Under the Influence

The fascinating ways airports compete for your business

The word “airport” is also code for the word “brand.” Believe it or not, airports compete heavily for airlines, passengers and retail sales. As a result, airports have redesigned themselves to become highly competitive brands.
Today's major airports have undergone a major redesign. (motive56/Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode27:28

These days, airport terminals are no longer grey, drab industrial buildings. They are vibrant, colourful and unique.

And with airline travel set to double in a few short years, airports are employing some bold, non-stop marketing ideas.

This week, we explore how airports are now becoming brands. You may not know it, but airports compete against each other for business. That intense rivalry has led to the complete transformation of airports - they now have movie theatres, skating rinks, rooftop pools and top retail stores. These days, airports are destinations unto themselves. Hope you’ll join us. 0:57

Most of us walk through airports like we're on a mission.

Checking luggage, impatiently inching through security lines, finding the gate, waiting for the crunch of the boarding call. Hoping everything is on time.

But have you stopped to actually look at airports lately? They are undergoing big changes.

It may surprise you to know that airports compete for business with other airports.

Yes, airports are highly competitive brands.

Airports used to just be about rushing to make your flight on time. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

They compete for passengers, hoping travellers will choose their airport as a hub or a connection. The more passengers that pass through its gates, the more revenue an airport makes.

More flights mean more income, more retail sales, and more duty-free revenue, more parking fees, and so on.

Airports compete to attract airlines because airlines bring passengers along with lucrative landing and departure fees. Airlines choose which airports to use as hubs and connecting flights.

Airports compete to attract and retain the best retailers and restaurants. In the new world of airport design, the highest-rated airports have the best retail stores, spas and restaurants. Happy travellers attract airlines. And, airports compete for big cargo contracts and warehouse fees.

So if you don't think airports are competitive brands, think again. The airports of today are mini cities.

Toronto's Pearson Airport, for example, facilitates over 50,000 jobs. It is the second biggest employment zone in Canada. Pearson hosted 45 million passengers and over 430,000 flights last year. It contributed over $42 billion in economic activity or 6.3 per cent of Ontario's GDP.

Over 63,000 work at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It handled close to 900,000 flights last year. It features 300 retailers and restaurants and the airport generates $34 billion in economic impact for metro Atlanta. It is one of the busiest airports in the world.

Over 76,000 people work at Heathrow Airport in London. It handles 1,300 flights every day and 80 million passengers every year.

Singapore's Changi Airport features a forest, a park and walking trails. (Safdie Architects )

With that much revenue at stake, it's no wonder airports have strategically redesigned themselves completely.

The new era of airport design began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Suddenly, we all found ourselves spending more downtime at the airport than ever before. Prior to Sept. 11, you could catch a flight even if you got there at the last minute. Running to the gate was an airport cliché. But after the attack (and the shoe bomber) airport security became a major issue.

Passengers now have to check in 90 minutes before domestic flights, and two hours ahead of departure time when flying internationally. That means — for the first time in aviation history — we are now spending most of our time on the post-security side of the terminal.

With that seismic change, airports needed to be redesigned.

Most major airports are now bustling retail centres. They boast hundreds of retail stores and restaurants. They offer spas and sleeping pods. Pearson has a gigantic fitness gym on the main floor. Sales from retail, duty-free and food and beverage accounts for over 54 per cent of an airport's revenues.

Dubbed the Jewel, a new instalment in Singapore's Changi Airport features a seven-storey waterfall over which more than 45,000 litres of water cascade per minute. (Safdie Architects)

With that much potential revenue, airports are becoming destinations themselves.

The remarkable Changi airport in Singapore, for example, features a 40-metre-high indoor waterfall flanked by tropical plants and a forest of over 2,000 trees. It also has a butterfly garden, a rooftop pool and you can walk above it all on a 24-metre-high Sky-net. Travellers have voted Changi the best airport in the world for seven years in a row.

Incheon International Airport in South Korea has a golf course and a skating rink.

The Munich Airport has a cinema, a minigolf course and its own brewery.

The Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, offers a dentist's office and a pet hotel.

The Amsterdam airport has a library.

Clearly, creating a unique experience is a critical aspect of branding an airport.


For more stories about Airports As Brands, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search the hashtag: #Terstream.

(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)