Three Big Shifts in the Passenger Experience: Is Your Airport Ready?

  • Rapid and unpredictable changes make aviation both an exciting and an exhausting industry. In the coming decade, three big paradigm shifts—in ground access, security screening, and travel retail—will fundamentally change how airports interact with passengers, and how passengers experience the airport.

    These shifts will transform the way we design and operate airports. They will also have a big impact on how airports generate income. Here’s a quick look at what’s ahead:

  • How Passengers Arrive at the Airport

    Parking fees are one of the pillars of the airport business model, accounting for up to a quarter of total operating revenue. But that model is being undermined by a major shift in how passengers are traveling to and from the airport. In the next decade, as ride-hailing apps like Uber increase in popularity—and as self-driving vehicles become a reality—fewer and fewer people will be paying to park (or rent) a car at the airport.

    Whether they like it or not, airport operators will need to identify new types of non-aeronautical activities to compensate for the resulting decline in revenue. They’ll also need to redevelop existing parking lots, garages, and car rental facilities for alternative, income-generating purposes. This paradigm shift in ground access is a scary thought for many airport execs—and rightly so. But it also presents a tremendous opportunity to rethink the types of facilities and services that airports offer to their customers on the landside, and to redesign the airport’s access roads and forecourt. How will architects and planners engage with that challenge?

  • At the same time as parking declines, some airports will begin to transform into intermodal transport centers, embedded in long-distance railway networks. That concept is well established at European hubs like Amsterdam, Paris, and Frankfurt, and it’s on the agenda for Asian and Middle Eastern ones like Istanbul, Shanghai, and Tehran. Thinking ahead, some airports are even evaluating the potential synergy effects that could be derived by linking air terminals with hyperloops.

    Overall, this intermodal transition will be good for airports, who can grow their catchment area through high-speed connections on the ground. But opposition from airlines, along with poor coordination between air and land transport ministries, will likely create hurdles. The solution may lie in new forms of cooperative governance, cross-investment, and profit-sharing across various transport sectors.

    Bottom line: Whether it’s because of Uber in the US or high-speed trains in China, how your passengers travel to and from the airport will fundamentally change in the coming decade. That has big implications for terminal design.

  • How Passengers Go Through Security

    The automation of security procedures, coupled with the introduction of facial recognition technology, will transform the way passengers experience the transition from landside to airside. Further down the line, it may even render that division obsolete.

    In an ideal scenario, these new technologies will eliminate queues, and will make the overall screening process more efficient and less stressful. With that goal in mind, Dubai is planning to unveil the world’s first biometric border checkpoint next year. Passengers will walk through a “virtual aquarium” that will scan their faces, eliminating the need to wait in line. (They will need to apply for pre-clearance, though.)

    Airport authorities like the idea of automated security because it brings down labor costs. But automation will also bring new challenges. Most of these technologies are expensive and do not have a proven track record. In essence, we’ll be using the airport terminal as a venue to beta-test them. Glitches—ranging from a short delay to a full-on cyberattack—are inevitable.

    Moreover, new technologies can only fulfill their promise if your passengers know how to use them. User interfaces need to be intuitive and accessible: they should be designed for a broad range of travelers, not just for road warriors and engineers. At a recent Aerial Futures conference in Los Angeles, Corgan’s Samantha Flores drove that point home: since many passengers are not frequent flyers, they will be confronted—and confounded—by new technologies every time they fly. How will airports engage these types of travelers?

    During a recent visit to a major U.S. hub, I observed an elderly couple try to enter a body scanner at the same time. They were visibly nervous and did not speak English. Two TSA employees, who became increasingly frustrated, could not effectively communicate the importance of entering one by one, leading to a 10-minute delay in the security line. What kinds of innovations—in staff training, in passenger education, and in pictogrammatic signage—could prevent these kinds of incidents from recurring?

    Bottom line: In order to harness the full potential of new security techniques, successful airports will strive to improve the technical literacy of all of their customers. They will also develop low-tech contingency plans that can be quickly deployed when technology fails.

  • How Pax Spend Time (and Money) in the Terminal

    Lastly: big changes are afoot in travel retail, as airport shops begin to operate more like showrooms and entertainment spaces and less like venues for making purchases and obtaining merchandise. As the volume of physical products shrinks, we’ll likely see a counterpart expansion of customized services that respond to the needs and desires of specific passenger types.

    Successful airports will devise retail strategies that combine online and offline sales channels in a creative and profitable manner. And in order to spur innovation, concessions contracts will need to be reconceived beyond the traditional metrics of footfall and minimum annual guarantees. But that’s a complex topic that deserves its own article—more on that next time.

    Bottom line: The shift towards showrooms may be a boon to space-constrained concessions operators, who will need to store less merchandise on the airside. But along with the changes in ground access and security discussed above, the transformation of travel retail will challenge existing ideas about how to design, operate, and monetize an airport. Close coordination between aviation authorities, airlines, retailers, security agencies, and last but not least architects and planners is essential in order to innovate the terminal design process. Is your airport ready?