Opinion

Reimagining the airport experience

8 Apr 2015 by GrahamSmith

Peter Knapp explores the reality that airports reflect their cities, with many falling short

An airport is the gateway to a city and visitors begin to judge that city by their experiences on arrival.

As such, the airport acts as a national ambassador and airport designers should ensure the space reflects the culture and personality of the world that lies beyond it “landside”.

At Paris Charles de Gaulle, might a traveller expect to be greeted by the smell of camembert or references to the city’s art? Or in Cairo, might they might like to be reminded of Egyptian history as the “cradle of civilisation”? Jazz played into the main terminal of New York’s JFK would be an evocative introduction to the city’s nightlife and culture.

And a well-designed London airport might reflect the city’s bustle and power of the financial district, or the city’s cutting edge fashion and art scene.

As it stands, what we expect is different from what we experience.

Taking London as an obvious example, our airports tend not to act as a gateway in this sense. They portray a more crude, less attractive truth with their plethora of bland walkways, exposed air conditioning and endless bank ads. They are shopping centres selling global coffee, international luxury brands and generic high tech, with (air) buses ready to whisk away shopping weary passengers.

That these airports are disconnected from London’s rich and varied culture is reflected by the fact that Stansted and Gatwick were voted 73rd and 40th respectively in the World Airport Awards (based on 13.02 million customer nominations).

In my view, these airports are missing the chance to represent their city; an opportunity that others, such as Oslo, Singapore and Munich, have grabbed. The architecture and design at those three airports reflects the city rather than the architect’s personal aesthetic.

Oslo is undoubtedly one of the world’s best designed airports. As soon as a visitor leaves the plane, they are welcomed by a serene environment.

The airport still advertises and there are shops, not dissimilar to those in UK airports, but they all adhere to the same sort of “contemporary Scandinavian style”.

The design framework is rigid but very effective. The check-in and service desks have warm but robust timber facings matched by the floor. Concrete columns reminiscent of pine trees are spanned by curvaceous timber beams and the signage is clear but quiet and well-mannered.

Does this feel like the gateway to Oslo, to Norway, to Scandinavia? Absolutely, yes. Subtle use of materials combined with the unique but recognisable Scandinavian design style make landing in this airport a pleasure.

Similarly, Singapore’s Changi airport is immersive and designed to represent the city state. Business Traveller readers have voted it Best Airport in the World for a remarkable 27 years in a row (click here for our 2014 Awards results).

The Enchanted Garden, one of five gardens that help evoke the region’s tropical rainforest climate, is a particularly interesting feature. Launched in 2013, it aims to evoke a Shangri-La-like feel, with all the exoticism of the Orient. One design centrepiece comprises four giant glass sculptures filled with freshly-cut flowers and soft ferns.

As a visitor weaves through the garden, motion sensors trigger natural sounds and blooming flowers while fibre-optic and LED spots in the floor form a carpet of lights. A pond houses archerfish and koi which visitors are encouraged to feed.

Other features include a butterfly room and a four-storey slide. Acknowledging Singapore’s position as a burgeoning business hub, the airport also offers free use of wifi-connected computers at convenient spots. Similarly, it offers free sightseeing tours of the city for passengers with a long layover time, as well as napping and rest areas.

Munich airport, voted third Best Airport in Europe by Business Traveller readers, houses a small brewery, called Airbrau, reflecting the German love of beer, as well as a visitor’s park with a “viewing hill” that affords an impressive view of the terminal and the runways.

The airport is flooded with natural light and designed to be eco-friendly. Similarly, a passenger handling facility called InfoGate offers video conferencing between passengers and an information service agent where both passenger and staff see life-size screen images of the other in real time. This cutting-edge technology helps to showcase Germany’s strengths in this area.

None of these airports are process oriented or grindingly dull as so many airports are, and, as such, are example-setting to designers the world over. The airport is the first true point of contact with the country of destination and should be captivating, instantly identifiable and soaked in personality.

As stated, branding and design can really enhance the consumer experience and airport designers should consider the impression they want to create and take tips from those airports that really are a destination in themselves — Oslo, Singapore and Munich.

After all an airport need not be just a port for airplanes, it can be a whole lot more.


Read our contributor biography of Peter Knapp

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