with the outside a reflection of what is going on in the inside," concludes Steinert. "Who really sees the outside of the building? The pilots? Better to have a nice ceiling inside so that millions of people can experience it."

One thing's for sure, air travel isn't going away—and the challenges it presents can't be ignored. Airports continue to be important contributors to local coffers (the regional economic impact of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airports is more than $18.7 billion a year) and employment (airports worldwide employ over 350,000 people directly, over 4.5 million in related jobs).

So we took stock, rounding up some of the world's most interesting airport designs of today (with a few from tomorrow). Check out the slide show here.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.