A contrarian view: “Some Airports Treat You Like Sheep”

illustration of the back of an aircraft with Future of Airports written on it

The hallmarks of future airports will be efficiency, convenience, ease of operation – and not shopping, argues MIT's Richard de Neufville

Richard de Neufville admits that his is a “contrarian” view. Like many frequent business travellers, the MIT professor hates having to march through a shopping centre when he just wants to get home. “Some airports treat you like sheep. They want to keep you in the shopping area for as long as possible so you can’t go to where you actually want to be. What I really want to do is get to my gate with a minimum of fuss.” 

De Neufville is an engineer and system designer who specializes in airport planning. He has been associated with airport projects on every continent, and is currently working with Singapore’s Changi on its massive 1,080ha extension. In the future, he believes more passengers will think as he does. “There won’t be that much emphasis on shopping malls anywhere, let alone at the airport. Big box stores are closing because people prefer to buy things more cheaply online. So the idea that it would be a special treat to go to a duty-free store and then have to carry the stuff around doesn’t make sense. The cost of building a shopping mall in a very congested expensive place doesn’t make sense either.”

The other part of the equation is the rise of low-cost travel, making flying more accessible and less of a special occasion. “Low-cost airlines are taking over and they’re increasingly asking for facilities that serve their needs.” Low-cost travellers need somewhere to buy a takeaway sandwich, as they won’t be offered free food on the plane, but they’re less likely to view their journey as an extended shopping trip.  

Efficiency, convenience and ease of operation will be the hallmark of future airports, says de Neufville — not just for passengers but for airlines too. Outside of the US, airports have not typically been designed around operators — for example, to minimize taxi time or make it easier to manoeuvre. “But the cost of even small delays really mounts up — the full economic cost to operate an aircraft is about £100 a minute. Making it efficient for operators means they can deliver better prices to customers. Ultimately that can drive a lot of the design.”

Airports can be bigger but still user-friendly, he argues. Look at Atlanta, which serves more passengers than any other in the world: “It’s huge but in terms of what’s provided, it’s really very simple. The future is not an extension of the past. Right now the tendency of a lot of places is to build monuments for themselves. But if that’s important to them, there are ways of doing it more economically and efficiently.” 

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