So what will we be doing in the airport of the future? Anything we want

Airports could even become destinations in their own right

December 2018

Words by Katie Puckett

Istanbul New Airport terminal
Istanbul New Airport by Grimshaw

Tomorrow’s airport is not just a place to catch a plane or pick up some duty-free. It’s a destination restaurant, a legendary cocktail bar, a comfy place to sleep, a wellness sanctuary, all tailored precisely for each traveller with smartphone notifications and special offers. No two journeys through it will be the same.

Airports could even become destinations in their own right, the stopover as much a part of the journey as the end point. But they will need to pay far more attention to the arrival experience — traditionally the poor (and low-spending) cousin of departures. “When we design airports, there’s far too much focus on the departing passenger,” says WSP’s Tim Morrison. “It’s really important to have that wonderful sensation of arrival too. And then you might think, ‘It’s such a spectacular place to be, why don’t we stay here?’ You might spend a few days in the airport as part of your R&R before moving off into the city for the rest of your break. As a concept, it sounds nuts. But the airport experience is already light-years ahead of what it used to be.”

“As airport processes recede and cease to define the passenger experience, there’s an opportunity to spend time there in a much more enjoyable way”

Andy Thomas, Grimshaw

Airports still need passengers to spend money. But they need to be clever about it. The most successful retail offer isn’t the most densely packed, says Grimshaw’s Andy Thomas. “People who feel harassed and harangued, like they’re being attacked on all sides by retail offers that don’t interest them, can start to close up. People who are comfortable, relaxed and happy in their environment are much more likely to spend money.”

Singapore’s Changi Airport already has a butterfly garden where weary travellers can reconnect with nature. But the Jewel development takes it a step further. Opening in 2019, it is intended to become a “lifestyle destination” in its own right, both for international visitors to Singapore and local residents. It includes a five-storey air-conditioned garden, with walking trails, slides, a maze and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, as well as dining, retail, business facilities and hotel cabins that can be rented in hourly blocks.

Grimshaw designed Istanbul New Airport (left), with Nordic Office of Architecture and Haptic, inaugurated in October 2018 and one of the largest in the world. “There is a very substantial, grand airside hall which offers pretty much every type of experience, including wonderful, peaceful spacious areas for people just to sit and relax,” says Thomas. “You don’t have to commercialize every square foot of the international departures lounge. If we provide places for people to sit and rest and take stock, they’ll be in a much better frame of mind to get on their plane. But also they might decide that there is something within that space that’s appealing to them and that they’d like to take the opportunity to explore and be entertained.”

As on the high street, airport retail will be more about engaging travellers with the brand than persuading them to spend then and there. “Some of the most valuable pieces of space within the airport are big brand and media experiences, for a company to share their brand identity and values with a customer base that tends to have money in their pockets and be prepared to spend it,” says Thomas.

From The Possible, issue 04

Read the magazine

Long Beach Airport, California by HOK
Long Beach Airport, California by HOK – passengers can relax by a fire pit while waiting for their flight
Marseille Airport extension by Foster + Partners
Marseille Airport extension by Foster + Partners – "When you arrive in Marseille, you'll know you're in Provence"

Above all, the airport of tomorrow will be somewhere.

“The airport is your first impression of a place and your last recall when you leave,” says HOK’s Robert Chicas. “So your arrival in one location should be fundamentally different than another location with a completely different culture or vibe. It’s the difference between an airport being a vessel to receive and send passengers and it being a reflection of a particular place.”

HOK’s new Central Terminal B at LaGuardia will feature “pocket parks”, places to sit and rest with indoor trees and play areas for children, echoing those found throughout New York City. Meanwhile, Long Beach, couldn’t be anywhere other than southern California, with outdoor areas where passengers can chill by a firepit with a glass of wine while waiting for their flight.

“What airports need in order to be genuinely successful destinations is ‘spirit of place’. Spirit of place helps pivot passengers to shoppers. It can disrupt the traveller’s mindset by revealing the rich bounty of a local story. To be effective it must be a ‘living story’, meaning it has continuity with the past, represents the present too and grows as the local story evolves.”

Lewis Allen, director of environments at retail designer Portland

Grimshaw’s giant terminal for Istanbul New Airport draws on the classical structures of Mimar Sinan, father of Turkish architecture (or “mimari” in Turkish). “It’s about how we create environments that have a kind of warmth for passengers and a scale that’s understandable, all within this genuinely massive building enclosure,” says Andy Thomas. “We took inspiration from how light animates spaces, the rhythm and proportion of these environments, the texture and the patterning. These all help to make the building particular to its place and something that the people of Istanbul can take to their hearts.”

As airports have become larger, architects are also borrowing concepts from urban planners. “It’s about differentiation and placemaking,” says Antoinette Nassopoulos-Erickson, senior partner at Foster + Partners. Its extension to Marseille airport, on which WSP is the engineer, will make the most of the legendary Provençal lumière with a continuous grid of skylights that act as giant lanterns. “When you arrive in Marseille, you’ll know you’re in Provence,” says Nassopoulos-Erickson. “The colours, the light, the relationship to the landscape, the relationship to the sky, the food that’s on offer …”

Transparency and glazing is important, not just for natural light and views but so that people can watch the planes, she adds. “We’re keen that people have a connection not just to the landscape but to the aircraft, so they don’t feel like they’re in an anonymous place with no relationship to the experience of air travel.”

"Some of them treat you like sheep"

A contrarian's view on the future of airports

Read more

Welcome to … Earth

Union Pearson express

For the ultimate sense of place, head to Spaceport America in New Mexico, designed by Foster + Partners. “Astronauts who’ve had the experience of going into space and coming back talk about how precious the Earth is and how concerned they are about the environment,” says Nassopoulos-Erickson, the project architect. “Our design for that spaceport was very terrestrial: when you look at it, it’s very earthy, it’s something buried in the ground, in contrast to the sleek spacecraft. There’s a wonderful view across the New Mexico desert to the hills beyond, to give you sense that you are part of that world.”

sign in airport
Within 20 years, Toronto Pearson expects annual passenger numbers to almost double. It’s new regional transit centre, designed by HOK and WSP, will not only accommodate this growth but improve connectivity throughout the region. The airport is in a unique position to link towns and cities throughout Ontario, located between three municipalities, four major highways and a number of planned and existing transit lines.
aerial view of Stockholm’s Arlanda airport
For the last 100 months, Stockholm’s Arlanda airport has served record numbers of passengers. In 2017, 27 million people passed through its gates; by 2040, it expects 40 million, and by 2070, 70 million. To balance expansion with development in the surrounding area, government-owned operator Swedavia is preparing land-use masterplans with a 50-year horizon for Arlanda and its nine other airports across Sweden. “The airport is increasingly seen as a destination and a meeting place in its own right,” says Anna Norin, head of masterplanning at Swedavia. “By definition you would go there as a traveller, but because of Arlanda’s great connectivity, a lot of city elements are also developing in the immediate surroundings.” Image: Swedavia Airports

“Look for yesterday’s busiest train terminals and you will find today’s great urban centres. Look for today’s busiest airports and you will find the great urban centres of tomorrow”

John D Kasarda

Airports may even become cities in their own right.

The airport will become the best connected place in the city, and a much more integral part of it. The key word for sustainable airport development is multimodal. Airports will be hubs for city and regional links and mass transit of many kinds: high-speed rail, autonomous vehicles, hyperloop, drone taxis …

As airports become quieter, cleaner and better connected by mass transit — and cities more crowded and congested — they suddenly present a much more interesting development opportunity. Gensler aviation lead Ty Osbaugh believes that with better transit links and landside amenities, the airport city will evolve from logistics centre to mixed-use development to micro-city: “This evolution makes the airport part of the larger community. The reality of living near an airport has many benefits, and the amenity of quick travel to the central city will attract talent.” 

The earliest examples of the aerotropolis — a city whose layout and activities centred around an airport — were founded on time-sensitive manufacturing and distribution businesses that relied on fast links to distant customers, such as FedEx in Memphis or UPS in Louisville. In his book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, University of North Carolina professor John D Kasarda describes the aerotropolis as “the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities”. That logic has made some form of airport connectivity essential for all businesses.

“Connected airports will connect not just one city to another, but to passenger lifestyles, to the cities in which they are located, and to the emotional experience of travel”

Ty Osbaugh, Gensler

But it works both ways. In a world that is seamlessly connected by the internet, innovation is the greatest differentiator for companies. For that, they rely on attracting the brightest human minds — and those minds don’t want to work on an industrial estate. They’d rather be in a vibrant, thriving city, with the airport a short, easy hop away. Whether that’s a brand new city built around the airport, or an established city with a fast mass-transit connection, will depend on how successfully airports are able to become fully functional urban centres. 

Many new airports are deliberately planned with adjacent city-sized lots. Taiwan’s Taoyuan Aerotropolis Plan envisages jobs for 200-300,000 people, as well as homes, recreation facilities and amenities for the new communities. “We’re trying to build an ecosystem for all the logistics and cargo companies, but also to boost totally new industries to contribute to GDP growth,” says WSP’s Frank Lin. The government particularly wants to encourage innovation in four tech fields — Internet of Things (IoT), smart city technology, AI and green energy — and is building dedicated R&D facilities to lure entrepreneurs from across Asia.

Goodbye, airport parking

parking sign


Parking is the single biggest chunk of airport’s non-aeronautical revenues, and rental cars are the next biggest: together they make up around 60%. [1] The convenience of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft has already dented the appeal of car ownership for millennials, and in the not-too-distant future, shared autonomous vehicles could make it almost obsolete. That spells the end for airport parking as we know it. Why pay to leave your own car at the airport for two weeks when you can summon a lift when you need one?

Driverless cars will simply drop off their passengers and head on to their next pick-up, but they’ll also need somewhere to wait and to recharge their batteries — and where better than the airport? “They tend to be very well connected to road networks and there will always be high demand,” says Grimshaw’s Andy Thomas.

[1] ACI North America

Older, landlocked airports are sitting on vast tracts of land currently devoted to parking — for which redevelopment looms. “That’s a scary thought for many airport operators — but it presents a tremendous opportunity to rethink the types of facilities and services that airports offer their customers on the landside,” says Max Hirsh, professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of Airport Urbanism. “At present, some of the airport’s most valuable real estate is occupied by parking structures. Successful airports are re-evaluating whether that still makes sense.” He gives the example of Amsterdam Schiphol’s new valet-parking model. Passengers drop off their cars next to the terminal, which are then parked at a remote facility, freeing up land for more lucrative uses.

Budding aerotropolises will be in competition with the cities they serve. So they have to offer the things that real cities do. A mix of commercial and residential buildings is not enough — developers must fill the gaps in between with all of the less obviously valuable or glamorous amenities that are essential to city life: childcare, gyms, grocery stores, outdoor seating areas, places for food trucks.

“If we really want to create a new type of airport urbanism that is irresistible to both residents and visitors,” says Hirsh, “we need to focus on things that people enjoy doing in their free time: playing with their children, relaxing with friends over a tasty meal, shopping for unusual products, listening to good music, going for a walk in nature.”

Co-working in arrivals

In the fast-growing, land-poor, more communal societies of the East, airports are becoming places of social interaction for people who aren’t even flying. Changi is a favoured study location for Singapore’s university students, lured by free wifi, aircon, 24-hour access and the variety of quiet spaces and refreshments. “Rather than keeping everyone out, airports are beginning to open up and they’re looking at spaces in a completely different light,” says WSP’s Jason Brooks.

rendering of aircraft flight path around the city

“We’re seeing the largest innovation in aviation since World War II. Cities are becoming vertical”

Adrienne Lindgren, WSP

Or maybe the city will become an airport …

A new space race is on. The goal is on-demand urban aviation: electric VTOL drones piloting themselves over congested cities, cutting commutes from hours to minutes.

Uber is aiming to start demonstrator flights of the Uber Air service by 2020, and full commercial operations by 2023. Dubai’s rulers are enthusiastically pursuing test flights of Volocopter air taxis to a similar timetable, and Singapore’s civil aviation authority is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency and Airbus to develop standards for urban aviation. The European Commission launched its Urban Air Mobility Initiative in May 2018 and nine cities and one region have signed up to run pilot schemes.

“We’re seeing the largest innovation in aviation since World War II, and there’s certainly a component of first out the gate,” says Adrienne Lindgren, a specialist in urban aviation at WSP. “Cities are becoming vertical.”

Lindgren recently joined WSP from the mayor’s office in Los Angeles, one of two Uber Air launch cities in the US, where she was developing policies to help the city integrate new forms of mobility. Full-scale implementation won’t happen until closer to 2033, she believes, partly because airspace is so heavily regulated. But it is this that presents city planners with a golden opportunity, allowing them time to plan how and where urban aviation happens. It could be the missing link that better connects existing transit systems into a more functional whole.   

What this actually looks like will differ from city to city. “Aviation has been built on a very specific standardized system, and this will really challenge all of the parties involved to think a little differently. If this becomes a reality, our conception of airports will change — the city will be an airport.” In Dallas — Uber Air’s other US launch city — urban aviation could connect the city’s sprawling suburbs and decentralized transport nodes. In southern California, it could add significant regional connectivity: “We don’t have trains, but we have a lot of people spread out. It’s so contentious to build on land in the US, owing in no small part to the number of competing and incumbent stakeholders on the ground, that I honestly believe it will be easier to activate airspace.”

Uber Air will link transit nodes rather than running point-to-point, at speeds of 150-200km. Its ideal city is large, sprawling, densely populated, polycentric and congested, and if it has a large airport that can’t be reached inside an hour, that would make for a “compelling use case” too. It has narrowed the search for a third launch city down to Japan, France, Brazil, Australia and India.

Lindgren foresees that small, forgotten or outlying airports could be brought back into the fold of a regional system. Major airports, meanwhile, will have to decide whether or not to welcome low-altitude interlopers, and how such services will integrate with their own transit, security and electricity networks.

There are armies of experts on both the technology and regulatory aspects. But there’s a crucial gap in the middle, believes Lindgren, for engineering and consultancy on how to implement urban aviation technologies for the good of city inhabitants. “What there hasn’t been a lot of to date are people working at the intersection — how do you integrate these into traditional infrastructure planning processes? Implementation is going to be extremely complicated because it’s going to touch so many different areas.”

Also available as a PDF


Download it here

The biggest challenge will not be technical so much as political: gaining public acceptance. “It’s going to really change the visuals of the city. We have to think about defining the public benefit of these technologies, otherwise why are people going to accept having them clutter their skyline?” Services will need to be affordable, says Lindgren: “As aviation becomes local, people will have the capacity to legislate you out of their airspace. That’s a real concern: if no one sees the value, or the value is only there for 2-5% of your population, people will resent having it in their skies.”

There will be a cultural shift for all concerned, as ground transport providers and municipalities get to grips with aviation for the first time. This is where airports are uniquely placed to help. “Airports have tended to do their own thing in the past, but increasingly you will see them included in conversations about how we plan cities and about oversight of all these different assets. Airports will continue to become more important in dictating urban power centres.”

This article appeared in The Possible issue 04, as part of a longer feature on the future of airports

Leave a comment