Airport Urbanism

Max Hirsh

  • What is AU?

    • Download the summary

    • Airport Urbanism is a people-focused approach to designing airports, and to planning urban developments around the airport. Focusing on the needs and desires of the people who use the airport on a regular basis--passengers, employees, and local residents--AU advances development strategies that deliver long-term benefits to both the airport and the city that it serves.

      Both a design philosophy and a practical model for implementation, AU is based on two core principles:

      Focus on people: Successful airports focus on the needs and desires of their customers. That includes not just passengers, but also the people who live, work, and own businesses at the airport and in nearby communities.

      Growing together: Successful airports coordinate airside, landside, and off-airport development in a holistic and mutually beneficial manner. Why? Because airports and cities grow best when they grow together.

      Click here to read more about AU

  • About Max


    • Max Hirsh (PhD, Harvard) is a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on airports and urban infrastructure. His research focuses on passenger behavior, airport-led urban development, non-aeronautical revenue, landside real estate, and emerging ground access patterns.

      He is the author of Airport Urbanism: an unprecedented study of airports and air travel that incorporates the perspective of passengers, airport and airline operators, urban planners, developers, and travel retail professionals. Based on 10 years of research conducted at more than 50 airports around the world, the book sheds light on the exponential increase in global air travel and its implications for the planning, design, and operation of airports.

      Passionate about airports and air travel, Max works with airport authorities and urban planning agencies around the world to help shape the future of airports and the cities that they serve.

  • Services


    • Max provides thought leadership for the aviation community through a variety of formats, including:

      Keynote speeches & guest lectures


      Airport Urbanism workshops
      (½-day, 1-day, 2-day formats)


      Research, positioning & feasibility studies


      Expert witness/third-party review of airport master plans and airport-area development plans


      Recent clients:

      Aéroports de Paris
      Aviation Media
      Benoy
      Box1824 Consumer Research
      City of Vantaa (Finland)
      Cox
      Cushman & Wakefield
      Hang Seng Bank
      Harvard University
      HOK
      Landrum & Brown
      Singapore Aviation Academy
      Smart Airports
      Stockholm Skavsta Airport

  • Speaking


    • Max is a frequent keynote speaker and guest lecturer at international conferences, universities, and private corporate events. Focusing on customer experience, airport technology, future mobility, and airport city development, his inspirational talks offer a fresh perspective on the key challenges facing airports today.


      Recent talks:

      Inter Airport Southeast Asia, Singapore (2019)
      Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta (2019)
      AAG, Washington DC (2019)
      Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris (2019)
      Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore (2019)
      Stockholm Skavsta Airport (2019)
      4th Aviation Silk Road Conference, Hong Kong (2019)
      University of Luxembourg (2019)
      Smart Airports, London (2018)
      Arup, Hong Kong (2018)
      Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (2018)
      Beijing New Aerotropolis Holding Company (2018)
      University of Colorado, Boulder (2018)
      Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport (2018)
      University of Hong Kong (2018)
      Skanska, Almedalen Week, Visby (2018)
      Architecture+Design Museum, Los Angeles (2018)
      Passenger Terminal Expo, Stockholm (2018)
      Hong Kong Club (2018)
      NACO, Den Haag (2017)
      SALT Istanbul (2017)
      Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris (2017)
      Chicago Architecture Biennale (2017)
      Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (2017)
      Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport (2017)
      Passenger Terminal Expo, Amsterdam (2017)
      University of Queensland, Brisbane (2017)
      Volkswagen Foundation, Hanover (2017)
      Yale University, New Haven (2017)

  • Media


    • Max is a frequent commentator on the future of airports and air travel. Recent interviews and editorials have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Australian Financial Review, China Daily, Exame, Foreign Policy, Helsingin Sanomat, Hyperloop One, Nikkei Asian Review, Passenger Terminal Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Site Selection, The Possible, Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

      For media requests, please click here.

Featured article

Smart Airports are
Redesigning the Passenger Journey

  • This is the second article in a series about what makes an airport “smart.”

    Smart cities, smart airports: these are buzzwords that we're hearing more and more. It’s clear that technology is changing how we design and operate airports, and it’s clear that tech is transforming the passenger experience.

    Last time, we looked at how smart airports are embracing new technologies that deliver a clear return on investment. Today, we'll focus on how smart airports are redesigning the passenger journey.

  • In recent decades, aviation has undergone huge technological changes. Today, I can download my boarding pass, travel to the airport, check my bag, clear immigration, buy a snack, and board my flight, all without interacting with another human being. At least in theory.

    The reality, of course, is much messier. Over the years, we’ve inherited a hodge-podge of operational practices that persist even when technical advances have made them obsolete. Smart airports aren’t afraid to ask if these legacy procedures still make sense. And whenever possible, smart airports try to combine processes—or eliminate them entirely—in order to simplify the passenger journey.

    Let’s look at three examples:

  • From Landside to Airside
    In most countries, when travelers depart on an international flight, they have to line up twice: once to clear security, and once again to pass through immigration. This double-queuing is one of the most tedious aspects of the entire passenger journey, as travelers waste precious time that could be better spent shopping, eating, or relaxing before their flight. How can security and immigration facilities be redesigned, and how can staff be retrained, to make that experience more pleasant?

    Expanding the use of self-scanning e-gates—and pax’s eligibility to use them—is a step in the right direction. A recent survey by SITA revealed that passengers who use e-gates are more satisfied with their immigration experience compared to those who interact with border agents. That doesn’t mean that we should entirely eliminate the human factor. Deploying staff to check travelers’ documents while they wait, and to help people who are unfamiliar with screening procedures, can significantly reduce queuing times for everyone.

    Thinking ahead, smart airports are exploring how facial recognition will empower them to combine security and immigration into a single process, thereby simplifying how passengers move between the landside and airside. In the near term, improvements in biometric technology may even render that division obsolete. That has big implications for terminal design.

  • Rethinking Luggage
    Smart airports also ask themselves if a particular process necessarily needs to take place inside the terminal itself, or if it can be better accomplished somewhere else. In the 1990s, Hong Kong led the way by building two in-town check-in terminals where travelers can drop their bags and get a boarding pass without leaving the CBD. Some airlines even let you do that the day before your flight. Other cities (e.g. Vienna, Seoul) have followed suit, but the practice has yet to catch on in major markets like the US. That’s unfortunate and ironic, given that one of the world’s first downtown check-in terminal was, in fact, located in Midtown Manhattan.

  • Getting rid of bags early on in the passenger journey makes a lot of sense. When designing terminals, airport planners budget in extra time and space for people traveling with luggage, since they’re slower and take up more room as they move. When I interview passengers, they tell me that carrying luggage is one of the most stressful aspects of flying: it’s heavy, and they’re worried that their belongings will get lost or stolen. That correlates with the findings of travel retail experts, who note that the more weighed down passengers feel by baggage, the less likely they are to shop at the airport.

    Off-site check-in terminals are one way to help travelers deposit their luggage before they even arrive at the airport. Pop-up bag-drop facilities at festivals and trade fairs can also help airports manage the spikes in traffic that accompany such large events. Baggage pick-up services at the customer’s home or office, offered e.g. in London and Dubai, is another smart strategy. And over in the US, some forward-thinking airports are partnering with ride-hailing apps, installing bag-tag printers inside the vehicles that passengers use to travel to the airport.

    Thinking way outside the box, some of us in the industry are wondering if passengers really need to fly together with their luggage on the same plane. Couldn’t bags be transported more efficiently by, say, FedEx? Doing so would give passengers greater ability to track the whereabouts of their belongings, and greater choice of pick-up and drop-off points. But it would also have major consequences for the airline revenue model, and for the way we design the arrival experience. Could baggage carrousels become a thing of the past?

    The takeaway: smart airports are rethinking how passengers travel with their luggage, and are outsourcing bag drop-off, transfer, and delivery through a variety of creative approaches. These industry leaders develop solid partnerships and innovative profit-sharing models between airports, airlines, ground handlers, and local transport operators.

  • From Terminal to Aircraft
    The past half century has seen profound changes in both terminal design and aircraft design. But the interface between the airport and the airplane—the airbridge—has remained essentially the same. We’ve tweaked it to accommodate aircraft of different sizes, but we don’t really question the basic way that planes connect to the terminal. Waiting inside an airbridge—often a windowless tube that is blazing hot or freezing cold—is one of the least pleasant aspects of the passenger journey. It’s also the last impression that travelers have of your airport.

    As Benoy’s Simon Bee pointed out at a recent conference in Singapore, our reliance on airbridges poses a significant barrier to innovating the relationship between the airport and the airplane. Smart airports are rethinking that relationship. One way is to expand the existing terminal structure onto the tarmac, in parallel to the aircraft stand, in order to create more space inside the terminal and more entry points to the plane. Another option is to design direct links between airline lounges and aircraft. That would allow premium passengers to board more quickly, while also reducing congestion at the gate.

  • Final Thought
    Redesigning the passenger journey—through clever uses of technology, design, and manpower—promises to significantly increase customer satisfaction. It can also be a big win for airport operators, who can reduce costs and increase capacity inside space-constrained terminals.

    At the same time, smart airports recognize that resistance is an inevitable part of innovation. Passengers and employees may be unwilling to change their habits, particularly when confronted by new technologies. And numerous parties within the aviation industry have a vested interest in maintaining outdated operational practices, even when those practices constrain future growth and drive down the customer experience.

    Smart airports—and the men and women who lead them—tackle those barriers head-on. They deploy intuitive technologies that passengers find easy to use. They invest in the technical literacy of their employees. Above all, smart airports understand that innovating the passenger journey will also drive innovations in the airport business model, as old revenue sources and cost centers are replaced by new ones. But that’s a topic for another time.