Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Why the new Indianapolis terminal will be a model for others to come.
INDIANAPOLIS—Robert Chicas is old enough to remember when air travel was glamorous. Born and raised in New York, he flew PanAm with his parents every summer to visit family in Central America, via Miami. Everyone dressed up; he and his brothers wore ties, and the flight attendants wore gloves. Airports, he says, were all about the destination: they celebrated one's arrival in a place.
Nowadays, flying has more in common with mass transit. "It's like riding the bus," Chicas told me recently, with a wry note in his voice. But that might be changing. Chicas is an architect for HOK, a global design firm with 23 offices around the world, and co-leads the company's aviation and transportation practice from New York. He was project manager for the Indianapolis International Airport Colonel H. Weir Cook Terminal, which opened to acclaim in 2008.*
With views of the downtown skyline, the $1.1 billion new Indianapolis airport has been celebrated for its sense of place, and for treating its passengers as "guests," much the way the hotel industry does. It has its own civic plaza, a light-filled central space with 35-foot ceilings that functions as the nexus of activity—every passenger, whether arriving or departing, passes through—where half of all the airport's shops and restaurants reside. Customers routinely comment on the terminal's calm feel, and on its efficiency and easy navigation. Though Indianapolis is a small city (population 843,000, but growing fast), it hosts what Chicas calls "the equivalent of three to four Super Bowls a year"—major sporting events like the Indy 500, the NCAA Final Four, the NFL combines, and, in 2011, the actual Super Bowl.
But even as passenger traffic balloons for these occasions, security checkpoints here are rarely clogged. What is Indy doing right?
Next-generation airport design is increasingly focusing on the airport as a destination, instead of just a thoroughfare. We spend so much time in airports now—so much more than we did in the past, due in large part to security changes in the post-9/11 era. Architects are revisiting how to make airports friendlier places to spend that time. But smart design also needs to assess the complete experience from end to end, taking into account how easy it is to check in online, say, or how reliable public transportation is in and out of a city. In other words, creating the ideal guest experience doesn't end after you leave Point A—it needs to cover Points B, C, and D, too.
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The idea of an airport having a sense of place is no different from any other form of architecture. Think of an iconic museum or a beloved sports stadium: it feels rooted in the community it serves, and brilliantly representative of the place it calls home. Many airports are gateways to major international cities or regions, and they vary dramatically in their character, says Richard Gammon, HOK's global director of aviation and transportation. He is spearheading the expansion of King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; HOK is also behind high-profile airport projects in Doha, New Delhi, Boston, and Salt Lake City. "As big civic buildings, they're often used as a way of expressing pride in a state or nation or city," Gammon told me. "We see that throughout the world. In the Middle East and Asia right now"—from Dubai and Doha to Shanghai and Beijing—"every major airport is a status symbol trying to demonstrate the wealth and power of its state." In the United States, it's more about the gateway to the city, state, or region, but the desire for design to represent characteristics of place still holds true.
Still, plenty of airports give the feeling that you could be anywhere. It's the kind of utilitarian, no-frills experience that sucks the joy out of traveling to a new place. But why? Gammon says this is the legacy of our aging airport infrastructure. Back in the 1960s, when air travel was taking off, North America and Europe saw a massive boom of airport development. Though a handful of these airports were distinctive, the vast majority were faceless, functional boxes, focused on processing passengers as quickly as possible. With capacity jumping from tiny propeller planes to big jets that hold 300 people, crowd management became the big concern. "The entire airport model as we know it grew and developed at that time, and because of how airports are funded, it doesn't allow for frequent demolition and rebuilding," says Gammon. "We're dealing with that legacy now."
Take Indianapolis. For many years, Indianapolis was a center of the automotive industry, but like other Rust Belt cities, it faced a steep economic decline in the 1970s. In the last two decades, the city has seen tremendous revitalization, particularly in the tech, life sciences, and pharmaceutical industries (Eli Lilly is a major employer) and sports and convention business. It's also a national hub for FedEx. Before 2008, though, it still had what Robert Chicas calls a "miserable little airport."'
The city's mandate to HOK was to design an airport that reflected not what people believe the city is all about (cars, sports, farming), but what it aspires to be: a vibrant, high-tech metropolis that is a gateway to the Midwest. Chicas says the airport's design and construction involved the city government as much as the airport authority. "They wanted a striking, tectonic piece of architecture that could be an icon for the city, which was a really interesting charge for us," he says. The airport, then, was more than a place for travelers to pass through. It was a chance for the city to rebrand itself.
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Does it succeed? In some sense, it already has; IND was completed on budget, and is the world's first complete airport campus to receive LEED certification. But to find out how it rated on passenger experience, I flew from Dulles International Airport in metro Washington, D.C., where the drab low ceilings and fluorescent lighting of the United concourse conjured up a regrettable stay in an office cubicle, and the only concession to location was a sign indicating the imminent arrival of an "America"-themed souvenir shop. Not the ideal representation of the nation's capital, I'll wager. As a first-time visitor to Indy, I decided I'd let the airport tell me its story.
What struck me as an arriving passenger: the openness of the terminal, and the relaxed posture of passengers waiting to board. It was the weekend of a major motorcycle race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—many hotels were booked solid—and yet airport activity was more than under control, with plenty of staff at gates and security checkpoints, and lots of seating in all areas. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls looked out onto the airfield; at intervals, brightly colored stained-glass panels had been installed with poetry inscribed on them. The pieces gave the airport the feeling of a tranquil, modern museum.
Because Indianapolis prides itself as a city of the arts—it has the largest children's museum in the country, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art has significant holdings spanning 5,000 years—artwork became a major feature of the airport. A $4 million public art collection was integrated into the bones of the terminal as well as in a terrazzo piece that rings the entire civic plaza. Some of the largest and most detailed pieces of art hang at the two security checkpoints, "where people dwell the longest," Chicas told me.
Security areas have high ceilings and move passengers toward expansive panoramas of the airfield, so people going through can see the tails of aircraft parked at the gates. "You see what's coming, and there's a sense of orientation. Indy is a case study in that. If passengers know where they are, and know where they're going, it helps relieve the anxiety of the whole experience," explains Chicas. Uncertainty plays a huge role in passenger frustration, so the psychology of next-generation airport design focuses on calming anxiety. The natural lines of sight to the planes put people at ease, and are designed with intuitive wayfinding in mind. "A calm and unstressed passenger is a happy passenger," he says.
In many airport terminals, your path depends on whether you're arriving or departing. In Indy, all passengers move through the civic plaza, a kind of main living room where they can hang out, shop, eat, or just walk around. There is plenty of seating in public areas outside of restaurants, bars, and cafes. I sat with a glass of wine and watched one young woman do laps around the circular perimeter while pushing a stroller and chatting with her mother, and observed a guy eating a sandwich and having a beer while charging his phone under the bar. (The obligatory purse hook now had an outlet to go with it.) Little kids stood glued to the glass, watching the planes, while their parents relaxed on the couches behind them. People were actually smiling.
"About half of the [retail] outlets are locally owned and operated, and they sell items that are iconically Indy," Carlo Bertolini, a spokesperson for the airport authority, told me. One store offers items from eight area museums and cultural institutions; downtown restaurants have a presence, too. "They're consciously geared to make the airport an enjoyable destination in itself."
Two women arrived at the center of the plaza with their rolling bags, looking puzzled. I'd counted five beats when they found where they needed to go (the security checkpoint for Concourse B) with just two glances. One sign in particular struck me as genius: a map of the entire airport terminal, marked with walking paths and the distances of each leg. Why walk aimlessly when you can feel like you're accomplishing something?
As a frequent traveler, I find that the best airports offer activities people would like to do outside of airports. People aren't spending hours at the airport because they want to—they're doing it because they want to go somewhere else. So if you can take advantage of things that don't make you feel like you're wasting time—free Wi-Fi, good local restaurants, pretty things to look at, a comfortable place to sit or work, a museum-quality gift shop, a spa or gym—a long wait or a layover or a delay isn't all that bad. As Chicas put it, instead of waiting in a traditional "hold room," you could be sitting at a wine bar. "I like to think of it as 'enhanced waiting," he says. And a nice ambience, with leafy plants (greenery is known to be restorative) and daylight (ditto), helps seal the deal.
Of course, high-quality amenities aren't just about aesthetics: revenue potential is a powerful driver for 21st-century airport design. Given limitations on aeronautical revenue—airlines pay service fees to bring their planes in and use the facilities, but the pressure is on every airport to minimize those fees to attract air traffic—it's the non-aeronautical revenue that's become critical to an airport's survival. The lack of public money going into airport development, especially in the United States, means private businesses are the ones that invest in an airport—running retail shops, opening food concessions, operating rental car agencies and parking lots, and deploying other creative methods for earning money from passengers.
"Simply landing planes and servicing them is not profitable," says Gammon. "Treating the passenger as a guest, looking to the hospitality industry for clues to how to make the experience as individual as possible, completely tailoring the airport, physically and electronically, to bring the whole travel experience to a new phase—it's all driven by how to profitably operate airports."
Thus far in Indy, this strategy has been a good bet. "The airport supports the city as a gateway of economic growth," says Bertolini. "IND generates an annual economic impact of more than $4.5 billion per year for Central Indiana, including the support of approximately 21,000 jobs—all without relying on any state or local taxes to fund its operations." And given its high customer satisfaction—Indy routinely tops polls as the best airport in North America—the airport will likely continue to attract business for the city.
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Gammon and his HOK colleagues stress that airports don't need to be rebuilt from scratch to be improved. Take a big legacy airport like JFK in New York. JFK consistently performs poorly in passenger satisfaction; it's disconnected and fragmented, the individual terminals are dingy and cramped, and there's a general lack of amenities. Worse yet, it's a pain to get there, with travel time always a question mark whether going by subway or taxi. Given the space constraints, rehabilitating old multi-terminal airports like JFK is a challenge, and piecemeal changes are a given. But there are steps that can be taken.
Take bag processing, says Gammon. He estimates that 35 to 50 percent of any airport terminal's infrastructure is solely related to that job—using prime airport real estate that could be given over to travelers. "How do you increase the processing capability of a space-constrained terminal? You take out the non-passenger-based functions," he explains. "Even in existing terminals like a JFK or an SFO, you could put other facilities out on the airfield to process bags." The goal is to relieve travelers of checked bags early on, moving luggage to nearby facilities and leaving the terminals to focus solely on passengers; in Hong Kong, for example, travelers can check bags for a flight downtown, then board an express train to the airport.
If the future of air travel is to make the passenger experience as elegant, seamless, and efficient as possible, "liberating the terminal" makes a lot of sense. Right now, one of the biggest determining factors of customer satisfaction is how long passengers have to wait for bags or boarding passes (15 minutes seems to be the tipping point). New technology can eliminate both issues: high-speed conveyer systems can transport bags more quickly even as the bag facilities move farther away, and digital boarding passes have already expedited the ticket process.
In fact, technology is the biggest visible influence on the airport experience, and the overlap of information technology and architecture is only growing. Chicas often reminds clients that in the electronic age, many people haven't gone to a physical check-in counter in years; their flight experience begins the minute they pull up the airline website. If that interface is well-designed, with screen-accessible information about flights, gates, and boarding that moves people through public transit and the actual airport space more efficiently, then a trip is off to a good start.
Huge investment is being put into different forms of security screening—the worst part of a slog through the airport. Imagine walking through a lane, with remote devices scanning you and your bag, and no need to stop moving to remove your laptop or shoes. Technology is likely already there. But with heightened tensions around aviation security, Gammon reminds me, changes will take time—in this arena, the priority is safety, not passenger convenience.
No matter what the specifics, designing a great airport for how we fly in the future is governed by one thing: recognizing what we don't know. Every smart new airport terminal is a framework that can flexibly adapt to changes that are coming, with fewer columns, higher spaces, and strategically moving parts. In Indianapolis, fixed elements—those parts of a building that can't be easily moved, which include elevators and mechanical shafts—are organized in neat, specific bands. Everything else—waiting rooms, concessions, restrooms—are boxes within boxes, and can be moved around or scaled up or down to accommodate new demands. "Check-in halls are getting smaller, security areas are getting bigger," Chicas told me. "What do you do with them? You have to figure in unanticipated developments in what is a very fluid industry." In other words, we know what we know. Smart design is planning for what we don't.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Robert Chicas as director of HOK's aviation and transportation practice and design lead for the new terminal. He co-leads the practice and was project manager for the terminal.