The new generation of airports

August 31, 2012

After a round of golf, an Imax movie, a tea-making demo and an omelet stuffed with baby oysters, you might forget the pressing reason for being here at the Hong Kong airport: to catch a flight.

If the airplane isn’t careful, it could soon become an afterthought to the airport.

Over the past decade, air transportation hubs from Helsinki to Seoul to Newark have been undergoing wild transformations, shedding their drab, utilitarian look for electric ensembles. They’re upping the amenities and introducing innovative designs and technology that takes the sting out of long layovers and delays.

“For the personal experience, the ground part is as important as the in-flight experience,” says Raymond Kollau, the Dutch founder of Airlinetrends.com, which tracks inventions in the industry. “The airports are asking themselves, ‘How can we offer passengers an end-to-end experience?’ ”

Unlike the oft-apathetic airlines, the next generation of airports is growing more thoughtful, addressing the new travails of air travel. We’re spending more time in airports because of heightened security measures that require us to arrive earlier. We’re stranded more often because of airline mergers that have short-sheeted flight schedules. And once we’re settled in a terminal, we’re more desperate for food and drink, now that airlines charge for meals (or skip them altogether) and the Transportation Security Administration bans our beverages.


(nick iluzada)

Airports are also expanding to accommodate bigger planes, such as the double-decker Airbus A380 that seats more than500, and mushrooming passenger loads. Last year, for instance, New York’s JFK and Newark airports registered record numbers of international passengers. And the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the domestic air market will grow from 731 million passengers last year to 1.2 billion in 2032.

Finally, we as travelers are changing. We’re more technologically advanced, self-sufficient and all-around savvy. As more discerning consumers, we expect a certain level of ease and comfort. We’re tired of eating Cinnabon for dinner, napping in torture chairs and sitting on the crumb-littered floor to charge our gadgets.

In response, airports started to evolve in the late 1990s, with Europe in the vanguard, followed by the United States about five years later, says Kollau. Amsterdam’s Schiphol, for instance, developed the iris-scan system that allows frequent fliers to speed through border control and was the first facility to test self-checked bags. Frankfurt takes the DIY even further: Travelers can complete each step of the airport process (check-in, security, boarding) without any human intervention.

“The whole process is being outsourced to the passenger,” says Kollau.

Asia and the Middle East are the newest arrivistes, with India running a few laps behind. Singapore, for one, has created a destination airport with diversions — rooftop pool, movie theaters, gardens, four-story slide — that could easily cause you to miss your flight. China, meanwhile, is on a building streak. In addition to constructing the second-largest terminal in the world in 2008 (Beijing’s Terminal 3, smaller than only Dubai’s Terminal 3), the country plans to erect or expand at least 50 airports within the next five to 10 years.

On our own home turf, multiple projects are bubbling from coast to coast. The $1.5 billion work-in-progress at Los Angeles’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, for example, will feature 15 new gates (plus three existing gates), including nine dedicated to the Airbus. Across the country, Delta is pouring $1.2 billion into Terminal 4 at JFK, which will allow the old PanAm Worldport to retire; LaGuardia will replace its Central Terminal Building, built during the Johnson era; and Newark is nearing completion of a $347 million renovation of its almost 40-year-old Terminal B.

Although the expansions and additions address national or regional needs, recurring themes and designs are creating a greater World of Airports. Here are some of the burgeoning trends coming to an airport in your future travels.

Now that’s entertainment

Transportation hubs are expanding on the mall concept, creating megaplexes of inspired diversions and Rodeo Drive-style shopping.

Singapore’s Changi has put its distractions on steroids: In addition to two free movie theaters, there’s also a 4-D theater; the Slide@T3, a playground-style twister that tumbles down 40 feet; and a baby slide in Basement 2. Fat-wallet shopping includes Hugo Boss, Hermes, Bottega Veneta, Rolex and Sugar Cube, a Japanese boutique.

Las Vegas knows its travelers well, adding about 260 slot machines to its renovated Terminal 3. Miami caters to its fashionable crowd in the North Terminal, which last year unveiled more than 20 new vendors and luxury shops, such as Coach, Emporio Armani, Montblanc and Thomas Pink.

If your kids moan about shopping, ship them off to Hong Kong’s Dream Come True Education Park. The interactive occupation-themed exhibits, with dress-up uniforms, help little fliers figure out what they want to be when they grow up. At Tokyo’s Haneda, they can race slot cars around a 150-foot-long circuit at Hakuhinkan Toy Park and dine under the twinkling constellations at the Planetarium Starry Cafe.

For spotting stars of the Hollywood kind, the Los Angeles International Airport has reopened the outdoor observation deck at the spaceship-shaped Theme Building, with free use of its telescopes.

Go local

At the Edo Marketplace and Tokyo Pop Town, you won’t confuse your surroundings for Zurich or Buenos Aires. The Edo-period-inspired retail space and cutesy character emporium (Hello Kitty) at Haneda airport are pure Japan.

“Airports want to convey a sense of place,” said Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and technical operations at the Airports Council International. “They want to localize the experience and say something about the city they’re serving.”

To personalize the environment, the transportation hubs are creating cultural and culinary microcosms of the macro-destination. At Raleigh-Durham, Curtis Fentress, principal designer at Fentress Architects, whose portfolio includes domestic and international airports, used laminated wood beams to evoke the rolling hills of the Piedmont and the traditional crafts industries; concessionaires also sell state specialties, such as North Carolina pork barbecue at Brookwood Farms BBQ and local wines, sauces, cheeses, meats and grits at Carolina Vintages. At Sea-Tac in Seattle, the Pacific Marketplace resembles a Northwest ’hood with public art, including illuminated snow geese; such shops as Made in Washington and Discover Puget Sound; and the local joe, Starbucks.

Seoul’s Incheon airport, another Fentress project, features the Korean Culture Museum, with art, music and relics covering 5,000 years, as well as cultural zones where visitors can learn to make fans and pencil cases and attend harp performances. In any of seven specialty gardens (pine tree, rock, water, etc.), passengers can “participate in and flow through” the natural space, said the designer.

In Europe, Amsterdam’s Schiphol offers all things Dutch on Holland Boulevard: a library stocked with Dutch writers, music and movies (translated into multiple languages); a branch of the famed Rijksmuseum, with works by Dutch masters; the Dutch Kitchen, which serves national snacks; and snuggly fireplace-lit spaces called “huiskamer.” For longer layovers, the Floating Dutchman, an amphibious vehicle, takes airport denizens on a nearly three-hour tour of the city’s streets and canals.

Some airports are tapping into a voyeuristic curiosity: peeking inside an urbanite’s living space. Copenhagen’s CPH Apartment is a passenger lounge modeled after a luxury Danish flat, complete with living room, kitchen and library. Helsinki’s Almost@home lounge is an artful diorama of Finnish designs, furnishings and crafts where visitors can chill out and even purchase the coveted items for their own abodes. And at the airport in Ibiza, Spain’s isle of partying, travelers can dance their layover away at a new all-night club with guest DJs and various music genres. Crashing hard on your flight home is almost guaranteed.

Rest, relax, recharge

On long-haul flights, international travelers in transit no longer have to settle for spine-bending naps in unforgiving chairs and splash baths in the bathroom sink. Nor do coach passengers have to suffer, or envy higher-tier passengers, because they fly budget.

As a nod to the rent-a-room trend, Minute Suites recently set up shop in Atlanta and Philadelphia, providing tired travelers with a private space to catch some shut-eye (see story below). Yotel, the U.K.-based hotel chain, provides futuristic sleeping pods in London Heathrow and Gatwick and in Amsterdam’s Schiphol. At Tokyo’s Haneda, travelers can weave some dreams in any of 10 nap rooms and revive in a shower room. Beijing, Zurich, Hong Kong and Frankfurt also have soap-and-rinse facilities.

Singapore pumps up the pampering with a variety of sleeping quarters, such as recliners in the Rainforest Lounge and budget-style rooms at the in-terminal Transit Hotels. Visitors can also feel human again at the 24-hour gym (price includes shower, basic toiletries and a non-alcoholic beverage), the Balinese-theme rooftop pool, and the spa and salon. Tired legs receive special treatment with free calf massages.

XpresSpa, a beautification chain, is becoming as common as Rosetta Stone kiosks, with locations in more than 20 airports in the United States and Europe. San Francisco provides a studio, the Yoga Room, for sun salutations and downward dogs (mats and felt Zen rock garden included), as does Dallas-Fort Worth.

Borrowing a page from elite airline lounges, a growing crop of sanctuaries is supplying such R&R fixtures as buffets, bars, free WiFi and cushy couches with TVs and piles of reading materials. The new breed, however, invites everyone (including lowly economy fliers) inside. No. 1 Travellers, a luxe retreat with such amenities as sleeping cabins, a movie theater, a game room and a spa, has expanded to several locations in four U.K. airports. Abu Dhabi’s Al Reem Lounge also welcomes walk-ins desperate for a shower and a snack.

Hotels are also creeping into airports, providing the ultimate escape inside the exit doors. Such chains as Sheraton, Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton sport addresses in city airports including Orlando, Tampa, Milan and Beijing. At the 341-room Dubai International Hotel in the United Arab Emirates, you can completely forget where you are — in Terminals 1 and 3.

High-tech at your fingertips

Modern passengers want their airports to be as tech-ed out as their homes and offices, so WiFi and outlets aren’t just nice perks, but requisites.

“Because of the proliferation of smartphones, there’s a need for power,” said Oswald. “There’s also an expectation to be able to connect to a signal upon touchdown.”

While WiFi is pervasive, many hubs, such as BWI Marshall and Philadelphia, are going one step better, eliminating the usage fee to provide free service. In addition, to accommodate the surge in laptop and tablet users, planners are installing workstations with tables, stools and outlets at the gates, as well as charging trees that can handle multiple branches of cords.

Sacramento’s Terminal B, for example, boasts 140 tables with USB ports and two-plug outlets; San Francisco counts 144 stations in its Terminal 2. Atlanta has built banks of recharging units — cubicle-style desks with power outlets — throughout the airport. Singapore provides locks and keys at its charging areas, so travelers can wander away without their valuables.

Even airlines are helping passengers power up. Southwest is populating its waiting areas with chairs with armrest outlets. Delta and Virgin America are also following the sit-and-charge trend.

In step with the times, airports are also employing technology as modern aids. At the three New York-area airports, hologram-esque avatars dole out basic traveler information (for tricky questions, best to ask a human). Dulles is using video analytics to provide up-to-date wait times at select security checkpoints. The times are displayed in the terminal and on the Airports Authority’s Web site.

At Delta concourses in JFK, LaGuardia, Minneapolis-St Paul and Toronto’s Pearson, visitors can sit down at an iPad kiosk and order food, check flights and otherwise distract themselves with online entertainment. The airline and its partner, OTG Management, also plan to roll out the Media Bar in Minneapolis. At this 21st-century newsstand, passengers can load up an iPad with movies, music and the like, then rent it for the duration of their flight. Once they reach their destination, however, they must give it back. The prepaid postage box is included.

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