Airports as Destinations: The Rise of User Experience

by Vincent Trivett + Skift Team - Sep 2013

Skift Research Take

The line between airports and the destinations they serve has blurred. Once regarded as purely utilitarian infrastructure, airports are now becoming more integrated with their surroundings and hosting new experiences for passengers and non-passengers alike.

Report Overview

Executive summary

The way that we think about airports is changing. We are used to seeing them as unfriendly places where we are hassled by security, confounded about where to go and stressed out over missing a flight. They were all alike one another — there was little local cultural difference between an airport in Berlin or Beijing.

Today, an airport might be a great place to eat, shop, dance, sleep, socialize or even get married. As airports compete for choosy passengers and air routes, they are turning into destinations themselves with unique amenities. Even for business travelers who meet at the airport rather than battle traffic to get downtown, a visit to an airport could feel like an experience of a different destination. People who come to meet or send off their loved ones have reason to linger and enjoy the surroundings. Even locals who aren’t boarding planes are visiting the airports for civic events, retail and entertainment.

This report will show how the changing business environment is turning airports into more welcoming places. It will explain the history and context for the trend and what’s coming next. Also, it will show how existing and emerging technology such as smartphones and biometric scanning can soon turn airports from a mess of queues and irritations into elegant, stress-free areas. Also, this report will explore how young cities in Asia and the Middle East are planning cities around airports and integrating them into urban life in novel ways.

Executive summary

The way that we think about airports is changing. We are used to seeing them as unfriendly places where we are hassled by security, confounded about where to go and stressed out over missing a flight. They were all alike one another — there was little local cultural difference between an airport in Berlin or Beijing.

Today, an airport might be a great place to eat, shop, dance, sleep, socialize or even get married. As airports compete for choosy passengers and air routes, they are turning into destinations themselves with unique amenities. Even for business travelers who meet at the airport rather than battle traffic to get downtown, a visit to an airport could feel like an experience of a different destination. People who come to meet or send off their loved ones have reason to linger and enjoy the surroundings. Even locals who aren’t boarding planes are visiting the airports for civic events, retail and entertainment.

This report will show how the changing business environment is turning airports into more welcoming places. It will explain the history and context for the trend and what’s coming next. Also, it will show how existing and emerging technology such as smartphones and biometric scanning can soon turn airports from a mess of queues and irritations into elegant, stress-free areas. Also, this report will explore how young cities in Asia and the Middle East are planning cities around airports and integrating them into urban life in novel ways.


Observation Deck at Incheon Airport, Courtesy: Gensler

Observation Deck at Incheon Airport, Courtesy: Gensler

If your last visit to an airport was over ten years ago, you would never think that you could go to one for fine art galleries, unique restaurants run by celebrity chefs, rock concerts, a night of dancing, or even a wedding.

Airports are by nature massive, stressful, and confusing places. They are classic examples of what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls1 “non-places” — environments that one passes through, but don’t interact with. Places that do not have the significance of a sense of place. A terminal in Paris looks and feels identical to one in Beirut, and the primary business at hand is getting out. Popular culture, especially stand-up comics, reinforce the notion that airports are featureless, irritating places.

But in just the past decade, the way that we think of airports has changed dramatically. Airports, especially in Asia and the Middle East, are more integrated into the fabric of cities. Airports now host civic events and entertainment as well as layovers and business meetings. Airports are becoming more contextualized and reflective of the local environment. Cities themselves are even building and planning around air travel accessibility.

Airports aren’t just becoming friendlier and more integrated with destinations. They are becoming destinations themselves. Many business travelers find themselves in cities with no time to battle through traffic to reach downtown, so they seek solutions closer to the airport. This is happening whether or not airport operators, hotels, and concessioners are prepared to take advantage of it.

Airports as Destinations: The Rise of User Experience

Changi Airport Courtesy: Gensler

Changi Airport, Courtesy: Gensler

Behind the transformation

Airports’ transformation from antiseptic non-places to vibrant destinations has its roots in several sea changes over the past few decades: the deregulation of air travel that began in the late 1970s in the United States, consolidation of airlines, the rise of low-cost carriers, ramped-up security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, and the rise of powerful airlines in the Gulf region, China and southern Asia.

Before 1978, the relationship between airports and airlines was like that of a tenant and landlord. Due to regulatory restrictions in multiple countries, the airlines had little choice but to accept airports’ terms of the bargain. They were essentially monopolies, and this is partly why air travel was so exclusively expensive previously. After the U.S. set off a global wave of deregulation, airlines had an easier time of merging, and more latitude to choose airports.2

“Airports must now compete with each other for both passengers and airlines which have significantly more choice than in the past,” according to the 2012 study “Airport Competition in Europe”3 by Copenhagen Economics. “Airports have had to become more commercially focussed. The result is a more competitive and dynamic airport market. However, airports are still too often regarded as monopoly infrastructure providers when the commercial reality is evidently very different.”

Airports now compete for fewer tenants. The airline industry has indeed consolidated considerably. In the United States, deregulation of airlines in 1978 led to a host of mergers4 over the next three and a half decades. As carriers snapped up smaller airlines, they cut routes. A May 2013 study5 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Air Service found that just between 2007 and 2012, the 29 largest U.S. airports lost 8.8% of their yearly scheduled domestic flights. Smaller airports saw a 21.3% reduction over the same period.

To compete for passengers, and maximize revenue from each, airports are investing more in branding, design, technology and experience.

Why American airports lag

U.S. airports’ low rank in the world is so uncontroversial that Vice President Joseph Biden even publicly commented that this is an area where America’s biggest rival shines.

“If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities in the middle of the night just so they could see it and then said: ‘which one is in America and which one is in China?’ Most Americans would say: ‘That great one is in America.’ It’s not,” Vice President Biden said6 at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

U.S. airports failed to even crack the top 25 in the most recent rankings7 of airports by SkyTrax, which President Barack Obama used to argue for more infrastructure spending. Asian, Middle Eastern, and European airports outdo American ones for several reasons.

First, the U.S. is a mature market with built infrastructure that makes it nearly impossible to aim for ambitious master-planned airport cities. Unlike emerging countries with plenty of land to build, it is much more expensive to expand. A century of outdated planning means that airports are often very far from the urban core, surrounded by unattractive businesses such as warehouses and undesirable housing.

Also, since the U.S. is so massive and multi-polar, there isn’t a single international hub to act as a welcome mat to the world. American airports are really gateways to metropolitan regions, rather than the country itself. Compared to other airports, even the most global American one is chiefly domestic. Only 48% of arrivals8 to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the biggest port of entry to the States, come from abroad, according to JCDecaux. JFK only had 1,899,308 international passengers9 pass through in January, 2013, a bit more than half that Bangkok Suvarnabhumi had in the same month. By contrast, the vast majority of arrivals to airports such as Singapore’s Changi come from abroad. Especially for smaller countries, a classy, modern airport is a sign of the country’s emergence to the world stage, a form of “soft power” that impresses foreign visitors.

U.S. airports are also held back logistically because the the nature of their business models. As Qin Zhang of Shanghai International Airport notes in her paper,10 “Comprehensive Review of Airport Business Models,” almost all American airports are owned by local governments, but are mostly privately operated. Most receive little public funds, aside from Federal Aviation Administration grants for safety and capacity expansion.

Generating revenue beyond the runway

Both in the U.S. and internationally, airport operators are building their business through non-aeronautical revenue such as retail and duty free shops, food, drinks and entertainment.

One contributor to the improvement in concession quality began decades ago with the rise of low-cost carriers (LCCs) across the world. Airlines that leave out the frills in travel created a market for food to bring on the plane and other comforts that used to be commonplace onboard.

“The airline industry has consolidated. Some see fewer flights, and therefore less revenue from landing fees and rental fees,” says Debby McElroy, Interim President of Airports Council International (ACI), North America, a trade association for airports. “This is why airports are increasingly looking to non-aeronautical revenue to stay afloat.”

This is already a very significant source of income for airports. ACI found that in North America in 2011, 47% of airport revenues came from non-aeronautical sources. That proportion was 51% in Asia, 39% in Africa and Europe, and 37% in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some airports such as Frankfurt’s are banned11 from taking flights at night time due to residents’ complaints over noise, and non-aeronautical sources help make up for the shortfall.

Selling goods to a captive market

Local restaurants in Phoenix Sky Harbor Courtesy: Phoenix Sky Harbor

Local restaurants in Phoenix Sky Harbor, Courtesy: Phoenix Sky Harbor

McElroy says that post-Sept. 11 security has provided additional incentive for airport operators to reevaluate concessions.

“Passengers are unsure of how long its going to take them to get to security, so they do arrive earlier and they have more dwell time in airports,” she says.

This captive audience is often treated with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, but airport operators are realizing that they compete amongst one another for increasingly sophisticated customers. Thanks to online booking, flyers have more choice of where to depart, transfer and arrive.

Uncertainty over aeronautical revenue has led airports to compete based on unique experiences to get travelers to choose them. Proximity to the urban core is not the only selling point for airports to cling to. Even airports that serve completely different metropolitan regions compete directly for travelers’ loyalty.

“Ability to directly control and optimize revenues from these sources is the primary reason for airports to shift their focus towards them which has resulted in a healthy mix of revenues for airport across regions from non-aeronautical sources,” writes12 Sidharth Mouli, associate general manager at Delhi International Airport. He says that many airports ignore essentials like showers, snooze pods, laundry, and beauty care because they don’t necessarily translate into higher revenues, but he says that such conveniences are prerequisites for further spending at higher-margin retailers. Mouli also sees a huge opportunity to cater to non-passengers, including people who come to meet or see off flyers, airport staff, and the surrounding community. At some times, non-passengers actually outnumber flyers. Providing more entertainment, retail, and conveniences for non-passengers reduce the financial risk of decreased passenger volumes.

“People travel through an airport more out of necessity than out of choice. However they would spend money at airport only out of choice. This is the very reason why an airport operator should think of creating an individuality in order to differentiate itself from rest and strongly participate in passengers’ mind space,” Mouli writes.

Feeding flyers like locals

Local restaurants in Phoenix Sky Harbor Courtesy: Phoenix Sky Harbor

Local restaurants in Phoenix Sky Harbor, Courtesy: Phoenix Sky Harbor


Today, a great deal of business activity occurs close to airports. It isn’t uncommon for companies to gather employees in disparate areas at an easily accessible airport area that none of them call home. Airports such as Chicago’s O’Hare, Seoul’s Incheon, and Tokyo’s Narita are so far from central districts of the cities they are named for that business travelers often don’t bother heading into the city. When it isn’t possible to make that trip easier, smart concessioners and hotels bring some of the local culture to the airport and the surrounding facilities.

Local cuisine can help raise revenues and differentiate the airports in travelers’ minds and make them more eager to change planes there next time. With just an hour or so for a layover, a traveler can still experience some of the local culture through the food.

Until recently, airports were famous for only hosting mega-chains, and for good reason. ACI reports that the median contract length for food and drink establishments is 10 years and the average rent per square foot is $150.09 in large North American airports, which is significantly more expensive than corner retail space13 in one of New York’s poshest neighborhoods. Thus, the coveted foot-traffic of a large hub airport is usually only within reach of large companies. But as airports seek to differentiate themselves, concessioners are making an effort to bring in or create unique restaurants.

“Within less than half a decade, HMSHost has seen the industry do an about-face in terms of types of restaurants offered, and during this has introduced nearly 200 local and proprietary brands to the airport market,” says Seah Matthews of HMS Host, which manages concessions in 112 airports.

Daniel Levine, executive director of the Avant-Guide Institute, a marketing consultant that tracks consumer and travel trends, says that it isn’t surprising that travelers seek more unique experiences in airports today.

“That’s part of a larger trend toward locavorism and a sense of place,” Levine says. “It’s a reaction against the McDonaldization of the retail experience.”

Dining in airports has certainly evolved past overpriced greasy fast food. Chicago O’Hare even has its own farmers’ market, supplied by an “aeroponic” vertical vegetable garden14 inside the airport.

One smaller airport which has had some success with local restaurants is Phoenix Sky Harbor, where many of the restaurants are actually branches of popular eateries in the city. Especially since the airport is just a short drive or train ride from the city center, it is also becoming a destination for residents.

“We talked to our customers and found that they were looking for local flavor, a taste of Phoenix,” says Deborah Ostreicher, Deputy Aviation Director at Phoenix Sky Harbor. “Locals even take the train to the airport to eat since the same restaurants downtown have longer lines.”

Making ground connections easier

This underscores the importance of swift ground transport to the airport. Phoenix Sky Harbor has the benefit of being just a short drive from the center of the city, and has a light rail line running directly from terminals to downtown Phoenix. Though it makes it easier to leave, better ground transport can make airports in larger cities become better destinations for locals.

“Bringing an airport into the urban fold, and vice versa, can have a huge impact on revenue. Take Denver International Airport (DIA): some 53 million travelers pass through DIA every year, but far too many of them never get into the city. DIA’s South Terminal redevelopment Program will help change that,” says15 Jennifer Johnson, Managing Director at Gensler.

“The catalyst is a new rail line extending 15 miles from downtown Denver to connect with DIA. The airport will meet it with a new train station, a large hotel and conference center, and a public plaza that’s big enough for festivals and cultural events.”

Looking beyond the flyer for customers

The Art Gallery at Intercontinental Chicago O’Hare Courtesy: Intercontinental Hotel Chicago O’Hare

The Art Gallery at Intercontinental Chicago O’Hare Courtesy: Intercontinental Hotel Chicago O’Hare

Non-passengers, including airport staff, often outnumber flyers, and innovative amenities can encourage them to stay longer and spend more.

Munich is a standout example of an airport city that serves as a notable destination for area residents as well as those arriving, departing and transferring. The airport is rather far from the city center, and serves as a hub for activity in the surrounding suburbs.

“Munich Airport was interested to become a micro-city to liaise and partner with the towns around the airport,” says Corinna Born, public relations manager at the Munich Airport. “Munich is around 33 kilometers away from the airport but there are lots of towns and small cities nearby and the airport wanted to offer them shopping and dining facilities. We wanted the airport to be a place of encounters for locals and passengers alike.”

Aside from food, we are also seeing fine arts and entertainment appearing in airports for those who can’t make it downtown. San Francisco16 has several galleries for art, pop culture and anthropology. Amsterdam Schiphol displays typically Dutch17 artworks from the Rijksmuseum collection. Paris Charles DeGaulle hosted an exhibition of Rodin sculptures.18

Performing arts are also coming to the travelers in the airport. The airports in Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tenn. both host concerts, cashing in on the cities’ reputation as live music hubs. Ibiza, Spain even has a lounge club in the airside zone called the F*** Me I’m Famous Lounge Club19, complete with a dance floor and performances by famous DJs such as David Guetta. This isn’t without precedent. Frankfurt am Main Terminal 1 was the site of the famous Dorian Gray20 dance club until 2000.

Hotels are also pushing the envelope for arts and entertainment. The Intercontinental Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare is one prime example. The hotel is located in Rosemont, Ill., which despite a tiny size and population, is one of the biggest office markets in the Midwest, and a major destination for business travelers. The hotel hosts a full-fledged art gallery.21

“The vast majority of our business does not go to Chicago,” says Patrick Cook, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Intercontinental O’Hare. “The logic is that Chicago offers direct flights, and you don’t have to waste time connecting or heading downtown for an hour and a half. But our customers still want a bit more of a unique, premium experience.”

Curator Nicole White says that the artists, many of whom are just emerging on the Chicago scene, enjoy getting more viewers and foot traffic than they would at downtown galleries.

“Airports themselves are these spaces where you move from one place to another and don’t engage in the environment,” she says. “O’Hare is miles from the city. If you aren’t planning to head in, the gallery brings a little bit of the city to you. It gives those visitors a sense of Chicago, a space that is much more unique and individualized.”

Amenities: Thinking further outside of the box

Airport Features Most Wanted

Comforts such as showers, a welcoming lounge, entertainment, Wi-Fi and healthy food were only available to the few — the upper-crust frequent flyers. Normally, these are the types that are most capable of choosing a preferred airport for transfer, arrival, and departure. Thanks to online booking and easy price comparisons, more business travelers and expert flyers are getting choosy about their airports, and airports are bringing creative amenities to the flying masses.

Local food, arts and entertainment in airports are just one way to go beyond just duty-free shops and stick out in travelers’ minds. Unique, unconventional amenities not only differentiate airports from their neighboring runways, but also generate stories in the press.

Daniel Levine, the trends marketer, says that airports need to follow the general trend towards more experiential retail.

“This is part of a huge trend at the moment in retail in general: making physical retail locations into entertainment destinations,” he says. “In order for retailers to remain relevant, they must compete with what’s going on online. As a reaction to that, they are pumping up the experience that shoppers cannot get online. Brick-and-mortar retailers have to deliver an experience as much as a product.”

Surfing at Munich Airport Courtesy: Munich Airport

Surfing at Munich Airport, Courtesy: Munich Airport


Surveys show that travelers are looking for more unique airport amenities. In a survey of 10,000 flyers by Skyscanner, 49% said that they would like a cinema in the airport. Sleep pods were the most desired perk for 36%. Libraries, parks, artificial beaches and swimming pools also scored high.

Examples of innovative amenities abound. Munich, as mentioned earlier, serves as a destination for the surrounding area as well as travelers. It is fitting that the gateway to Bavaria has its own brewery, called Airbräu23, on premises with an adjoining biergarten. It’s also a major location for events such as the winter market24 and skating rink during the Christmas season and a pool25 that enables Germans to surf over 400 km from the closest beach. The airport also has a full-service medical clinic.

Trend-setting features and promotions

Rental sleeping pods at Abu Dhabi airport Photo by Rafat Ali

Rental sleeping pods at Abu Dhabi airport, Photo by Rafat Ali

Sometimes headline-grabbing additions to airports have little to do with customer experience and more with branding. For example, London’s Heathrow made British author Tony Parsons a temporary writer in residence26, actually penning original literature in the airport.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is another creative one that treats itself as a destination and attracts stories. It boasts a cactus garden, butterfly garden, a free movie theatre and a 12-meter-high slide. Another unexpected perk of transferring or visiting the airport is the possibility of becoming a millionaire27 if you shop there. The annual lottery drawing generates stories in the press and raises the profile of the already top-rated airport.

Amsterdam Schiphol has some one-of-a-kind features and uniquely Dutch touches to welcome flyers to the Netherlands. In addition to the museum, it has friendly landscaping by Dutch landscape architecture firm West 828, and and the first airport-based library.

Stockholm Arlanda and Frankfurt both offer wedding packages. Families with a layover in Hong Kong can turn it into a trip to Disneyland32, just a few minutes taxi ride from the airport.

Amenities promoting health are growing more commonplace. Sleeping pods and dedicated sleeping areas are popping up in multiple airports. has ranked33 Singapore’s Changi as the top airport for beating jetlag while connecting. Short-stay hotels or “minute suites” such as Yotel34 that offer a private space to sleep, shower and work are in increasing demand.

Other healthy amenities popping up in airports include massages and full spas. San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth are among those offering a yoga room.

Some airports even crowdsource ideas for amenities. London Gatwick used Soundcloud to produce an audio books series including crowdsourced stories and classics aimed at children. Helsinki Airport opened itself to the vox populi with its Quality Hunters campaign, which resulted in a design gallery and an airport book swap.

Locations for enjoyable amenities also need to be planned with the airport as a whole in mind.

“You have to put yourself into the perspective of human behavior,” says Bill Hooper, a principal at Gensler. “A wine bar is a great addition, for instance but if it’s in a place that’s uncomfortable or might make it easy to miss my flight, you would be compromising the good idea.”

Make it easy for flyers to shop, eat, and explore

An efficient, uncluttered airport is a prerequisite for a functioning airport/destination. A traveler weighed down with bags is not about to plunk down and enjoy himself. Also, an area littered with bulky luggage is much less attractive, and makes it harder to treat the airport as a destination itself.

It helps enormously to have self-service technology such as automated check-in and baggage check. Such services are highly in demand. According to SITA, the member-owned company that provides information technology and communications infrastructure to over 1,000 airports, 60% of airports plan to implement unassisted bag-drop by 2015.35

Some airports are experimenting with making it easier to shop by taking away the need to even lug around purchases made in the airport. Already having your hands full, or know that they soon will be once you retrieve your bags at the carousel is a deterrent to airport shopping.

Heinemann piloted a “Duty-Free Wall”36 in Frankfurt am Main in May of 2013. It is essentially a billboard with pictures of 60 luxury goods and allows shoppers to scan a QR code with a smartphone and order it to be delivered to a pick up location in the airport or home. SimpliFlying, a Singapore-based aviation marketing consultant, says that virtual shopping of this sort also exists in airports at London Gatwick, Delhi and Melbourne.

Other airports are allowing travelers to order food on the go and have it delivered to their gates if they don’t have the time to queue up to get food before their meal-free discount flight. Some airports, such as New York LaGuardia, Toronto Pearson and Minneapolis-St. Paul International are deploying iPad kiosks37 for folks that don’t bring their own devices. The kiosks allow multiple people to get relevant flight information, learn about other airport services and shop for food or duty-free items for delivery to their gate.

Technology for information and seamless shopping

Changi iPad app

Changi iPad app


Just like baggage-encumbered travelers, those who are frantically trying to find their gates and figure out where to go next are not going to find the time to relax and enjoy the surroundings in the airport. One that rushes through to the gate, only to find that they arrived too early, is a lost opportunity for airport revenue.

“A key to making the travel experience as good as possible is giving them a clue about their gate,” says Pat Askew, Gensler’s Senior Director of Aviation and Transportation. “Travelers that are informed are more relaxed and spend some money.”

Future Travel Experience Think Tank says38 that by 2025, the entire airport should be a queue-free, walk-through experience with automatic check in, interaction with virtual assistants such as robots and video chat with off-site agents. Passengers will arrive at the airport already checked in. They believe that even security choke points can be eliminated with electronic and biometric identification. Such improvements can go very far in making the airport a more welcoming destination and a desirable place to be.

Design plays a huge role in making the airport less bewildering. Mobile technology is a major key for improving the experience.

According to SITA, the stress of losing time waiting in lines, unexpected changes, and lack of information are the chief sources of stress in airports. One can’t be expected to enjoy the airport’s unique amenities while rushing around puzzled about your gate or departure time.

SITA’s Chief Technology Officer Jim Peters says that this could be helped with mobile applications in the hands of travelers and staff. One choke point where mobile tech can really help is information kiosks.

“People are getting out from behind a fixed PC station,” says Peters. “Staff can use a tablet or iPad Mini and move to where people are to offer to check them in or direct them to their gate.”

Going paperless and eliminating choke points like attended baggage drops take away the biggest sources of stress at airports and open people up to enjoying it more as a destination.

With existing technology such as smartphones, which SITA finds 70% of travelers already carry, you can get from the curb to the gate seamlessly. With a mobile device, the airport’s Wi-Fi network can identify you and check you in immediately. Half of airlines already offer mobile check-in and 21% offer mobile boarding passes. This service is expected to expand. Immediate mobile check-ins can alert if you have to run to your gate. Such a system can even tell the airline to hold the plane if you are close behind or proceed to take-off if you aren’t even close.

Furthermore, the same phone could help you seamlessly shop and dine across the airport. If you are at a layover, it can direct you to a lounge or shopping, or to ground transport if you are arriving.
Industry Service Deployment
Though carrying your own device is increasingly popular, customers’ laptops, tablets and phones are useless for the airport and its retailers without a connection. If a foreign traveler has to transfer in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand, her mobile data plan probably didn’t follow her. Without a seamless connection to the airport’s Wi-Fi, she misses out on potentially important information, and she is less likely to contribute to the airport’s position as the most Instagrammed location on earth.39

Paying up front just to check your email feels like nickel-and-diming, so some airports offer completely free connection, or use a tiered model40 where users can access the internet for a limited time with ads for free, or pay for an ad-free or faster connection.

Currently, some airports and airlines provide mobile apps for these functions and manage loyalty programs, but adoption of these apps are mostly limited to business travelers who fly very frequently. Peters says that a standardized approach such as near-field communication (NFC) is still in the works. Nobody knows for certain which solution will achieve widespread adoption, but one is sure to as airports can soon reasonably assume that nearly all flyers have access to mobile devices and prefer to use digital documents and automated baggage check ins.

Still on the horizon is the use of biometrics such as iris scans, fingerprints or voice recognition for identification or check-in. This technology is already a reality, but still very costly.

Planning cities around airports

Schematic of a planned aerotropolis Courtesy: Aerotropolis Business Concepts

Schematic of a planned aerotropolis, Courtesy: Aerotropolis Business Concepts

The trend of promoting airports as destinations is related to the trend towards planning entire cities around airports, much the same way that seaports and rail stations served as the core of cities in the past.

The concept of the aerotropolis or airport city is championed by John D. Kasarda, the director of Kenan Institute’s Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina. He finds that the airport zone is where business increasingly takes place today, even for traditionally downtown-oriented businesses such as finance. Rather than regarding the area of the airport as a noisy, polluted wasteland, it could be the center for work and amusement in the city of the future. The airport, in Kasarda’s view, is what cities will be built around, not a necessary evil pushed off to the sidelines.

“It isn’t about location, location, location anymore. Accessibility is key as time and cost are more important today,” says Kasarda. “The unattractive sprawl around airports such as JFK are planning issues, not structural issues. If the development is spread out and disorganized, with no urban amenities, that’s what happens.”

Kasarda identifies 84 airports as full aerotropolises around the world. Cities in emerging countries that don’t have traditionally downtown central business districts have been able to leapfrog past the 20th century into the aerotropolis model of urban planning.

The Middle East already has one of the world’s premiere aerotropolises.

Dubai has more international visitors than any other airport, and it just surpassed Paris-Charles de Gaulle as the world’s second busiest overall. The city itself was a boomtown thanks to natural resources, and despite the bursting of an epic property bubble and dwindling fossil fuel reserves, the city and its airport are still growing because it has re-connected itself to the tradition of the Silk Road of old. Dubai serves as a destination itself and the gateway to the Middle East. It is also one of the premier stopovers for those flying between Europe, Asia and Africa.

The airport, and the state’s giant-yet-still-growing-like-weeds Emirates Airlines enabled it to become a center for business and the global supply chain. The airport’s retail manager, Dubai Duty Free, took in $1.8 billion in revenue so far this year. Office space in the Dubai Airport Freezone come at a 60% premium41 over the surrounding areas thanks to easy access to other cities.

Qatar is hoping to grab some of the Gulf region’s exploding air traffic. The capital, Doha, is trying to complete a new airport two-thirds the size of the entire metropolitan area itself, surrounded by Airport City designed by Rem Koolhaas, which will house 200,000 workers. The current airport was built to accommodate 12 million passengers per year, but it handles 20 million. The finished Hamad International will be able to take 50 million passengers, two million tons of cargo and 320,000 landings and takeoffs.

Hamad International has been opening in stages since 2011, and the Airport City is slated to be finished in time for the country’s hosting of the 2020 World Cup.

In some ways, the airport itself is part of building the entire country as a destination. The new airport is a symbol of the country’s future after fossil fuel and its ambition on the world stage.

“Aviation is at the foundation of our economy,” Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways and lead developer of Hamad International, told Skift. “Qatar’s geographic location makes it ideal as a center for aviation and cargo.”

Another top-rated airport, Korea’s Incheon International, is also classified as a good example of the aerotropolis. The airport itself is regarded as a design masterpiece and a pleasurable one to pass through. This year, it was rated number two by SkyTrax, losing its top spot to Changi.

Korea’s policy makers have been actively leveraging Incheon’s position as a global hub for all of Asia. The Korean government even built a brand new city roughly the size of Boston called Songdo International Business District. Roughly a decade ago, Songdo was open ocean.

Songdo International Business District Courtesy: Gale International

Songdo International Business District, Courtesy: Gale International

Songdo itself is a futuristic “ubiquitous city” built for a Dubai-like international crowd. It’s selling point is not it’s proximity to Seoul, which has but dense and crowded between itself and the airport. It’s billed as an easy flight to one-third of the world’s population, including business hubs of Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. For Songdo’s denizens, the airport is essentially home as well as a destination itself.

Building a global hub — Q&A with Akbar Al Baker

Skift spoke with Akbar Al Baker, who has served as CEO of Qatar Airways since 1997. Over the past decade and a half, Qatar grew immensely and grew as an international hub. He is also leading the development of Hamad International Airport.
Akbar Al Baker
Skift: What are the advantages of an airline and airport working together?

Akbar Al Baker: It’s imperative to have airlines and airports work together. This ensures strong communication, streamlined passenger flow, and mutual end benefits. Normally, airlines’ touch points are limited to check-in, baggage, and boarding – leaving the rest of the traveler experience to the airport. Qatar Airways is different. We want to ensure all travelers have an efficient, enjoyable, 5-star experience on the ground and in the air.

Qatar Airways was very much involved in the design of Doha International Airport. It is designed around the requirements of the passenger. It is efficient, modern, and user friendly. The Premium Terminal is designed to create an inviting ambience – one of allowing passengers to unwind and enjoy the facilities available such as a spa, Jacuzzi, sauna, and duty-free shopping, all in the serene surroundings of water features.

Skift: How will the airport reflect the local culture and give visitors a welcome and a goodbye hug and make them want to go through?

Al Baker: Qataris are known for their hospitality, and at Qatar Airways it is the cornerstone of our service philosophy. Our airline seeks to offer passengers a blend of the airline’s signature 5-star service with the warmth and grace of Qatari hospitality to all its passengers.

The Doha International Airport also offers arriving or departing passengers a taste of true Arabian hospitality with the assistance of Al Maha Services. A team member will meet the passenger in the Departure Hall or at the gate, assist with luggage, and escort them to the lounges. Our up-market, exclusive Al Maha Arrivals Lounge is unique, in that, we have dedicated Immigration clearance facilities to fast track guests through the passport clearance formalities. Guests can relax in comfort and enjoy some light refreshments and catch up on the daily news, whilst their visa is being processed.

Skift: How does the surrounding area integrate with the airport as an economic unit? Also, what will make Hamad International a more attractive destination or stopover than other regional hubs such as Dubai?

Al Baker: Hamad International will be the world’s first airport to accommodate unrestricted operations by all commercial aircraft, including the A380. Other features will include a new Emiri (royal) Terminal complex for VIP flights with additional hardstands, cargo terminal buildings, aircraft hangars and associated airline and airport ancillary features. The complex will include an airport hotel and a 100-room transit hotel within the terminal for the convenience of transfer passengers.

Aviation is at the foundation of our economy, and millions of visitors and workers travel through Doha each year. The tourism sector benefits tremendously (with tours, hotels, restaurants, desert safaris, museums, exhibits, and retail shops).

Qatar Airways has set up a specific management division called “Discover Qatar” to facilitate the development of Qatar as a tourist destination. DQ brings together accommodation, transport, tours and excursion suppliers together and ensures only quality Ground services to tour operators who want to feature Qatar as a destination.

Actionable insights

  1. Bring the city into the airport – The experience of departing and arriving should give the traveler a sense of place and reflect the local culture. Distinction from other hubs and neighboring runways helps define the airport as both a part of the city and a destination itself.Examples such as Munich’s airport biergarten and Tokyo Haneda’s Edo-style shopping street help define the airport area as a unique local one. Food concessions should be unique to the area.
  2. Free up the traveler’s hands – Automated baggage check at the door, smartphone-enabled check-in and food and shopping delivery to the gate reduce the physical burden on flyers and open them up to retail and cultural experiences in the airport. For longer layovers, attended child care opens parents to better enjoy airport amenities and shopping.
  3. Make sure that flyers have all of the necessary information – Stressed-out travelers don’t linger. They don’t feel inclined to spend money, and they are less likely to come back. Mobile technology and location-aware devices can reduce confusion, guide travelers to amenities or rush them to the gate if necessary.
  4. Attracting the media – Unique amenities like Changi’s slide and free cinema, dry cleaning at Dallas-Fort Worth, London Heathrow’s writer in residence and Chicago O’Hare’s farmers’ market raise the airport’s profile by generating news stories and word-of-mouth. Interesting perks like these encourage tourists to make a point of visiting the airport and business travelers would be more likely to request a layover there rather than a competing airport.
  5. Integrate the local residents – Meeters, greeters, airport employees and general residents of the areas surrounding the airport often outnumber enplaned passengers. Easy ground transport and special events make airports destinations for local residents as well.

Endnotes & further reading

  1. Augé, Marc Non-Places: Introduction to Supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995.
  2. Isaka, Takanori. Analysis of Airport and Airline Relationship. ACI Asia-Pacific Young Executive of the Year Award 2013 7 December 2012.
  3. Thelle, Martin Hvidt, Torben Toro Thorø Pedersen and Frederik Harhoff. Airport Competition in Europe. June 2012.
  4. Mouawad, Jad. “Service Cuts May Follow Merger of Airlines” The New York Times 14 February 2013.
  5. Wittman, Michael D. and William S. Swelbar. “Trends and Market Forces Shaping Small Community Air Service in the United States”. MIT Small Community Air Service White Paper No. 1 May 2013.
  6. Falk, Tyler. “Biden: Great city infrastructure in China, not America” 18 June 2012.
  7. Skytrax. The World’s Top 100 Airports, 2013.
  8. JC Decaux. John F. Kennedy International Airport.
  9. Airports Council International. “International Passenger Traffic Monthly Ranking, May 2013
  10. Zhang, Qin. Comprehensive Review of Airport Business Models. 1 Dec 2010.
  11. “Frankfurt airport night flight ban confirmed” 4 April 2012 The Local
  12. Mouli, Siddharth. “Innovative Approaches in Maximizing Commercial Revenues” Airports Council International
  13. Retail for Lease, Tribeca, New York, NY.
  14. Paulas, Rick. “A Look at Chicago’s Airport Urban Garden” KCET 21 March 2013.
  15. Gensler. Gensler Design Forecast 2013.
  16. SFO Museum Exhibitions.
  17. Schiphol Airport, Rijksmuseum.
  18. Breeden, Aurelien. “Tired of the Duty-Free Shop? Go Check Out Those Rodins” The New York Times 12 February 2013.
  19. Ng, Melody. “Áreas opens first airport lounge club in Ibiza with DJ David Guetta”The Moodie Report 27 July 2012
  20. Remember Techno. “Technoclub Dorian Grey Frankfurt/M” 24 July 2010.
  21. Intercontinental Chicago O’Hare. Art Gallery.
  22. Skyscanner. “International survey reveals travellers’ dream airport” June 2013
  23. Munich Airport. Airbräu.
  24. Munich Airport. Christmas at the Munich Airport.
  25. von Lintel, Maxine. “Real Surfing at the Munich Airport: Surf & Style 2013” 5 August 2013. MunichNow
  26. Heathrow Airport. “A novel route for Heathrow” 2 August 2011.
  27. Changi Airport. Changi Millionaire.
  28. West 8. Landscaping Schiphol Airport.
  29. Airport Library.
  30. Swedavia. “Wedding at Stockholm Arlanda Airport” 
  31. Hunt, Katrina Brown. “A True Destination Wedding: Getting Married at the Frankfurt Airport” Travel + Leisure 25 February 2013.
  32. Hong Kong Disneyland.
  33. “Best Airports of 2012” Sleeping In Airports 15 October 2012.
  34. Yotel. “Our Story”
  35. SITA. Passenger Self-Service Survey 2012
  36. SimpliFlying. The State of Airport Marketing: 7 Key Trends & Case-Studies. 10 June 2013.
  37. Kaneshige, Tom. “The iPad Kiosk: Landing at an Airport Near You” CIO, 12 October 2012.
  38. “FTE Think Tank” Future Travel Experience Global 2013.
  39. Russell, Jon. “Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand tops Instagram’s list of most photographed places in 2012” The Next Web, 28 December 2012.
  40. Stellin, Susan. “Free Wi-Fi, but Speed Costs” The New York Times 4 June 2012.
  41. Brown, Eliot and Rory Jones. “Middle East Cities Vie to Have Biggest and Best Airport” The Wall Street Journal, 6 August 2013.