The Airport of the Future

February 14, 2013 · by Curtis Fentress & Agatha Kessler

As technology advances and passengers' needs change, design has to stay ahead of the curve.

It has been 110 years since the Wright brothers made the first motorized, controlled and sustained human flight. It lasted 12 seconds and took Orville Wright a distance of about 120 feet — less than half the length of the most current Boeing 747s. In mere decades, the airport as a building type has progressed from repurposed barns to enormous megacomplexes. But what of the future of airports? What changes are in store for them in the coming decades?

Attempting to predict the future is inherently fraught with difficulty. Arthur C. Clarke said famously in a 1964 television interview: “If, by some miracle, a prophet could describe the future exactly as it’s going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everyone would laugh him to scorn.” No doubt Clarke was ribbed endlessly for predicting such wild ideas as mobile phones, geostationary communications satellites and the Internet. Still, predicting the future of the airport is an exercise in which airport architects must engage. The buildings we design, after all, should outlive us — if we do our jobs well. 

The architectural firm we lead has spent a good portion of the past 25 years designing one aviation project or another. From Denver International Airport, to Incheon in South Korea, to the radically modernized Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, it is our work in this building type for which we’re best known.

At Fentress Architects we thrive on design thinking, crowd-sourcing wisdom from the global design community and holding ongoing debates with airport planners, aircraft designers, passengers, pilots, aviation strategists, airport operators and futurists. In addition, we host an ongoing internal think tank about the future of aviation. We have invited aeronautical engineers, transportation experts and artists into design charettes, gaining and exchanging expertise from as many perspectives as possible. The goal is less about creating sci-fi renderings of what the airport of the future might look like — though we do plenty of that — than it is about exploring the general principles that inform our architectural practice as we soldier forward deeper into the unknowns of the 21st century. 

After being awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the American Institute of Architects in 2010, in part because of our firm’s airport work, we felt it was our responsibility to understand the typology as deeply as possible. We launched the Fentress Global Challenge: Airport of the Future, a competition to stimulate design thinking within the international architecture community. Open to architecture and design students from around the world, the brief asked participants to design an airport of the future and share their thinking behind it. Over 900 students from 77 countries registered for the competition. Remarkably, many of their predictions mirrored our own, right down to the specific form various technologies might take.  
Taken together, the predictions of our Airport of the Future think tank as well as entries from the Fentress Global Challenge formed the raw material from which we distilled the meta-guidelines in this article. 

A Millennium of Evolution in a Few Decades

Before we talk about the Airport of the Future we must talk about what we know today.

What began as nothing more than repurposed barns have evolved into the architectural behemoths of today: complexes of buildings equipped with staggering amounts of technology and a building program among the most complicated yet imagined.

The airport evolved so rapidly due in large part to the accelerated evolution in aircraft technology itself. The first airports gave way to purpose-built facilities with the advent of enclosed, multi-passenger aircraft which turned flying from a daredevil’s hobby into a form of transportation for the wealthy. The soaring jet age architecture of Eero Saarinen came about with technology propelled by the innovations born out of World War II, namely the pressurized cabin and jet engine. 

Sociological changes drove the second, less-glamorous half of the airport’s evolution. A vastly larger flying public in the 1970s and 1980s necessitated the stopgap architecture of that era, the charmless “big box” airports that have poisoned attitudes toward the building type. 

However, the first hopeful buds of revolution were appearing by the 1990s. Kansai International put something remarkable back into its airport — architecture. Denver International, designed by our firm, opened in 1995. Its peaked, white fabric roof was met with widespread public enthusiasm. The world was primed for the airport’s renaissance, for many other architecturally excellent airports soon followed.

A millennium of evolution occurred in a few decades, and today the airport has become a showcase for innovative forms at the outside limit of the technologically possible. Yet the evolution is far from complete and today the typology stands only in its adolescence. The rate and scale of change make it particularly difficult to gauge the airport’s future trajectory — it is progressing so rapidly that it is only in the broadest sense that we can predict its future.

Globalization — Airport as Economic Engine

In the past several decades, carrying cargo has become more lucrative for airlines than carrying passengers. Indeed, anything that is low in weight but high in value — electronics, flowers, medicine — travels by air, usually in the cargo holds of commercial aircraft, mere inches below our feet. Boeing predicts the global air cargo market will expand 5.2 percent annually, doubling demand in 14 years — even faster than the world’s domestic product growth. This growth is expected to be driven by a world GDP that is predicted to double during this same time period. More liberalized trade markets and increased efficiencies in aviation will continue to reduce the overall cost of cargo transport.[1]

In addition to freight, international flights have become true economic contributors to local economies — one example being Los Angeles. According to Los Angeles World Airports, every daily round-trip overseas flight at LAX generates $623 million annually, creating 3,120 direct and indirect jobs that pump $256 million in annual wages into the local economy.[2]

As any airport executive will tell you, the share of nonaeronautical revenue is also on an uptick. That is, revenue not directly related to the operation of flights is ebbing closer to 50 percent year by year. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam experienced a 13.6 percent revenue increase from 2010 to 2011 in retail sales, concessions, parking fees and other management valuations.[3]  Within a few years, it is expected that the majority of airport revenue industry-wide will be nonaeronautical, providing millions of dollars in tax revenue to local and state municipalities.

Urbanization – Airport as the Vector of Change

More than 50 percent of the world’s population already lives in cities. As we study the evolution of cities as they relate to air transportation, we see a consistent pattern: every time an airport is built outside the city, another city grows around it. The airport of today is a vector of change; they are beginning to resemble cities unto themselves.

The airport, both as a typology and as a concept, is evolving. The cities outside the airport’s boundaries are changing, too. The airport is not only becoming the central transportation node of our economy in a figurative sense, but also in a literal sense. Already throughout Europe and Asia the building once reserved solely for planes is becoming a multimodal transportation hub where trains carrying goods intersect with light rail, private cars, buses, helicopters and even water taxis. The goal of every airport project Fentress Architects undertakes is to connect transportation arteries to central commercial and industrial districts. 

Security – Seamless and Unobtrusive

Among the flying public’s biggest concerns is security. We will never return to 20th century levels of openness and passivity, but we project security to become more seamless.  While the business of removing shoes, jackets, jewelry and electronics causes much consternation in passengers, it is equally difficult for airports. Security is a bottleneck in operations that often leaves passengers in a rush, disinclining them to visit post-security shops or restaurants.

Sociological changes will also necessitate a rethinking of today’s airport security. The best estimates available have the number of air passengers increasing from the present level of around 5 billion annual trips to 9 billion by 2016. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, there will be demand enough in the next decade for 350 more airports. This type of passenger volume will require a more seamless and unobtrusive security experi

ence. 

Security manufacturers are hard at work anticipating this remarkable increase in passenger numbers, and many new technologies are expected to come online in the next decade that will vastly streamline the process. Already, services such as Global Entry are speeding frequent travelers willing to part with an annual fee and personal privacy through immigration and security lines. As for the screenings, machines that “sniff” for explosives and contraband as passengers walk through a corridor-like space are in the testing phases. Facial recognition software likewise seems to mature by the day and is being implemented. While fliers are rightfully concerned about implications for civil liberties, at least the intrusions will become more fluid and convenient in the near future.

Technology – Mobile and Net Positive

Both technological and sociological pressures will shape the next decades of the airport’s life. We can take it as axiomatic that technology — both the aircraft themselves and the technology of airport operations — will continue to change. Such technology is largely unpredictable and never seems to warn us of its arrival ahead of time. However, based on the adaptation of the telephone, which took about 39 years to reach a 40 percent market penetration, versus the smartphone, which took a little over 3 years to reach the same, we know that technology is being embraced ever-more rapidly.[4]

Operational changes based on technology in the airport have led directly to significant changes in the airport’s overall program. The move to paperless ticketing is one of the most noticeable examples. The interminable lines of passengers waiting for boarding passes are slowly vanishing. An object as small as the smartphone is having an enormous impact on operations as the space devoted to ticketing can now be used for revenue generating or culturally stimulating uses.

Aircraft technology is changing rapidly as well. Airbus is pursuing five “smarter skies” innovations including eco-climb, express skyways, free-glide approaches and landings, lower emission ground operations, and sustainable power. Eco-climb will allow aircraft to launch through assisted takeoffs using renewably-powered, propelled acceleration, while express skyways will allow an intelligent aircraft to select the most efficient and environmentally friendly routes. Free-glide approaches will allow an aircraft to glide into airports, lowering emissions during the overall decent, reducing noise during the steeper approaches. They are also pursuing the use of sustainable biofuels and other potential alternative energy sources including hydrogen and solar.[5]

The aeronautical engineers in our global think tank have much to say on the topic of future technology that is no longer theoretical but entirely possible: vertical takeoffs and landings; circular, and therefore infinite, runways located in dense urban centers; fuselages which detach from the chassis of the plane for rapid loading and unloading.

Certainly an airport’s energy needs are evolving as quickly as the newest technology comes online. Terminals are relatively horizontal buildings, making them a natural place to apply solar cell technologies. Other energy sources — including geothermal, wind power, hydroelectric, bio-matter as well as living materials and waste —  are also real possibilities. Technologically speculative sources such as harnessing the motion of aircraft and even motion of the passengers within the airport are already objects of study. Airports are uniquely positioned to generate their own energy. The goal of airport architecture today is to create a living airport that is net positive and sustains itself and the city around it in the future. 

Passenger Experience – Humanizing the Space as Third Place

What was once merely a transportation hub is today something else — a distinct place from both home and work where cultures intersect and activities distinctly overlap. Sociologists call such cultural centers the “third place.” 

While it’s true there is more shopping than ever in today’s airports, there’s also more dining, more entertainment, and more culture. For those who travel constantly for business or for those with family on multiple continents, airports are the new hometown. It is where upwards of 1.5 billion people a year eat, sleep, shop, work and even wed. The diverse concessions offered by airports today merely reflect the demands of this new class of global citizen. 

At Changi Airport in Singapore, one can play a round of golf. At Incheon Airport outside Seoul, which our firm designed, one can go ice skating or even get married in the on-site wedding chapel. And at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, one can view an art exhibit at a branch of the Rijksmuseum, take a piano lesson or take a chance at the casino.

Contrary to the clichéd criticism, airports aren’t beginning to resemble shopping malls, but are unique entities unto themselves. As architects, how we design each building’s passenger space dictates the sense of place — and the memories of a vast number of passenger experiences. It is imperative that we understand the entire space, how it is used and the larger context of how it makes a traveler feel. These third places are not a fad or trend, but a permanent change that will be with us for as long as air travel is with us.

The Future — Airport as Hypersonic Spaceport

While commercial travel to, say, Mars, is obviously several decades, if not several generations away, we would be remiss if we didn’t comment on the airport as it relates to space travel’s humbler, more realistic cousin — sub-orbital or hypersonic space travel.  

Virgin Galactic, XCOR and several other companies are exploring this technology and have near-term plans to operate flights geared to well-heeled tourists seeking the ultimate novelty. However, their far-term plans are significantly more ambitious. For companies like Virgin Galactic, these tourist flights will merely fund research into a much more practical venture: point-to-point transportation. With no drag on the aircraft, it will be possible to travel from Denver to Sydney in approximately two hours at 3.5 times the speed of sound. Whatever form these spacecraft take will no doubt influence the form the spaceports take, and architects need to be ready for takeoff. 

We shouldn’t expect such technology to come online in the next year, or even the next decade, but it is the next logical great leap forward for air travel. Many of the programmatic needs of the 21st century airport will no doubt survive the transition to hypersonic space travel. After all, passengers will still need newsstands, skating rinks and wedding chapels.  What form these spacecraft take will no doubt influence the form the spaceports take, but the concept of the advanced, multipurpose airport-as-city will live on. 

Limitless Possibilities

Will all these ideas come to fruition? Will none of them? Or will it be something else entirely? Even the top experts can’t say with certainty. What they do know is that changes to airport operations and aircraft technology will be exponential. Though we have no idea what it will look like, or even when to expect it, the airports we build in the next decade will nevertheless need to accommodate these evolutions.

The airport as a building type is the newest — even newer than the high rise. We are renovating an airport as we are designing it. It is progressing so rapidly that it is only in the broadest sense that we can predict its future.

Though our imaginations can take us to airports of the future, our practical role today is to lay the foundation. Future airports will be designed by minds in a much different time, and though we share the same creative process, they will certainly arrive at very different solutions. For now, our focus is to design the airport of the near future. How can we improve passenger experience and airport functionality today? With each new airport we design, we integrate emerging technologies and address paradigm shifts. Each of these changes build upon one another, year after year, to create the future. We never cease to look forward to the limitless possibilities that will guide our tomorrow.

1 Boeing. Boeing Forecasts Air Cargo Growth Driven by Globalization and Trade, http://boeing.mediaroom.com/index.php?item=2433&s=43, accessed December 5, 2012.
2 Los Angeles International Airport. $1.545-Billion Bradley West Project Ground-Breaking Continues Modernization Effort at Los Angeles International Airport. http://s.tt/1tzTE, accessed December 4, 2012.
3 Schipol Group, Facts & Figures 2011. 2012.
4 Anthony, Sebastian. Smartphones set to become the fastest spreading technology in human history. http://www.extremetech.com/computing/129058-smartphones-set-to-become-the-fastest-spreading-technology-in-human-history, accessed December 4, 2012.
5 Airbus. http://www.airbus.com/innovation/future-by-airbus/smarter-skies/, accessed December 4, 2012.

Curtis Fentress, FAIA, RIBA, is chairman & founder of Fentress Architects and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council. Agatha Kessler is CEO of Fentress Architects and serves on the DFC Executive Board.

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