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Why Blending Technology and Design Is Key to The Ultimate Airport Experience

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24 Jan 2024

In a post-pandemic world, there’s an opportunity to rethink airport terminals to allow people to ‘choose’ their own custom journey, appealing to leisure travellers who prefer to linger, business travellers who want to get to their destination quickly and efficiently, and “bleisure” travellers who want the best of both. We call this an ‘airport of choice’, highlighting the importance of catering to all types of people to surprise and delight through experience-focused, award-winning aviation design.

Global aviation analyst CAPA, recently announced that Dubai International Airport could join the '100 million passengers club' this year as the aviation sector continues to grow at an exponential pace. This surge in passenger numbers is attributable to several factors, including global recovery from COVID-19, an increase in the number of new destinations on offer from regional carriers, and the success of budget airlines.

Marcelle van der Merwe, Design Manager, Gensler Middle East
Marcelle van der Merwe, Design Manager, Gensler Middle East

At the same time, the eagerly-anticipated Terminal A at Abu Dhabi International Airport is now open, marking an exciting new step in Middle East travel and strengthening the UAE as a global aviation hub. The terminal is capable of processing up to 45 million passengers per year and is aggressively propelling the industry toward a level of luxury for passengers that is unseen today.

With demand for air travel continuing to climb, a larger focus has been put on the airport experience. Given that millions of people travel through these spaces daily, they must serve a vast diversity of needs, and designers must be able to anticipate changes in those needs.

A sense of place

Ever-evolving passenger needs have pushed airports to the forefront of inclusive design. Passenger terminals no longer exist purely for boarding, disembarking and connecting. Instead, they are now gateways that allow visitors to feel and experience a variety of emotions, built around their needs and wants.

Traditionally airports have clearly delineated land and airside experiences. However, airports - led by those in the GCC and destinations like Singapore - are now pushing to flip that model on its head. Retail and lifestyle experiences are becoming increasingly common on landside, even before people go through security and immigration. By doing this, the entire premise of an airport changes as it becomes more than just a transport hub. Travellers will be able to spend more time with families and loved ones or take advantage of retail and lifestyle offerings like they would at a mall destination.

Thanks to the success of video conferencing, airports are also partnering with technology brands to cater to more people, such as younger, digital-savvy business travellers. Examples of this in practice can be seen in cafes and third-party lounges that are open to more than only those with exclusive airline status. In summary, the airport is becoming a place instead of a space.

Airports can capture more revenue by appealing to a broader set of travellers

We know all airports are not created equally, as different facilities have different functions. There are strikingly different needs for international gateways, Origin and Destination (O&D) facilities, and transfer/connecting airports. Typically, an airport does one function exceptionally well, or maybe two if they are lucky, but rarely all three. The design demands on each typology are different and require different tempos and amenities to meet customer needs.
  • International gateway airports are found around major and population-dense cities serving as the gateway to a country or particular region.
  • Origin and Destination (O&D) facilities are airports where a passenger gets point-to-point service to a specific city and returns to the same place. These tend to be more modest, domestic scale airports and without a dominant airline carrier.
  • Transfer/connecting airports are found near major cities and metropolitan areas. Airports like Dubai International Airport process many transfers every day carrying and connecting passengers to different points across the globe, usually driven by a dominant carrier.
We are increasingly seeing airports built for one specific purpose aspire to reinvent itself to be a multipurpose, all-in-one, and one-in-all facility — an attempt to appeal to all air travellers and changing passenger profiles. But can a single airport facility be everything to everyone? Anything is achievable with innovative design, of course, but it isn’t easy.

The perfect blend of technology and design

Technology can create a more seamless and handsfree travel experience that not only saves time but can also reduce stress and tension as it can avoid congestion and bottlenecks caused by inefficient process design and management.

A great example of this is Dubai International Airport, where the implementation of self-check-in and e-gates for immigration have resulted in a much quicker process for travellers. Abu Dhabi’s new Terminal A also includes biometric systems designed to streamline screening and boarding.

The UAE has spearheaded the utilisation of technology across its airports’ services as it looks to create a seamless transition for both arrival and departure passengers. As part of its ongoing push for maximising travellers’ comfort, technologies are now being explored in tandem with Artificial Intelligence (AI) that have the potential to completely remove painful security screening processes.

One example is scanning tunnels. Technology is enabling passengers to walk through a corridor and be scanned for security, with the whole process taking five minutes. AI has a huge role to play in personalising the travel experience and making it as seamless and comfortable as possible. Not only does it help to smooth the check-in and security process, but also, from a design perspective, it could have massive implications.

Signage and wayfinding are often underappreciated challenges in airports, particularly when considering passengers who don’t speak the local language. By utilising AI, airports can communicate with passengers via wearables or their smartphones to provide them with adjustable signage or the ability to navigate their own personal routes through an airport. This is set to be one of the most adventurous goals for the aviation industry to achieve, and Dubai could be one of the first to implement it.

Airports are complex ecosystems, and there are a multitude of ways in which a traveller’s journey can be impacted. Through the integration of technology and inclusive design principles across the board, both passenger-facing and behind-the-scenes improvements can be made to create a better experience.

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