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.
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.