June 24, 2020

The Future of Airport Design After COVID-19, According to an Airport Architect

One major event can transform the air travel experience for years to come, recalls Ty Osbaugh, a principal and leader in Gensler’s aviation practice.

Nearly two decades ago, on 9/11, the airport architect was in Chicago working on a new terminal for O'Hare. “At that point, TSA didn't exist,” he says. “You didn't have to be a flyer to go airside, and an airport was essentially a public building.”

The industry’s response to 9/11 was mainly reflexive, says Osbaugh. “The immediate solution and implementation was to just put security front and center, to put these mammoth devices in every ticket hall so that we screen all the bags and everyone feels very secure.”

That’s largely how we arrived at the tedious, stressed-out flying experience we know today. “I think it took the passenger about five to 10 years to really get comfortable with the notion that there was going to be a very invasive security screening to get through to airside,” says Osbaugh.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic presents the air travel industry with a similar challenge, says Osbaugh. “We have to give passengers confidence that it is safe to fly. And that gives us a chance to really rethink what the passenger experience is.”

Here, Osbaugh offers four predictions for airports in a post-pandemic world.

The airport terminal will get much bigger.

One simple first step toward making travelers feel safer would be to give them more space, says Osbaugh. That means resizing airport terminals.

“Airports try to compress as many people as they can into confined spaces because our terminals were sized for efficiency,” he says. “So we need to start to rethink how much space we give each passenger.”

Osbaugh points out that U.S. airport terminals tend to be smaller than those in other countries around the world. “I did a terminal at JFK for JetBlue that was about 800,000 square feet, intended to serve about 20 million passengers a year,” he says. “A comparable terminal that was recently built in Changi, Singapore, also serving 20 million passengers, is about 1.6 million square feet. So it was almost double the size of what we built in the U.S.”

Security will no longer be front and center.

Most airport terminals are configured in the shape of a barbell, says Osbaugh. “You have a big space on the landside, a security zone in the middle, and another big space on the airside.”

The problem with that layout is that it results in a whole lot of wasted space.

“When terminals were designed in a bygone era, the check-in hall was the big architectural move,” explains Osbaugh. “But today’s check-in halls can remain largely empty for most of the day.”

Instead, passengers are herded straight through security, then confined to the airside of the terminal and forced to congregate in one place — the departure hall.

In an ideal world, passengers would be able to spread out throughout the entire terminal, on both sides of the barbell. But first, the security checkpoint would have to move from where it sits between the check-in hall and the departure hall.

“Instead of having one massive queue that’s a choke point, you could start to spread that load out and in different places throughout the terminal,” says Osbaugh. “Now you've changed the paradigm, and you'd allow more flow as people could actually use the amount of area that you’ve got.”

Screening will be fast and easy.

To further improve the flow of passengers through the terminal, the security screening process would need to be far less onerous. “I envision more of a walk-through experience,” suggests Osbaugh. “Perhaps a tunnel where you’re scanned as you go, like what Israel is already using.”

It would seem that the TSA is on board with streamlined screening. A recent solicitation from the Department of Homeland Security asks tech firms to design self-screening systems at airport checkpoints that will function “just like self-checkout at grocery stores.”

“And while you're doing that security screening, why couldn’t you also be doing a health screening simultaneously?” asks Osbaugh. “We would need technology implemented on a grand scale and a government that’s really going to stand behind a real revolution in the travel industry. It's going to take big, bold thinking to do this.”

Virtual queues will replace physical lines.

In Osbaugh’s vision, passengers would be able to move around freely between landside and airside, so the entire airport terminal could essentially become one giant waiting area.

To alleviate crowding at the departure gates, airports could take a page out of Disney’s playbook and create virtual queues, says Osbaugh. For example, 20 minutes before your boarding time, you might get notified that it’s time to start moving toward your gate. Airlines could even stagger when passengers arrive to board the same flight. “There's nothing to say that we couldn't control when and how people queue up and use the space in the gate areas in a very different way,” says Osbaugh.

“That way, you’re not sitting at the gate area with hundreds of other passengers. You’re enjoying this big space that could be retail or entertainment or both. What if we created a great environment, almost a public park, in that waiting zone? What if we also had outdoor terraces? That could phenomenal,” he says.

“The big thing with most US airports right now is that the passenger is at the mercy of the different processes that happen,” says Osbaugh. “But if we were to make the experience simple and elegantly done, then the passenger might start to feel back in control of their own time.”

Copyright 2020 Forbes Media LLC. All rights reserved. From https://www.forbes.com. By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, Senior Contributor.

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