Airports – fly work shop play eat drink sleep

A couple of recent trips to Germany (Munich and Stuttgart) made me think about airports and how they create very diverse experiences for travellers. Obviously, each airport is unique in its size, location and its spatial configuration. However, it struck me how conceptually different airports are.

How you experience an airport certainly depends on your own agenda and the purpose of your travel. On my recent trips I was on vacation with the whole family – me, hubby and two small children in tow. My needs and expectations are therefore different from a frequent business traveller. Obviously everyone goes through check-in, security and towards their departure gate. But whereas I require a chemist, a cheap and cheerful eatery, some space for the toddler to run around and a secluded spot to breastfeed the baby, in contrast the business traveller might need a space to plug a laptop, a decent cup of coffee and wifi.

Some recent twitter conversations highlighted some additional features that rendered airports pleasant (or not so pleasant):


So clearly, different people value different things. But let’s get back to the conceptual differences between airports to understand a bit more what type of building an airport is (and how it should be designed).

Airports are interesting buildings, since they unite two almost opposite purposes: on the one hand, airports are made to process travellers. People arrive at the airport (by varying means of transport) and need to be channeled through the building in a strict order and following a strong programme: from check-in and bag-drop to security and a fixed departure gate. On the other hand, very often people have time to spend at airports and would like to fill their hours at the airport with a variety of activities: eat and drink, do some shopping, browse and stroll, sit down and read, play, get some work done, have a nap. These types of activities can be described as ‘weak programme’ (the concept of strong and weak programmes is outlined in this academic paper by Hillier and Penn) – these activities don’t need to be controlled or orchestrated in time and space, they can happen almost anywhere anytime and as such depend on what the airport has to offer in terms of spatial design and configuration. Therefore the strong programme of processing travellers creates predefined movement flows, whereas the weak programme of spending time creates more random movement flows that follow the building structure. At times these two programmes might interfere with one another, for instance if accommodating the shopping interface stands in the way of an efficient processing of passengers from point A to point B.

Now, airports are conceptually different depending on how exactly the two programmes are combined and how much emphasis is put on each of them.

Let me give some examples from my own airport experiences:

  • Atlanta airport is an almost pure traveller processing machinery. It’s a major transit hub, yet offers almost no shops, a limited choice of eateries and not many places to stay apart from the seats at the gates (hugely unpleasant if you ask me…).
  • Stuttgart airport is mainly processing travellers – there are not many places to hang out, neither before nor after security.
  • Munich airport offers a lot of shops and eateries, but some of the nicer ones are to be found after security (try and find a nice cafe where you could breastfeed a baby before the security check – almost impossible!!)
  • London Heathrow feels like a shopping mall with an extended airport function and as such places a high emphasis on allowing people to hang out in style (this is especially the case for the new Terminal 5).

So to revisit the question what makes an airport pleasant, I would argue it is the intelligent combination of both programmes and allowing choice – the choice what to do and where to do it. People have different purposes on their travels and different needs and a well-designed airport building should take as many different activities into account as possible and cater for them well. I think we have to start thinking of buildings as truly multi-functional places allowing for a diversity of activities rather than understanding buildings as a fixed type with only one possible usage pattern.

Curved furniture at Frankfurt airport

Curved furniture at Frankfurt airport

I fondly remember napping in a lounging chair at Schipol airport in Amsterdam (interestingly rated among the top 4 for sleeping in airports); drinking a hot chocolate and relaxing in the living room like design of Schipol airport including a fake fireplace; letting my toddler climb an indoor playground at Heathrow Terminal 5; reading a book in a curved arrangement of seats at Frankfurt airport’s so called ‘Leisure Zone’ that creates a community feeling on the inside of the curved furniture and solitude on the outside; admiring the idea of the temporary IKEA lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (although I never had the pleasure to see it in action); walking past the wonderfully flexible design of an ‘airport library’ in Schipol to allow people to read books which is also used as a setup for nomadic working.

Schipol Airport Library: offering space for nomadic working

It seems interesting features and nicely designed places at airports are becoming more popular – there’s a whole website dedicated to finding the most fun thing to do at airports around the world including sound showers, slides, etc.

So what are your favourite moments at airports? And which airports have you enjoyed spending time at? And what makes airports well-designed in your opinion?

2 thoughts on “Airports – fly work shop play eat drink sleep

  1. Clever design for short distances, enough people at border control make things more efficient. I like it when design is used to make the experience more specific. I like the recordings of cow bells and ‘voices’ in the airport train in Zuerich and the use of local materials, lots of wood in Skandinavian airports, airports open to the elements in warmer countries (Barcelona has a lovely courtyard you can spend time in). San Francisco International has a lot of great public art integrated in the building. In Madrid I like the use of colored fins for orientation and that the luggage carousel area ceiling opens into the terminal hall….good for global orientation. Everything which uses the building to increase sense of location in the bigger picture is great.

  2. One of the important things in flying and passengers experiences in the terminal is how calm the atmosphere is. A high majority of passengers ( even if they are unaware of it) are very anxious before a flight therefore the process of eating, shopping, keeping the children amused, even perhaps working, keeps their minds off the fears that they have. Also the ease in which they can negotiate the building is important,especially if they are late! Training for Cabin Crew ( of British Airways anyway) includes serious consideration of a passenger’s experience before they get onto the aircraft and how this can influence their behaviour on the flight. I think it is Miami airport, a huge hub, has coloured bars of light and gentle music in all it’s arrival corridors leading to baggage hall and connecting flights. A fantastic calming effect if you have got off a late flight, one is very tired or you have been squashed into a small seat for ten hours !

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