Type to search




Gensler’s Ty Osbaugh and Lee Billington discuss how enhancing the passenger experience, embracing cutting edge IT and taking cues from the hospitality industry hold the key to designing world class airports.

Across the globe, new terminal facilities are rising in the world’s growing cities. Whether expanding a major global hub or transforming an existing terminal, these new facilities boost customer and civic expectations of what airports can and should be.

Take, for example, the recently opened Terminal 2 at Incheon International Airport. Accommodating 18 million passengers per annum, the terminal welcomes customers with lush expanses of indoor green space, cultural exhibitions and performances, and high-street shopping.

Today, there is an increasing demand for authenticity, personalisation, seamless travel, and on-demand functionality within the airport experience. But what does that really look like in the ever-changing landscape of the here and now?

The answer lies beyond massive architectural forms, retail and dining offerings or the latest ‘it-amenity’. To quote historian Janet Bednarek, “Just because an amenity-filled terminal looks impressive doesn’t mean it functions well.”

True, world-class status can only be achieved, especially in today’s social media-fuelled world, when the terminal succeeds in its foundational role of facilitating air travel and moving  passengers seamlessly.

The identifier of ‘world-class’ is only achieved when the foundational elements support the ever-changing demand of the human experience.


 Big, green and impressive: Incheon International Airport’s Terminal 2. Image courtesy of Gensler.

Designing for the human experience

The world is experiencing change at an unprecedented pace. Technology advances, global economic instability, weather disruptions – things that were unheard of five years ago are now part of daily life.

And in this era of dramatic change, people are the one constant. This historic confluence of change means that we must rethink and re-imagine how people experience every aspect of their airport journey.

More than ever before, there is an opportunity to create not only a better airport, but a better world through people-centred design.

As part of this era of change, there are more passengers than ever, and that number is growing. According to both ACI and IATA, by 2035 there will be almost twice as many travellers as there are today. Traditionally, airport terminals were designed largely around passenger typologies and planning that anticipates passenger needs. Moments within the airport journey were pre-determined by either the designer or the airport operation.

Working on a confidential assignment for a major global hub airport, Gensler identified that physical separations between potential activities and the gate often leave passengers having to choose between one or the other for fear of missing the call to board, creating a sense of ‘I can have this or that’. In turn, a multi-layered space allows passengers to have both. ‘I can have this and that’.

As airports expand to meet the needs of travel growth, we must ask ourselves, are we providing more of the same design at a new scale?

Customer diversity is also on the rise, in terms of age, income level, and cultural background. Add to this the fact that people live integrated lives. We have moved far beyond the notion that an airport is a static place to wait for an airplane with a singular type of user.

Each and every customer in an airport comes with a unique set of circumstances, wants, and needs. To deliver a world-class experience, it is essential to provide a multi-layered space to enable customers to craft unique moments of energy and calm.

By streamlining flows, customers are liberated from traditional compartmentalised layouts and are offered a variety of public spaces. Choice for customers creates a rewarding and valuable experience and helps them find value in their time at the airport.

This personalisation and convenience is a differentiator. As time becomes an increasingly valued asset, customers are willing to pay a premium for places, products, and services that in effect give them back their time.

At San Francisco International Airport, where Gensler helped develop the Revenue Enhancements and Customer Hospitality (REACH) Guiding Principles and multiple terminal assignments, this ability for customers to curate their experience has helped the airport to consistently achieve industry-leading concessions performance.

Influenced by the hospitality industry, pre-security spaces were designed with upscale hotel lobbies in mind. Customers assess their own travel needs as they pass through the terminal doors – providing customers with the freedom to choose what’s next, shifting the mentality of the check-in experience, and lessening anxiety.    

The role of digital in airport design

Technology, more than ever, is impacting daily life and will impact the experience that customers have in a terminal. Almost every traveller has a smart device with them, capable of complex tasks that previously required enormous resources.

Other technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and the future ability to take the internet wherever one travels, has allowed people to be connected to each other in ways unimaginable just a short time ago.

Amidst this new and ever-changing reality, to best design for the human experience we must also consider the context of the fast-changing world around us. Technology advances and processes change, yet human needs remain. Fundamentally, we must meet customers where they are.

In the late 2000s, it felt like every company was developing an app to deliver services to their customers, however, over time, this led to an enormous amount of ‘noise’ and cognitive overload.

The simple truth is that often customers are better served when existing technologies are repurposed. The digitisation of boarding passes is an example of this as, according to SITA, 97% of airlines today provide options for mobile device boarding passes.

It’s once again about choice – travellers can use a paper boarding pass, or a digital version on their phone or smartwatch.

This has started to evolve to even trial runs of such technologies as biometric fingerprints and facial recognition. Technology has also changed the approach of planning a trip as real-time and user-generated information has introduced flexible booking.

Airports and airlines need to deeply understand how and where travellers are connecting with them so they can best interface with them in the future.

And, as we move toward an ever-more digital world, the tools available to airport customers should deliver flexible, scalable and more personalised experiences.

When done well, a seamless experience is created that integrates both analogue and digital elements together, delivering value to customers.


 Quick and easy: The passenger experience in JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at New-York JFK. ©Paul Rivera.

New opportunities for a seamless experience
– Personalisation

Advances in technology drive travellers to look for more control over their entire travel experience.

Hitwise discovered that 60% of travel searches begin from a mobile device – the entire travel experience originates as a personal, mobile interaction. The ability to speak directly to these passengers leads to a better user experience and additional revenue opportunities.

On-demand and personal technology will allow passengers to move through the airport seamlessly by cutting out lines and stress, and by prioritising motion over waiting. Airlines will know their passengers’ preferences, allowing them to offer more tailored experiences.

As personal and airport technology continue to improve, terminals must continue to employ strategies that put self-directed experiences in the hands of the passenger.

– Time as currency

Customers and travellers are making stronger associations with efficiency and value, and in this new world, automated processes and services drive perceived worth.

Indeed, according to SITA’s Airport IT Trends Survey, the satisfaction levels of passengers who use self-service technology is 8% higher than for those that used face-to-face processes. After US airline JetBlue and Gensler collaborated on a modernisation of the check-in process at their home terminal at JFK International Airport, the airline reported a 63% decrease in adverse social media comments about the ‘long lines’.

Prior to the new design, queue times averaged between 15 to 20 minutes whereas today passengers using the new self-service kiosks can expect to spend less than two minutes checking-in – and in effect more quickly partake in the services and amenities the post-security environment offers.

– Biometrics

Long considered one of the most secure ways of granting access to information, pilot programmes are using biometric data to verify passenger data and expedite the boarding and immigration control processes.

Last year, Delta launched facial recognition at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta for international travellers, an update to their fingerprint scanning launched in 2017. While the impact is minimal per user – saving a mere two seconds per passenger – the compounded effects are felt at a sum of nine minutes of saved time per boarded flight. At scale, this has rather large cost implications.

– Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Customer service, hospitality in particular, is being transformed via artificial intelligence (AI). Hotels such as Aloft are incorporating more and more robotic assistants. AI and machine intelligence will also have a large impact on logistics, including reduced baggage handling time, as well as improved flight path and traffic efficiencies.

With improved data-analytic tools, operators can profile guests with greater accuracy, and understand, treat, and service them as individuals.

– Intelligent buildings

Not only will the experience of the airport change, but the terminal building itself must change. To meet community and sustainability expectations, ‘smart’ buildings must become genius buildings.

The near-future airport campus will utilise an ‘all of the above’ sustainability strategy, harvesting its own energy and water, recycling its own waste, and growing its own aviation fuel.

As smarter technology is integrated into buildings, we learn more about customer behaviour, identifying and improving foot traffic flow, and measuring the health of both the building and the people in it.

A truly intelligent space is having a conversation with its inhabitants and responding and reacting to their needs.

As we continue to discover what the future holds, what we know now is that if we do not begin to integrate technologies today, the future airport will lack the key offering that travellers desire: a personalised and seamless experience.

About the authors

Ty Osbaugh is Gensler’s global practice area leader for aviation and Lee Billington is its director of digital experience design.


You Might also Like

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *