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.

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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?

Blog Post 1.A Blog Post 1

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.

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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 hirsh@post.harvard.edu

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2 thoughts on “Three Big Trends That Will Change the Future of Airports

  1. Pingback: What is the Airport Urbanism (AU) Model? | MAX HIRSH

  2. Pingback: A Food-Forward Approach to Airport Development | MAX HIRSH

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