During this summer with frequent flight delays and cancellations, many travelers spent more time in airports than expected, often from blaring TV news, rock-hard seats, and scarce power outlets. Add fear of Covid-19 and disagreement over mandatory masking and it’s no wonder incidents of bad behavior are in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration reported more than 4,000 cases of recalcitrant passenger complaints this year through August and has opened more than 700 investigations to date, compared with 183 in 2020.

I was recently six hours late in thinking about the role airports can play in frustrating travelers, and found my way to Concourse B-West at Denver International Airport and a series of new gates with floor-to-ceiling windows and modular furniture, with tall library desks Plenty of electrical outlets, clear signage, no televisions, and, most surprisingly, an outdoor lounge with views west of the Rocky Mountains. Fleetwood Mac’s peppy “Don’t Stop” played over the sound system, signaling a more inviting approach to what the industry calls “hold rooms” or gate waiting areas.

Travel’s comeback this summer, weak as it is, has the entire industry – including airport managers and architects – thinking about doing things better.

“Covid was a shock that caused a lot of disruption and accelerated thinking about bringing back the joy of travel,” said Alex Thome, US airport manager at Stantec, who designed airports in Denver, Toronto. Nassau and elsewhere.

Much of that joy disappeared after September 11th, when security officials forced airports to house body scanners and more extensive checkpoints. But a number of new terminals and recent upgrades to existing hangars from New York City to San Francisco show both small and large ways – from muting televisions to installing interior gardens – that airports are trying to alleviate psychological turbulence on the ground.

Compared to global gateways in cities like Singapore and Tokyo, American airports have a lot to do to improve the passenger experience. Vancouver International in Canada is ranked 24th as the top-rated airport in North America according to the SkyTrax World Airport Awards, an annual series of awards based on passenger satisfaction surveys. Houston George Bush Intercontinental ranks 25th as the best-rated American airport, followed by Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International at 42. Only 14 American airports are in the top 100 currently led by Hamad International Airport in Qatar.

“In the US, we see airports as a service that is not necessarily provided as a city building, while the rest of the world wants to see it in the context of a city,” said Ty Osbaugh, architect and aviation director at Gensler, who have airport terminals in many Cities from Pittsburgh to Incheon, South Korea.

In the United States, sources of funding for airport infrastructure include government grants; Operating income from things like leases and parking spaces; and the passenger fee that passengers pay when purchasing their plane tickets. According to Airports Council International, the trade association for commercial airports in the United States and Canada, the passenger facility fee has not increased in more than 20 years and is a maximum of $ 4.50; Airports now have an infrastructure backlog of 115 billion US dollars.

“Airports don’t stand still, but the challenge is that airports are designed with the assumption that every flight leaves on time and that there will never be bad weather or problems,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group. a market research and consulting company for the travel industry. “When these problems are big and cascading, like bad weather that makes flights difficult and delayed, and there are more people in the terminal, everyone is grumpy.”

Across the country, the average airport terminal is over 40 years old and continues to be challenged by the growth of air traffic. Denver International, for example, opened in 1995 with a capacity of 50 million leaflets; More than 69 million people were processed in 2019.

While travelers may occasionally have to huddle into a crowded gate area as delayed flights create delayed flights, airports can do something to calm the surrounding area: reduce noise.

Prior to the pandemic, when the airport set passenger records, San Francisco International launched its “Quiet Airport” program, a noise reduction plan that eliminates televisions in terminal seating areas and limits the size of broadcast announcements instead of broadcasting them across the terminal.

“We found a huge reduction in audio clutter through the design to make the facilities more relaxing for passengers,” said Doug Yakel, an airport spokesman. Airmen can still watch the news and sports on TV in airport restaurants and bars, but he added, “There’s really no need to go to the gates as the content is available on passengers’ own devices.”

Denver International’s gate expansion project, which includes B-West Gates and will add three more enlarged waiting areas by 2022, does not display talking screens (large screens instead silently flash masks and social distancing messages along with ads).

Again, foreign airports were the first to fall silent. At London City Airport in England, for example, announcements are only made in the event of flight disruptions or emergencies, not to call passengers to the boarding gates.

Exposing passengers to nature through plants is another stress reliever that airports adopt as designers of “biophilic” – or nature-loving – plans.

“The last thing you want after a ride on a stale subway is a hermetically sealed airport environment,” says Matt Needham, director of aviation and traffic at HOK Architects, who are creating park-like spaces in the new LaGuardia Terminal B in New York City and on outdoor decks at Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Florida. “We’ll put it wherever we can. It makes a difference. “

The new terminal in Pittsburgh, which is expected to open in 2025, has outdoor terraces available to passengers both before and after the security checkpoint (the airport is investigating digital queues at the security checkpoint, which would make the gardens in front of the checkpoint attractive).

“We have an incredible opportunity to build one of the first terminals after a pandemic,” wrote Christina Cassotis, executive director of Pittsburgh International Airport, in written responses to surveillance questions.

The outdoor spaces that Denver International is adding to its halls, including fire pits, are designed to capture the Colorado outdoor spirit.

Plants, of course, add to the maintenance budget, so some designers are finding alternative ways to embrace nature. “Natural materials can reflect biophilic design without fully incorporating plants and outdoor spaces into the project,” said Laura Ettelman, managing partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and one of the senior architects working on the new Kansas City International Airport in Missouri, currently under construction and expected to open in 2023.

New airport concepts are increasingly taking into account the diversity of travelers and their basic human needs.

The new Harvey Milk Terminal 1 in San Francisco includes a “recompose” area just after security, where benches allow passengers to put their belts and shoes back on and refill their water bottles (there is also a place to drain water the security check). A children’s play area has padded floors and a museum area features exhibits from the airport’s SFO museum with benches and dimmed lighting.

At Kansas City International, an airplane simulation room offers fear of flying – especially those with the autism spectrum – a simulated ticketing kiosk, gate door, boarding bridge, and airplane interior that potential aviators can book and visit before buying flights.

Passengers also have access to a multi-sensory room, a quiet room with low lighting, and a meditation room. Toilets will be of all genders and include changing tables for carers for adults with special needs.

“We tend to have amenities that are inclusive and accessible,” said Justin Meyer, the airport’s assistant director.

Before designing the new terminal, which opened in Salt Lake City last September, HOK architects watched large groups greet returning Mormon missionaries, who were often gone for two years. As a result, they created a family room between the secured area and the baggage claim area, which includes a map of the world and a fireplace.

Bathrooms are getting a lot of attention, with improvements like natural light near the Denver International expansion gates and the introduction of “Smart Restroom” technology in Dallas-Fort Worth International with digital screens at the entrances showing the number of free booths.

Many airports have done a good job attracting branches of local restaurants and shops to give a sense of place to the traveler who may only experience Chicago or New York City on a layover.

What architects mean when they refer to the feeling of place is a little more literal: can you see the city or the mountains? Are the instructions clear?

At Terminal B of LaGuardia, bridges connecting the station concourse with the terminal tower over passing planes and offer a view of the city skyline.

“They have an intuitive sense of direction that also relaxes travelers,” said HOK’s Needham.

In Salt Lake City’s new terminal, which opened in September 2020, HOK took inspiration from the canyons of southern Utah to create a central, abyssal route through the terminal with clear lines of sight of the city and the mountains beyond. Above this, a sculpture made of rib combs by Gordon Huether is reminiscent of the strips of a sandstone gorge.

Ultimately, however, only so much is in the hands of architects and planners who have to take the unexpected into account.

“A lot of things are outside of architecture, but we take them into account by creating flexible environments,” said Scott Duncan, a design partner at SOM who is working on two satellite hangars for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

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