Make Your Airport an Entertainment Center

This is the second in a series of articles that discusses a new approach to airport development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. Today’s topic? Entertainment!

A few years ago, some friends decided to kidnap me on my birthday. They blindfolded me, put me in a taxi, and told me that we were on our way to the airport. When we got out of the cab, I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear crowds and the roar of airplanes overhead and—after I was led indoors—was aware that we were in line for a security screening. One of my friends handed me a boarding pass as we passed through a metal detector. I started to panic. I hadn’t packed anything! Where were we going?

A few moments later, the blindfold was removed and I was staring, amazed, at this:


We were at the airport—Hong Kong’s airport, to be exact—but we weren’t inside the passenger terminal. My “boarding pass” was, in fact, a concert ticket. My friends had decided to surprise me by taking me to see one of my favorite bands perform.

They were playing at AsiaWorld-Expo, a convention center located at Hong Kong International Airport. Twenty years ago, advocates of the “aerotropolis” model argued that every airport needed large business meeting facilities. But like many similar aerotropolis projects around the world, once it was built, AsiaWorld-Expo had trouble competing with a much more attractive convention center downtown. For years, the building remained largely empty, and troublingly underutilized.


In recent years, however, AsiaWorld-Expo has become one of Hong Kong’s premier concert venues, hosting everyone from Madonna to Jay Chou. This functional adaptation was a great example of how to improvise when things don’t go according to your airport’s master plan.

It turns out that airports are a perfect place to stage concerts and other large cultural events.

Concerts create a lot of noise—which isn’t a problem at the airport. They require expertise in security screening procedures and crowd management techniques—which airport staff already have. With audiences skewing younger, concert venues need to be easily accessible by public transport, but also offer ample parking—check. The spectacular growth in festival tourism—where people fly to a city for the single purpose of watching their favorite bands—likewise favors airports. Lastly, artists on a tight schedule need to be able to fly in, perform their act, and fly off to the next gig. For airports, that’s a not a problem.

Hong Kong isn’t the only airport that is starting to function as a center for popular entertainment. In South Korea, Incheon airport’s reputation as a place to spot pop singers and movie stars has spawned a quirky phenomenon known as “airport fashion”:

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Devoted fans and paparazzi linger on the airside, hoping to snap a picture of their favorite actors and musicians returning from abroad. These photos—some are candid, others obviously staged—are supremely instagrammable. They circulate widely on social media, and reinforce the connection between airports and celebrity culture in the popular imagination. No wonder, then, that Incheon is now moving away from a business-oriented aerotropolis plan and towards one that also focuses on entertainment and leisure.

Airport entertainment is by no means limited to Asian hubs. For years, Frankfurt airport hosted one of Germany’s most popular techno clubs. There are also examples in North America. On a recent tour of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, kindly organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, I visited Georgia’s International Convention Center, located right next to the airport and connected to the pax terminal by a people mover. Expecting to find a predictable schedule of professional conferences and trade shows, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an exciting roster of upcoming dance performances, cheerleading competitions, and volleyball and jiu-jitsu tournaments.

The takeaway? Airports are a natural location for large public events that require a lot of space, a sophisticated security and crowd management plan, and good connectivity to the surrounding region. Hosting these kinds of events has a number of distinct benefits for the airport. First and foremost, it increases your non-aeronautical revenue, and builds on the existing strengths of your airport’s workforce. Second, it improves your airport’s reputation among visitors—who will associate the airport with their favorite band, or an exciting tournament. Lastly, with visitors uploading thousands of images to social media, these events bring in a lot of free, positive publicity.

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How can your airport benefit by adding entertainment to its future development strategies? Often, it’s a question of existing airport facilities, and expanding them to accommodate a wider range of uses—ideally ones that capitalize on unique forms of recreation and entertainment that are already thriving in your airport’s catchment area.

A case in point: Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t just the home of hip hop royalty, but it’s also the city that’s being showcased in the entertainment industry right now. One of the most successful shows currently on TV focuses on Atlanta’s hip hop scene, and the city hosts one of the genre’s largest award shows: think of the Oscars, but for hip hop.

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College Park, the town located right next to the airport, happens to be the epicenter of that industry. It’s home to some of the most famous musicians alive today. Their music isn’t just what people are listening to all over America—it’s what they’re listening to all over the world. In other words, ATL has massive cultural capital, right on the doorstep of the airport, that other cities can only dream of. Wouldn’t it make sense to feature that homegrown talent at an airport concert arena?

That’s just one example of how entertainment can help to diversify your airport’s non-aeronautical development strategies. How is your airport incorporating entertainment into its long-term growth plans, and how can it do more in the future?

A Food-Forward Approach to Airport Development

Last month’s article introduced a new people-focused approach to airport development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. In a nutshell, the AU model aims to strengthen the relationship between the airport, passengers, and local residents in order to improve the passenger experience, benefit local communities, and increase non-aeronautical revenue. Read more about the AU model here.


Thinking about the relationship between passengers, residents, and the airport empowers us to see more clearly what passengers want, what local residents can offer, and how the airport can benefit by bringing them together. By matching the needs of your airport’s unique passenger mix with the skills of the people who live near the airport, the AU Model opens up a range of site-specific growth strategies that go far beyond conventional approaches to airport-area development.

This is the first in a series of articles that examines some of those strategies. Today’s topic? Food!

Most cultures attach great importance to food: eating together, and giving food as gifts, are universal ways to reinforce social ties with friends, family, and business partners. Food is also an essential part of daily life: simply put, everyone who flies needs to eat while they’re traveling.

Unfortunately, airports are not typically considered to be culinary hotspots, to put it mildly. In fact, many people dread having to eat in airports. Traveling around the world’s major hubs, I’ve often been struck by how hard it is to find tasty, healthy food that reflects local culinary traditions: either to eat on the go, or to bring back as presents.

That’s surprising, given three major shifts that work in airport food’s favor.

The first is the fact that airlines—taking their cue from the low-cost sector—have drastically cut back on in-flight meal services. Frequent flyers and business travelers are also finding that the food in airport lounges just ain’t what it used to be. The upshot? A lot of hungry travelers.

Second, thanks to the rapidly changing demographics of air travel, passengers have developed much more specific expectations about what they want to eat while in transit. Individual niche markets—such as organic and halal food—have become large enough to be economically significant. Yet at many airports, these dietary needs are not being met, leaving willing customers with empty stomachs.

Finally, the rise in culinary tourism has elevated food to an essential part of the travel experience. This is especially true among Asian tourists. Travel guides written in China, Japan, and South Korea place an incredible emphasis on local food specialities, which are popularized by dozens of TV series dedicated entirely to food tourism.


Many Asian tourists structure their travel itineraries around meals, going out of their way to sample unusual foods even if it requires a major detour. Before they fly home, they stock up on unique local delicacies to bring back to their friends, family, and colleagues.

These travelers’ enthusiasm for all things gastronomic is part of a larger global trend that values local cuisines and locally produced food.

Airports located in cities with a strong culinary reputation are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that trend.

Take Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport. CDG is one of Europe’s leading hubs, hosting nearly 70 million pax per year. It’s also the gateway to France: a country that has a well deserved reputation for delicious regional cuisines which, in turn, are complemented by a dizzying array of culinary traditions from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. Tourists and business travelers arrive at Charles de Gaulle with high gastronomic expectations.

At the same time, CDG is surrounded by towns that boast an extraordinary culinary diversity. Here’s a sample of some of the thousands of food photos that local residents have recently uploaded to social media:


These images attest to two of the main reasons why people visit Paris: its reputation as one of the world’s top culinary destinations, and the cosmopolitan atmosphere created by its diverse population.


These photos—taken by actual people who live near the airport—not only reveal an extensive knowledge base about culinary traditions from around the world, but also a network of small-scale entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to monetize that knowledge.

Food brings people together

Food, whether served for immediate consumption or packaged as a gift, is a versatile job creation strategy because culinary talent transcends lines of social class and levels of education. And all passengers, no matter where they’re from, appreciate good food! By curating a unique culinary environment—one that draws on the traditions of the airport’s home region, and on the cooking skills of local residents—airports can use food as a vehicle for generating both revenue and local employment. And in doing so, they can create a memorable sensory experience for passengers that will make them want to come back again and again.

Incorporating a food-forward approach can also help airports to improve on their existing real estate development strategies. Many airport-area office parks and exhibition centers are built with the intention to facilitate business transactions. But they often lack the kinds of convivial spaces—a boisterous restaurant, a quiet wine bar—that are essential for building trust among business partners, and where discussions that began in the boardroom can be continued in a more informal atmosphere.

How can your airport incorporate a culinary strategy into its larger development plans? And what are some other ways to strengthen your airport’s relationship with passengers and local residents?

More on that next time!

What is the Airport Urbanism (AU) Model?

I’d like to thank everyone who contacted me about my last article, which discussed why the aerotropolis model doesn’t work. Dozens of planners, consultants, and real estate developers shared the many challenges that they’ve encountered at airports in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Across these very different contexts, a consensus seems to be emerging that the aerotropolis model simply doesn’t meet the demands of today’s airports.

This article introduces a new approach to airport-area development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. It outlines the AU model’s basic objectives, and discusses why it differs significantly from the aerotropolis. In a follow-up post, I’ll demonstrate the AU model’s potential through some examples drawn from specific airport areas.

Airport Urbanism: a people-focused approach

Back in the ’90s, advocates of the aerotropolis concept emphasized the airport’s role as a node within the global economy—and used that idea to advance an inflexible planning model for airport-area development. They proposed constructing entire new urban districts from scratch, made up of predetermined building types like office parks, convention centers, and logistics hubs. They also argued that this model could be replicated anywhere, regardless of local social, cultural, and economic factors.

That turned out not to be true—and many aerotropolis projects failed.

By contrast, airport urbanism focuses on an airport’s unique user profile in order to identify site-specific planning and design guidelines. These creative development strategies aim to match the needs of an airport’s particular passenger mix with the existing strengths of local communities and skill sets of local residents.

Simply put: airport urbanism focuses on people.

Why? Because at the end of the day, the economic dynamics at the airport and in the airport area revolve around three sets of actors:

  1. the airport;
  2. the passengers; and
  3. the residents of local communities who live near the airport.

Between these three actors we have three sets of relationships:


A basic relationship is between the passenger and the airport: passengers depend on the airport for their transport needs, while the airport relies on passengers as a crucial source of revenue.

Another basic relationship is between the airport and local residents. Take for example, the case of someone who lives in a town near the airport and works as a baggage handler. That’s an example of a mutually beneficial relationship, where the airport creates employment for local communities, and those towns provide a reliable source of labor.

Until now, most airport development focused on those two relationships: between the airport and passengers, and between the airport and local residents. But we haven’t considered the productive potential embedded in the third set of interactions—that is, between passengers and local communities.

Strengthening the relationship between all three actors—airport, pax, and residents—is a powerful tool for developing design guidelines that facilitate airport operations, improve the passenger experience, and benefit local communities.

Moreover, strengthening these links addresses two fundamental challenges that airports face today: one inside the terminal, and one on the airport’s edge.

Let me break those challenges down.

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First, the demographics of air travel are changing fast. Not only are there many more passengers than ever before, but they’ve become much more diverse in terms of age, income level, travel purpose, and cultural background. The result? An ever-expanding list of pax types. To name just three examples: middle-class passengers from China, medical tourists, and business travelers who fly on budget airlines.

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Each of these passenger segments has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and spending habits. With more travelers than ever passing through the terminal, it’s crucial to offer a targeted experience to each of these different passenger types.

But airport design and operations aren’t keeping pace with these demographic changes.

That’s the first challenge.

The second challenge is the widening gap between airports and local communities in the airport area. In many cities, we find an airport that is growing very quickly but that is surrounded by a hinterland whose population is sinking economically. The benefits that the airport provides to its catchment area as a whole are missing in the communities just beyond the fence. Efforts to encourage growth—by, say, building office parks and business meeting facilities—often don’t work.

And that’s because this kind of strategy isn’t thinking about airport development in terms of the people involved: it isn’t matching passengers’ needs with residents’ skills.

Take a proposal for a new international trade center next to the airport. Here you have to ask yourself: is there really enough demand from arriving business travelers, or is that demand already being satisfied by existing facilities that are within, say, a half-hour drive of the airport? And do local residents really have the social and technical skills needed to work in a formal office environment? Often, the answer to both of these questions is no.


Thinking about the relationship between passengers, residents, and the airport empowers us to see more clearly what passengers want, what residents can offer, and how airports can increase their non-aeronautical revenue.

These insights, in turn, can help us to create innovative development strategies that are both economically viable and socially sustainable.

The takeaway here: a one-size-fits-all approach to airport-area planning doesn’t work. Development guidelines need to take into account the needs and desires of your airport’s unique passenger mix, and the particular skills of the people living in the communities around the airport.

Focusing on site-specific strategies, the AU model doesn’t rule out building an aerotropolis-style office park and convention center—if that’s what local market conditions really call for. At the same time, airport urbanism opens up a whole range of additional development strategies that are excluded by the aerotropolis’s narrow focus on office space, conferences, and logistics.

My next article will give some examples of these alternative strategies, drawn from specific airport areas.

What’s Wrong with the Aerotropolis Model?

When it comes to designing airports, the “aerotropolis” is one of the most influential development models out there. Yet among airport planners, it’s an open secret that the aerotropolis concept—which looks great on paper—actually doesn’t work very well in practice. So why do we keep building aerotropolis projects?


While researching my book over the last 10 years, I visited dozens of empty office buildings and underperforming logistics hubs at airports all over the world. Disappointed by what I saw, I started to think about how we can build on the strengths of the aerotropolis idea, move beyond its shortcomings, and update it for the demands of the 21st-century airport—and the 21st-century economy.

This post discusses some of the problems with the current airport-area planning paradigm. It explains how we got to where we are, and speculates on how we can do better. In a follow-up post, I’ll introduce a new development model called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short.


Since the early days of civil aviation, airport designers have tried to productively integrate the airport into the surrounding city—and to use the airport as a springboard for developing the communities located around the airfield. In the 1920s and 1930s, European architects suggested combining the airport with existing building types, such as amusement parks, exhibition halls, and railway stations.


In the United States, meanwhile, designers thought that airports should be merged with other new building types that were considered exciting and futuristic: such as supermarkets, skyscrapers, and—yes—parking lots. In 1939, the term “aerotropolis” was first used in a fanciful proposal for an airfield built on top of an inner-city office tower.


On both sides of the Atlantic, urban planners speculated that airports could be used to develop satellite towns to service the emerging logistics industry. Some, like Le Corbusier, even thought that entire new cities should be built around the airport. Like the railway stations of the 19th century, airports would thus become the focal point of urban growth.

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The notion that airports could serve as centers of urban development remained popular throughout the post-WWII era—but the idea never came to fruition. However, in the 1990s the economist John Kasarda began to resurrect some of these older concepts, and incorporated them into a development model that he called the “aerotropolis.” He argued that the airport of the future would assume the role that traditional downtowns had played in the 20th century. Kasarda claimed that in a globalizing economy, accessibility to air transport networks would be essential for doing business. Land located near the airport would become a desirable place to build corporate headquarters, convention centers, and conference facilities. The airport area would also attract logistics firms that handled high-value products and time-sensitive cargo, such as food and flowers.

This was a really interesting idea—but the problem is that it’s just not true.

A recent article in The Economist points to some of the aerotropolis’s major flaws. Simply put, the airport doesn’t have the “pull” of historic city centers, which have steadily regained their attractiveness over the last 20 years. If anything, multinational corporations (and their employees) want to be downtown now more than ever—in attractive, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. (The shifting demands placed on workspaces are also rapidly outpacing what’s available in the standard airport office park, but that’s another story.) At the same time, the urban periphery, where most airports are located, has increasingly become the home of the poor and the poorly educated.

What about logistics firms? Well, they tend to set up shop wherever it’s cheapest to do so, as long as it’s within a one-hour drive of the airport. Storing cargo right next to the airport is often a lot more expensive—and a lot less appealing.


There are a few examples where the aerotropolis model has been a huge success: places like Schiphol in the Netherlands, or Las Colinas, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) airport. But these places do well because the airports that they’re attached to are located in the middle of a dense metropolitan region, equidistant from multiple urban centers.

It turns out that proximity to an airport is no guarantee for success.

Many factors contribute to the feasibility of an airport-area development, and reducing those factors to airport accessibility alone is a fatal mistake that urban scholars refer to as infrastructural determinism. But that hasn’t stopped airport authorities around the world from trying their luck anyway—leading to dozens of failed aerotropolis projects on nearly every continent.

In private conversations, many people who work in the airport industry have readily expressed their doubts to me about the viability of the aerotropolis model. At a major European hub, one planner confessed that no one in his team believed that their airport’s plan to build an aerotropolis would generate much revenue for the airport authority, or provide employment for the surrounding communities. He explained that there wasn’t enough demand for office space, and the local residents lacked the skills needed to work in a formal business environment. He also didn’t think that the subsidies being plowed into the project would ever be recovered.

“So why are you pursuing the project?” I asked.

“Because it’s our mission to develop real estate around the airport,” he replied. “So we have to plan something.”

“Even if you know it won’t work?”

He let out a weary sigh. “The problem is that there isn’t any alternative. The aerotropolis—the office park, the conference hotel, the convention center—it’s the only model. So that’s what we have to work with.”

But is it the only model? There must be other options.

My next post will introduce a new people-focused development model, designed to produce growth strategies that facilitate airport operations, improve the passenger experience, and benefit local communities.

Stay tuned.

Why the New Asian Middle Class Matters for Airports Everywhere

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This morning’s edition of the South China Morning Post carried an intriguing bit of news: Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s full-service legacy carrier, once again reported “high growth in passenger traffic at the back of its planes, while demand for its premium cabins fell below expectations.”

This lopsided development–a slump in demand for premium service, coupled with a growing appetite for more modestly priced seats–reflects a wider trend in Asian, and especially Chinese, passenger demographics. On the one hand, a government-led anti-corruption campaign is making it increasingly difficult for wealthy Chinese to travel abroad, as their foreign purchases are being closely monitored and subjected to annual spending caps. This is particularly true for government officials and employees of state-owned enterprises (along with their family members), who make up the majority of China’s high-net individuals. Many government officials have even been required to surrender their passports, and to apply for special permission to leave the country on a case-by-case basis.

On the other hand, thanks to rising levels of income and declining visa requirements, it has never been easier for members of China’s middle and upper-middle class to travel to abroad. The same is true in nearby countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where the middle class is set to double within the next five years. Having spent the past few years vacationing close to home, this emerging group of middle-income travelers are increasingly exploring destinations further afield in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

A 2013 study by McKinsey correctly predicted that this emerging group of passengers–by some estimates about half a billion people–would become the main drivers of Asia’s economic growth in the coming decade. Another recent study projects that, by 2030, Asia will be home to nearly two-thirds of all middle-class consumers.

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Yet the rise of middle-income Asian pax has caught many airports, and airlines, off guard.

Until recently, conventional wisdom suggested that targeting high-net Asian pax was a safe bet in terms of increasing revenue. The result was a slew of investments in high-end boutiques and premium lounges catering to the consumer habits of wealthy Asian, and especially, Chinese travelers. But now that that lucrative demographic is drastically reducing its foreign spending, these spaces are not performing very well. What can airports do to adjust to this new normal?

Over lunch last week, a colleague of mine who works in the travel retail industry complained about exactly this challenge. “Luxury products aren’t selling at all. The stores are empty!” she exclaimed. “All of my clients are asking for ways to do ‘cheap and cheerful’ concessions areas, because that’s where the demand is.”

“We need to readjust our sales strategies for a high-volume, middle-income demographic,” she continued. “But in Asia, that’s something we’ve never done before. We need to learn how to do it–and fast.”

This emerging group of middle- and upper middle-class passengers differ considerably from past generations of Asian travelers in terms of their logistical needs, aspirations, and taste preferences. How airports and airlines adjust their marketing strategies to reflect the growing influence of this demographic will be decisive in determining which airports succeed in capturing the much-coveted Asian long-haul pax market. On the other hand, those who ignore the rise of Asia’s middle class do so at their own peril.

A New Approach to Airport Sustainability

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Airport Urbanism is an unprecedented study of airports and air travel. In my last post, I introduced two of the book‘s key insights, and discussed how new types of passengers—especially ones from Asia—are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators.

Today’s post introduces a third insight:

Airports can profit from “going green”—but only if we take a fundamentally new approach to sustainability.

Whether they like it or not, airport operators and airlines are coming under increasing pressure to serve as socially and environmentally sustainable “good citizens.” With an eye towards climate change, many people have become increasingly dissatisfied with the air and noise pollution that airports create. They’ve also grown more vocally opposed to airport expansion plans—even when those plans are crucial for the economic development of the wider region.

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Both of these trends are especially visible among younger generations and the influential urban middle class, who have developed a strong interest in historic preservation and environmental protection. What I’m describing is already a reality in Europe, North America, and Japan, and is becoming a growing concern throughout much of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Compounding these challenges, in many cities we find an airport area that is growing very quickly, but that is surrounded by a hinterland whose population is stagnating economically. The benefits that the airport provides to its catchment area as a whole are often missing in the local communities just beyond the perimeter fence. Here, airport authorities face pressure from local politicians, who call on airports to mitigate their environmental impact on local communities by providing them with more tangible economic benefits.

What may at first glance look like a contradiction—how can an airport develop profitably, yet also minimize its impact on the surrounding region?—is in fact highly feasible if we adopt a fundamentally new approach to what it means to be “sustainable.” That requires developing strategies that both build on the existing strengths of the airport’s hinterland and seek to strengthen the relationship between air passengers and the communities surrounding the airport.

Layover tourism, which has been successfully implemented at many Asian hubs, is a good example of what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo’s Narita airport, you’ll have noticed the legions of long-haul passengers who are transferring between destinations in North America and Asia, and who often have pretty long, and pretty dull, layovers.

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As a creative alternative to hanging out in the terminal, Narita offers layover tours, typically three hours long, of the region surrounding the airport. These tours emphasize sites of historic importance and natural beauty, such as temples, rice paddies, hiking trails, and organic farms. Passengers can choose to go on their own or be accompanied by volunteers, mainly students and retirees from local communities, who would like to practice their language skills and learn more about foreign cultures.

In partnership with the city of Narita, the airport organizes free tea ceremonies, and sites these strategically along shopping streets where tourists can buy local snacks and handicrafts. Another tour offers passengers a “Japanese Country Life Experience,” starting with a “nature walk” through rice paddies and hydrangeas, and ending in a visit to a restaurant that serves locally grown food.

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Through layover tourism, the communities surrounding Narita can tap into the flow of air passengers in order to sustain the local economy, and provide both meaningful employment and volunteering opportunities for the local population. In return, passengers enjoy an authentic snapshot of local culture: one that will hopefully make them eager to come back for a longer visit. So rather than thinking about air and noise pollution, travelers associate the airport with the places that they visited during their layover: farms, hiking trails, and other interesting local attractions.

These layover tours, and the jobs that they create, also broadcast the positive economic impact that the airport has on local communities—and that’s definitely a boon for airport operators. In a fascinating study, a team of Swiss researchers found that people tend to complain more about aircraft noise if they live in communities that have weak economic links to the airport. By contrast, residents of towns where many people work in airport-related jobs are much less likely to complain—even if the overall level of noise, measured in decibels, is significantly higher.

Layover tours are just one example of how strengthening the bonds between passengers, the airport, and communities located in the airport’s hinterland can produce mutually beneficial outcomes that are both profitable and sustainable.

And as I’ll argue in the next post, improving the relationship between those three sets of actors—that is, between passengers, the airport, and the airport’s hinterland—is crucial for addressing the key challenges facing airports today, and for opening up future development strategies. In fact, the relationship between those three actors is so important that it’s also the basis for the Airport Urbanism (AU)  development model, and for the AU research method.

More on that next time!

Three Big Trends That Will Change the Future of Airports

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Airport Urbanism is an unprecedented study of airports and air travel that incorporates the perspective of passengers, airport designers, aviation executives, and urban planners. Based on 10 years of research at more than 50 airports, the book focuses on the rise of Asia in order to better understand what’s driving innovation at airports and airlines around the world.

In this post, I’ve broken down some of my findings into three key insights:

  • The rise of Asia—and Asian consumers—will totally change the way airports are designed, used, and managed.
  • New types of passengers are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators.
  • You can profit from “going green”—but only if you take an innovative approach to sustainability.

In a follow-up post, I’ll be introducing the Airport Urbanism (AU) development model, explain the AU research method, and discuss how it differs from older models like the “aerotropolis.” I’ll also look at why these older ideas no longer address the key challenges facing airports today.

But first, let’s take a look at those insights.


Insight #1: The rise of Asia—and Asian consumers—will totally change the way airports are designed, used, and managed

Asian air traffic has grown at exponential rates in recent decades—and still has room to grow. This is especially true for medium-haul traffic within Asia—from China to the Middle East, for example—and for long-haul flights between Asia and the rest of the world. A variety of factors are driving this growth: the expansion of Asian immigrant communities in North America, Africa, and Europe, and with it an increase in VFR traffic; as well as state-led economic initiatives aimed at stimulating “intra-Asian” trade. At the same time, expanding middle classes in countries like Malaysia and Thailand are becoming important audiences in the global leisure market, as rising levels of income are leading to larger household budgets for foreign tourism. They are taking advantage of historically low oil prices and intense competition between European and Middle Eastern airlines in order to travel more often and more widely than ever before.

To cite just a few statistics: in 1991, only two million Chinese traveled abroad. Last year, that figure was 120 million. In 2015, every tenth tourist worldwide came from China. France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland were among their top 10 destinations. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s middle class is set to double in the next five years. Oh, and did I mention that many of these travelers no longer need visas to fly abroad?

What this means is that air traffic to, from, and within Asia will increase for the foreseeable future—even if the economy takes a turn for the worse. How can you prepare for the growing influence of Asian consumers, and appeal to their logistical needs and taste preferences? What types of new retail and tourism opportunities do they present? How can you establish strategic partnerships with airports and airlines in the region?

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Insight #2: New types of passengers are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators

As the first insight suggests, the demographics of air travel are changing fast. To quote the slogan of one Asian LCC: “now everyone can fly.” The emergence of new and rapidly expanding passenger types—such as budget travelers, expat retirees, and middle-class consumers from emerging markets—poses fundamental challenges to all aspects of airport planning, ranging from security screening and passenger flow management to concessions and marketing. Each of these segments has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and consumption patterns. In order to design better airports—airports that are both efficient and profitable, and are focused on the customer experience—it is crucial to understand the needs and desires of these new flying publics.

In 2015, Atlanta surpassed the 100-million passenger mark for the first time. What seemed unthinkable a few decades ago will become a reality at airports worldwide in the coming years. With so many people passing through the terminal, it’s possible to offer a more targeted experience to different passenger types. I’m not just talking about broad categories like “LCC pax” and “business travelers.” Instead, I’m thinking about specific niche markets that have become large enough to be economically significant. One example is passengers from medium-income, high-volume markets like China, Thailand, and Turkey. Religious travelers, medical tourists, and middle-income migrant professionals—there are a lot of them—represent three other high-growth demographics.

Call me an optimist, but I think you can turn the airport into a fundamentally pleasant experience if you offer a wider variety of programming to this expanding audience. Two examples: free stroller rentals for parents of young children, and a pay-per-ride buggy service for senior citizens. A larger and more targeted selection of retail and F&B offerings would improve both the customer experience and profitability of landside and airside terminal areas. Tie-ins between airport authorities, airlines, and concessions operators could guarantee a smooth and pleasant airport experience, from the moment passengers enter the terminal right up until they board the plane. But all of this is based on understanding who your new customers are—and how you can market to them.

Blog Post 1D

In the next post, I’ll discuss the third insight: how a new approach to sustainability can allow airports to profit from “going green.” I’ll also be introducing the airport urbanism (AU) model, and show how it can be used to productively engage with the challenges that airports will face in the coming decade.

How are these changes affecting your airport or airline? What kinds of strategies are you developing to address them? Share your ideas in the comments below, or write to me at

Airport Urbanism book launched

I’m very excited to announce that Airport Urbanism has just been published by the University of Minnesota Press. Based on an unprecedented 10-year study of more than 50 airports worldwide, the book focuses on the rise of Asia in order to better understand the passenger trends and design innovations that are driving changes at airport hubs around the world.

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I will be sharing some of the book’s key insights in a series of upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, check out the book’s official page at the University of Minnesota Press. You can also order a copy on Amazon.