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Curtis Fentress, founder and principal in charge of design at Fentress Architects, considers the importance of building people friendly terminals that enhance passenger journeys.

Much is written about the human need for connection and the resulting social, emotional, even economic benefits it affords.

In fact, in 2018, the World Economic Forum published Why the Secret to Success is Human Connection, which drew from numerous studies, and concludes that “if business is about growing relationships, then connection is at the root.”

This is certainly true in the field of aviation, which is inherently driven by the human need to connect.

Airlines, passenger terminals and airport complexes were not only conceived to facilitate travel, but also to enhance the journey. After all, in addition to connecting upon arrival, humans desire connection along the way.

Today, more than 4.3 billion passengers are transported globally on commercial airlines each year. Additionally, more than 1.2 million people – as of 2013 – work at airports in the United States alone.

Over the past 40 years, Fentress Architects has become a global expert at designing physical spaces that support and facilitate human connection and interaction. Indeed, our airport projects alone have garnered over 90 awards, many of which are a direct testament to the power and success of human-centred design.

Two prime examples are Denver International Airport’s (DEN) Passenger Terminal Complex and Incheon International Airport (ICN). DEN ranked in the top 10 of the World’s Best Large Airports, as determined by Skytrax, for six out of the last eight years. While ICN ranked the Best Airport Worldwide in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer excellence awards for 11 consecutive years (2005-2016).

Orlando International Airport

Orlando International Airport’s (MCO) South Terminal Complex, which is under construction and on schedule to open in 2021 is one of our current projects in the US.

Orlando is among the top 30 busiest airports in the world and the gateway to Central Florida’s thriving business community, theme parks including the Walt Disney World Resort, miles of spectacular beaches, and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

With over 75 million business and leisure visitors last year (topping New York and Las Vegas), first impressions are paramount. So, with the help of baggage conveyance technology developed in Europe, Fentress was able to flip the arrival experience.

Arriving travellers will now be directed to a voluminous light-filled space, which is naturally orientating and offers a moment of repose.

Catering to passengers’ innate needs, easy access to restrooms and concessions in a pleasant environment, especially upon disembarking the plane, is rejuvenating and therein, helps facilitate connection.

Departing travellers will have a similarly pleasant experience replete with opportunities to connect both in person and virtually. From intuitive parking and drop-off areas to a new ticketing hall designed for flexibility and fitted-out with kiosks, outstanding customer service will help travelers feel well attended to. Security is designed to be similarly intuitive, orderly, and responsive.

Palm Court and Town Square – two keystone civic spaces within Orlando’s South Terminal – will lie just beyond security and be linked by a sky-lit pedestrian boulevard interspersed with plazas containing an array of amenities and entertainment.

Palm Court, the grandest of these spaces, will house a garden-like setting that combines informal lounge seating, international retail, and dynamic media installations.

These installations will disseminate flight information, highlight Orlando’s many theme parks and outdoor recreational opportunities, and feature uploaded and pre-screened personal posts from family vacations.

En route to their gate, travellers will experience Windows on Orlando. Comprised of large interactive media screens, this feature will broadcast live feeds from local lakes, beaches, and other areas of natural beauty. On occasion, these screens may even feature live footage from the Kennedy Space Center.

In the not too distant future, the MCO experience will offer travellers and employees alike another vehicle for physical and personal connection: a passenger rail line and its accompanying station.


LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal (© Lawrence Anderson).

LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal

The transformative design for Los Angeles International Airport’s (LAX) Tom Bradley International Terminal demonstrates a qualitatively different kind of airport facility.

While amenities appeal to traveller sensibilities, we know that truly exceptional passenger experiences – especially those that fosters human connection – benefit from environments that elevate the wellbeing of both travellers and staff.  As a result, the Bradley Terminal is replete with a myriad of calm, inviting, and fully accessible spaces that welcome any and all who have the time and interest to make use of them.

Meanwhile, all who pass through the space are bathed in daylight and afforded expansive views to the outdoors as well as a variety of integrated media displays, which project kinetic video installations of light and destination information as well as art and entertainment.

Since the grand re-opening five years ago, LAX has been recognised as having the Best Overall Customer Service Program among large airports by ACI-NA (2018); and ranked among the Top 10 Best of the US’s Big Airports by the Wall Street Journal (2018).


SJC’s Björn Schülke’s Space Observer (© Nick Merrick and Hedrich Blessing).

Mineta San Jose International Airport

Airport World has called Norman Y Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) one of the world’s the “most technologically advanced airports”, which is appropriate given its role as ambassador to the Silicon Valley region. Among its plentiful deployments of technology is an extensive public art programme.

Fentress Architects worked with SJC’s administration and Art + Technology program to align the art master plan with the architectural master plan. The result has been extraordinarily successful, particularly in helping people feel a connection to the art, building, experience, region, and one another.

Pieces such as Björn Schülke’s Space Observer, a permanent glossy white 26-foot-tall kinetic interactive sculpture, reinforce intuitive wayfinding as they demarcate intersections and pathways.

While Dreaming F.I.D.S, a dynamic aquatic ecosystem by artists Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen, and Convey, an artwork by Banny Banerjee, Matt Gorbet and Susan LK Gorbet, which projects the captured emotions of departing passengers on arriving baggage, seek direct engagement with the public.

The most prominent and integrated of all the installations is Christian Moeller’s Hands, which covers the 1,200-foot-long, seven story tall east façade of the terminal’s Consolidated Rental Car Garage.

Standard pre-cast concrete was traded for two layers of architectural metal fabric to hold 350,000-plus disks on which the hands of 57 Silicon Valley residents – from a baggage claim handler to a founding CEO of Yahoo, a tamale maker, and a surgeon — are printed.

The fact SJC continues to garner top awards is a testament to the success of its human-centred, connection-driven design. In fact, American City Business Journals recently ranked it the best-run airport in the country based on nine criteria that included ease, access and speed of travel. SJC was also finished top in the 2017 JD Power and Associates’ North American Airport Satisfaction Study of medium airports.

These and more awards mirror anecdotal evidence from travellers, including talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, who tweeted: “Whomever runs @FlySJC San Jose airport should run the country. Nice people, quick baggage, even clean bathrooms!”


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