The evolution of airports

In the future, airports will be much more than just a place you go to catch a flight. Countries all over the world are investing in their airports, not just to handle the increasing capacity demands of a booming worldwide travel industry, but to gain an edge in the competitive global marketplace. More than $1 trillion in investment is being poured into the sector in places as diverse as Berlin, Istanbul, Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul. They are all implementing huge development plans to secure their positions as global hubs. But what will that evolution look like?

Forward-thinking airport design is departing from traditional ideas of what the airport-space is fundamentally for. Rather than just being a place to transfer or wait for your flight, designers are re-imagining the airport as an integrated hub for shopping, entertainment and dining. Displays of cutting-edge architecture and technology are all part of making the space attractive and exciting. As more airline routes open and smaller airports expand, the pressure to raise the bar and differentiate themselves in the global marketplace grows.

By providing attractions at airports that broaden appeal and function, airports will become less utilitarian and more exciting to the public. Changi airport in Singapore boasts a garden designed as a tropical butterfly habitat. Lush greenery, a 20-foot grotto waterfall and over 1000 species of tropical butterflies mingle with 30-foot light and water displays, as well as a five-floor garden. This provides a great place for travelers to rest and recuperate, while providing a unique setting for education and research.

On the other hand, Hong Kong airport includes a giant-screened IMAX theater for an audience of 350, the largest in the city, attracting people to the airport for entertainment as well as transit, while giving more leisure opportunities for travelers. Seoul Incheon boasts an ice skating rink to entertain kids and families, as well as a space to host events and performances all year round. Finland’s Helsinki airport is joining in by adding an indoor forest to its new terminal, slated to open in 2021 where you can walk among the trees and enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle.


Airports evolve to provide services difficult for airlines to provide on their own

Even the most comfortable frequent-flier lounges don’t let you explore a forest, walk among clouds of butterflies, or take a beat by a 20 ft. waterfall. At least, not yet. Amenities like these help reduce traveler fatigue, giving people a chance to relax and unwind. They can also act as public attractions, drawing visitors to the airport or keeping their interest when they might otherwise simply pass by. The interaction airports are after could be as little as lingering for half an hour after you drop off a friend and let the kids ice-skate or eat a meal, or as much as heading to the airport to see the latest blockbuster on an IMAX screen.  

Airports are evolving the more traditional services they offer, making transfers and screenings more efficient for travelers while maintaining safety and security. Biometric scanning will make a growing contribution to security screening, with Dubai airport installing face-scanning virtual aquariums at security checkpoints this year. These let people walk through a tunnel with an aquarium or other scenes projected onto the walls. As those on line check out the fish, cameras will use biometric information to confirm their identity, removing the need for long lines and traditional security checks.

Futuristic projections for how airports might evolve totally re-imagine what we think of as the typical airport experience. Dubai airport’s CEO, Paul Griffiths, imagines “an airport with no check-in, no immigration, and discreet non-intrusive security all enabled by a single identity database securely held in the cloud.” While that may seem a long way off the next time you are waiting in a TSA screening line, advances in technology are making it a real possibility.

In the near term, where lines can’t be removed,  airports are likely to have more lines rather than less. Breaking travelers into more groups based on their security status, citizenship, pre-screening and so on allows for shorter, more specialized lines. More and more travelers are expected to be members of pre-registration schemes like TSA Pre-Check, with authorities leveraging their existing knowledge of passenger data to speed up security screening. 


New technologies to drive better efficiencies

The future is also bringing other innovative solutions, like tech company Sita’s moving, autonomous check-in kiosk. These stations have touch-screens, Wi-Fi and a self-service check-in for your flight on a handy, autonomous platform. They can independently move themselves around the terminal to areas of greatest need, alleviating congestion and boosting check-in speeds.

There’s no doubt that the airport of the future will use innovative new technologies to improve efficiency and traveler experience, but as it evolves, it will have a renewed focus on how the space is used. By providing experiences, that revitalize travelers, building multi-use facilities open to the public and becoming more diversified spaces, airports are evolving to meet the needs of the travelers of the future.