How airports are designed to distract us from long walks, lengthy waits

The terminal challenge of airport terminal design.
The journey that takes passengers from the check-in counter to the departure gate is carefully designed. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

This story was originally published in January, 2019.

At the end of Casablanca, when Ilsa arrives at the airport to board her flight, she and Rick step out of the car and onto the tarmac, where they say their final goodbyes.

Before the 1950s, getting on an airplane looked a lot more like that. Airport terminals were smaller, much freer and more open, and friends and family members were allowed to see you off and bid you a "Bon Voyage!"

Over the decades, the way airports are designed has undergone an evolution — or de-evolution, depending on your perspective. While some might still see air travel as exciting or even glamorous, being at an airport these days usually means long lineups, hours of waiting around, and lots and lots of walking.

"[Airport terminals] are designed to move people and things, mostly baggage, through as quickly and efficiently as possible and to give people a good start to their travel experience," Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian and author of Airports, Cities, and the Jet Age, told Spark host Nora Young.

Getting passengers from check-in counters to gates

A common design for many airports around the world is known as the "pier-finger terminal." The concept was developed in the 1950s during the advent of the jet age. Once commercial jetliners came on to the scene, airports needed to be able to accommodate these larger, faster planes that needed more runway space to manoeuvre and which carried more passengers.

A floor plan from 1956 of TWA's terminal at JFK, is an early example of the pier-finger design. (Eero Saarinen & Associates, Architect, and Eero Saarinen)

In a pier-finger configuration, ticketing and baggage collection all take place in a single terminal, then passengers are directed down "piers" to their boarding gates. The aircraft await them in areas called "finger slots."

Some designers have tried to avoid the long walks passengers usually have to take from the check-in counter to the departure gate. One of the most famous was at Dulles International Airport in Washington, where they used passenger transport vehicles called "mobile lounges." They were based on the European model of transport, where they used buses to get people from the terminal to the airplane. 

"Instead of having the passengers wait within the terminal for their airplane, the airplanes were parked out on the tarmac somewhere, and a motorized vehicle would come and you'd board it. On the inside, [it] looked like where you sit around waiting for airplanes in a terminal." Bednarek explained.

The Montréal-Mirabel International Airport, built in the 1970s, also used mobile lounges, but otherwise, the futuristic-looking vehicles were not widely adopted.

Distracting travellers with design

Many airports now include unique architecture or artwork in their terminals. At the Chicago O'Hare International Airport, for example, there are art displays that passengers can admire as they travel along the moving sidewalks. Meanwhile, at the Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, a $5.4-million art installation uses light and sound to simulate walking through a forest.

"A lot of it is is aimed at distracting the passengers," Bednarek said. "So if you are distracted by the architecture or the art or other design elements, it can make that transit that you have to make within the airport seem less onerous than if you're just going endlessly down long hallways."

The rise of shops and restaurants in terminals — which Bednarek refers to as the "mallification" of airports — provides yet another distraction, something you can do while waiting for your flight to leave. 

"Anything to keep the passengers distracted from the long walk, the long waits, the delays," she said. "That's important in airport design."

Airport design post-9/11

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks also had a tremendous effect on airport design, according to Bednarek (and likely anyone who has taken a flight since). 

In the 1970s through to the 1990s, security was something that most passengers barely noticed. 

Passengers wait to check-in at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, only passengers with tickets are allowed past security. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"You knew you had to go past the magnetometer, and you put your bag through an X-ray machine kind of thing," Bednarek said. "But you often didn't pay any attention to the person who was sitting there supposedly making your flight secure."

People were also able to move around freely throughout the airport. If you wanted to greet someone who was arriving from a trip, you could look up their flight, go through security, and wait for them at the gate. 

Since 2001, the area past security has become effectively a "sterile zone": only ticketed passengers are allowed in. 

"The whole dynamic of taking someone to the airport and ... where you can take them and where you say your hellos and goodbyes changed dramatically," Bednarek said. 

The future of airport design

Bednarek says that if there are any radical changes coming on the horizon for airport design, it's that airports will have to become more sustainable. 

"They are huge energy users, because they operate so many hours out of the day. They have to be heated, they have to be cooled, lights and all of that," she said. "They're going to have to aim, say, for net zero energy use." 


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