What makes a great airport?

23 August 2012 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2012 18:30)

Designing the blueprint for the world’s most successful airport is a tall order. What matters most – character and feel, facilities, passenger-friendliness, capacity...? Tony Grist, head of architecture at HASSELL, creator of Monocle’s Best Airport Terminal 2012, joins the debate.

What makes a great airport?

The travelling public's views - rather than those of the industry - are reflected by Monocle magazine, so for architectural firm HASSELL it was particularly interesting to receive the June 2012 edition's Best Airport Terminal accolade for its Qantas domestic terminal project in Sydney.

Monocle used the phrase "simple design, quality materials and sensible scale" to sum up the greatness of the terminal, which opened in 1999. Even the "well-designed lounges, decent retail mix and smooth security" were mentioned. Some of these aspects of customer satisfaction are not easy to quantify and many rely on personal interpretation. But, overall, what constitutes 'greatness' and how can it be measured?

A sense of place

Many people see an airport as defining a city's character and identity. There are many examples of past, present and projected airports that have strong regional character. What often makes a successful outcome is an intelligent approach to 'sense of place', not only in the terminal architecture, but in other parts of the infrastructure, such as the use of indigenous landscapes, interpretive artwork and locally sourced materials.

In Singapore Changi Airport, a strong sense of place is created by the tropical landscape, which defines the city and gives the airport a distinct identity. It provides a sense of arrival and departure for travellers, and envelops them in Singapore's regional character. The terminal architecture, muted against the power of this natural identity, does not need to shout to be heard.

Airport cities

Many airport cities and airport owners are now maximising the potential of their landholdings. Airport cities have developed to encompass related facilities and activities, including administration offices, hotels, maintenance centres and cargo holds, as well as a diverse range of non-aviation-related components such as casinos, convention and medical centres, golf courses and even racing tracks.

A great airport city works with the existing regional infrastructure, providing jobs and facilities that may not, and could not, exist elsewhere, rather than replicating facilities and drawing those opportunities to airport land, leaving the city diminished. The most successful airport cities are building on their training and research credentials by partnering with local bodies to develop sustainable carbon reduction strategies and new land-based transport initiatives, such as rail corridors.

Easy airport access

The best airports provide an enjoyable and memorable travel experience that starts long before customers arrive at the terminal. Easy airport access for those with baggage and young families, via a choice of cost-effective modes of transport, is a good gauge of success. Direct transport links, downtown check-in that saves travellers carrying bags through the airport or systems that allow them to check in a day ahead make the experience easier.

" The best airports provide an enjoyable and memorable travel experience that starts long before customers arrive at the terminal."

At the terminal, valet drop-off of vehicles - which are then stored in secure remote parking and delivered back to the customer on their return at a cost no greater than a family rail ticket - often makes a door-to-door experience the best choice for large families with a lot of baggage.

Airports that have adopted self-bag tagging and new automated check-ins using frequent flyer swipe cards or RFID tags are gaining popularity and smoothing out peaks. The most effective, such as the Qantas Next Generation Check-in, incorporates Q readers that transform a passenger's Qantas card into their boarding pass, and links this in turn to their smart bag tags.

Good retail and food offerings

Airside retail experiences have an impact on travellers. Good retail and food offerings will often encourage passengers to arrive early to relax, browse and eat before departure, lowering last-minute panic and helping flatten out peaks. Transit terminals, again like those at Changi Airport, can provide different environments in each terminal, giving travellers room to explore, exercise and prepare for longer flight segments. The task for retail planners is avoiding excessive manipulation of passengers to increase footfall while retaining their enjoyment.

Finally, departures sequences can be a stressful pre-boarding exercise. Lounges located a long distance from holding areas, particularly those centred on retail, can often result in a 20-minute walk to the gate. As terminals expand and the best financial returns often result from centralising retail offerings, this is not easy to remedy.

Flexible infrastructure

Investment in airport and terminal infrastructure is costly and carries considerable risks. Developing flexible infrastructure can mitigate some of these risks and up an airport's appeal among investors and owners.

"Transit terminals can provide different environments, giving travellers room to explore, exercise and prepare for longer flight segments."

Flexibility is generally related to building structures and falls into two categories: modular buildings that can be incrementally expanded in response to growth and capital expenditure, and large-span structures that can accommodate a range of moves and changes to functions uninhibited by a forest of columns. Larger aircraft, landside security zones and increased screening processes are all testing the ability of airports to adapt economically.

Temporary terminals have recently popped up to provide capacity during construction or to cope with significant events. Heathrow Airport, for instance, has invested in a temporary terminal to cope with the surge of departing athletes and officials following the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Another example is the IKEA pop-up lounge, designed only for July and August 2012, at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which markets IKEA products and provides traveller facilities.

Product differentiation has also driven the concept of flexibility. Taking the low-cost market as an example, the response has generally been to construct low-cost facilities to cater specifically for that market sector, but these types of facilities are extremely basic, generally single-level buildings that are, by their very nature, inflexible.

HASSELL is currently working on a design at Melbourne Airport that seeks to address these issues by initially accommodating low-cost carriers, with premium operator integration to come later. HASSELL project leader Mark Wolfe sats reduction of operational expenditure (OPEX) is being sought through common security processing and departure lounges (operated on a call-to-gate protocol to optimise retail revenues), sustainable design strategies and energy-efficient equipment.

Environmental impact

Airports have historically been seen as having a major impact on the environment, mainly through aircraft operations. Aircraft movements account for about 60% of emissions, and terminals roughly 5%.

According to the 'ICAO Environment Report 2010', however, airports such as Brasilia International are making additional improvements on the ground with changes in departure and arrival taxiing configurations. Departures paths have been reduced from 4,200m to 1,200m, and arrivals from 3,000m to 1,850m. Munich T2 terminal also displays its building's performance in the public realm; there is a digital display in the departures hall explaining how much carbon is being saved through initiatives such as solar panels, natural light and double-skin walls.

The most recognisably eco-conscious airports are those that are carrying out a number of initiatives. HASSELL's recent Brisbane domestic expansion scheme in Australia proposed a central energy plant that could help reduce carbon emissions by providing green ground power.

"HASSELL’s recent Brisbane domestic expansion scheme proposed a central energy plant that could provide green ground power."

The firm also proposed the first mixed-mode check-in hall in the southern hemisphere, which is possible due to its separation from the concourse and the benign nature of the Queensland climate. In Christchurch, New Zealand, the first stage of a combined international/domestic terminal has been completed with local partners Warren and Mahoney. The terminal uses an aquifer 30m underground to provide heating and cooling, negating the need for chillers.

A great sustainable airport is about being green - and being seen to be green. For the traveller, sustainable landscapes and water-sensitive strategies can define the design of landside infrastructure in an environmentally friendly way.

Terminal design, such as that of Munich T2, overtly explains the eco-credentials of the building, while other activities, for instance those of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, exemplify the benefits of linking research, the community and universities in a holistic approach to sustainability.