Two Aviation Designers Discuss What It Takes to Elevate the Airport Experience for All Travelers

Airport design is reaching new heights. With hundreds of millions of travelers passing through these spaces every year, designers are tasked with delivering a seamless and comfortable experience to regular business commuters and first-time fliers alike. So what makes a great traveler experience? Aviation designers Wilson Rayfield, AIA, LEED AP, executive vice president at Gresham, Smith and Partners, Richmond, Virginia, USA, and Derrick Choi, AIA, LEED AP, principal and senior architect at Populous, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, check in to chat on this topic.

Perspective: What elements do the most to improve traveler experience?

Wilson Rayfield: We’re looking at things that improve the passenger experience in terms of efficiency, wayfinding, and access. Often, it’s that intuitive wayfinding—trying to create as few decision points as possible and provide visual cues to your destination. For example, in the international terminal in Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, the ticket counters, the floor pattern, the ceiling pattern, and the lighting are angled and lead visually toward your direction of travel. All the lines lead your eye toward the direction that you need to be moving in.

Derrick Choi: I’m a big advocate of a passenger-centric design approach based on three basic principles: convenience, control, and connectivity. Passengers, no matter how seasoned they are, just need to be in control of where they are. They’ve got to be connected physically, mentally, and, these days, technologically. Once all these elements are achieved, a passenger can actually begin to engage and experience the terminal facilities and start to make decisions as to what they like and what they don’t like.

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Wilson Rayfield, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President, Smith and Partners

Perspective: Elaborate features — such as the world’s largest indoor waterfall at Singapore’s  Changi Airport — have become a mainstay of modern airport design. Are today’s airports too focused on flash?

Rayfield: I think that has a lot to do with the context and with the community. What’s appropriate in Changi, Singapore is probably not appropriate in Nashville, Tennessee, [USA]. It’s a matter of finding things that make the airport represent the region it serves. We did a modernization project in Norfolk, Virginia, [USA] recently. With the design of the terrazzo flooring, integrating some of the nautical elements there, we refer back to the history of the region without being overwhelming. It’s part of the fabric of the design and the finishes, so it’s something that is recognizable if you find it. But it doesn’t stand out and scream at you.

Passengers, no matter how seasoned they are, just need to be in control of where they are.

Choi: I think every community has a unique story that they’d like to tell, like the Victorian-era train stations in Europe. But ultimately, financial viability is key for these public gateways. This emphasis on revenue — and the reality that passenger travel patterns have dramatically shifted in the past 15 years — has really put the emphasis on customer convenience, amenities, and concessions. Because of that, there’s a bit of a misperception that it’s all about these elaborate elements, particularly in the global context. These airports are pulling out all the stops — not only to make their operations highly affordable and attractive to airlines, but to attract passengers from all over the world.

Perspective: What future trends will shape airports?

Rayfield: I think security is going to drive airport design more than anything. Instead of having a secure side and a non-secure side with a single security checkpoint in the center, the entire airport environment will be a secure environment where they’re identifying passengers through facial recognition and other technologies. Security is going to become ubiquitous throughout the entire facility, and I think it’s going to start to become more invisible. After security, another driver is the movement toward a greater reliance on self-service passenger processing for check-in, bag check, and similar tasks, which gives passengers more control over their travel experiences and has significant repercussions for terminal design.

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Derrick Choi, AIA, LEED AP, Principal and Senior Architect, Populous

Choi: I think technology will continue to be a huge driver of change in several aspects. It’ll radically transform the way we think about the building. Many traditional passenger processes and physical touchpoints are being transformed, repurposed, and even blurred — creating what will hopefully be a more frictionless user environment. For example, in many airports, they’re ripping out your traditional hold room seating and creating more user-friendly spaces that are served by iPads and food service vendors that let you tap and order. Being able to have that technology will change the way you use a facility and spend money.


This post was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Perspective.  

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