photo: The Pan-Am Worldport at JFK International Airport, built in 1960,
The distinctive design of the Pan-Am Worldport at JFK International Airport, built in 1960, wasn't enough to save it from the wrecking ball. Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Expensive to build, hard to adapt to other uses, and now facing massive pandemic-related challenges, airport terminals often live short, difficult lives.

If you think crowds are a challenge to your business model, try not having any. That’s the story of much of the American economy in the coronavirus era, but rarely so dramatically as in the case of air travel, as surreal photos of empty airports attest.

Air travel hasn’t ceased entirely (indeed, continuing a minimal level of service was a requirement of the industry’s bailout), but it collapsed to levels not seen since the 1950s: TSA screenings of passengers plummeted 96 percent in the early weeks of the pandemic. “We expect to fly fewer people during the entire month of May than we did on a single day in May 2019,” United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz wrote in a company letter last month.

The uncertain fate of commercial aviation is raising any number of related questions about travel and life as industries attempt to adjust to a global pandemic. The last significant shock to air travel, the Sept. 11 hijackings of 2001, saw airports transformed with a vast new infrastructure of security in order to restore a sense of safety. Coronavirus could bring similar changes — and it could also hasten the obsolescence of facilities that already have strikingly short lifespans.

“Airports terminals are some of the most rapidly obsolete building types of our time,” says Derek Moore, aviation practice leader at the design firm SOM. “They are not really used in anything like the same way they once were.”

Commercial airports are a built form that has seen tremendous shifts in their modes of use, with stresses from within and without pulling them in different directions every few decades. Most of these have involved exponential increases in use; coronavirus poses a different problem — abruptly vanishing use, which will counterintuitively require more facility space to integrate social distancing and add yet-unbuilt health screening facilities.

For airport designers, one thing is already clear: Covid-19 is going to make their jobs a lot harder. “We’ve started to look at a whole set of building plan changes that might be applicable going forward,” Moore says.

The example of 9/11 offers an incomplete sense of the scale of this challenge. After those attacks, the layout of virtually every commercial airport needed to be extensively revised to accommodate new security procedures, and then tweaked repeatedly as new threats emerged. But that chore was comparatively simple compared to the enormity of trying to keep an invisible contagion out of airport terminals and airliners, Moore thinks; airports are “all about moving extraordinary volumes of people through them,” he says. “This is going to be a lot more difficult to deal with.”

The glimmer of hope in this daunting situation is that airport designers in recent decades have become more attentive to the need to make these huge and costly spaces more flexible. As airport history reveals, failing to do so carries a massive price tag.

Bigger planes, and bigger crowds

It is at least paradoxical and possibly insane that humanity is given to tearing down some of its largest, costliest structures with the greatest frequency. Stadiums are scrapped at a sandcastle-like pace, and many airport buildings are similarly short-lived.

Why do airports die so young? The demands on these buildings are immense, changing, and interconnected; few elements are fixed save for the basic size of humans.

Historically, terminals developed in lockstep with the aircraft they served, which have increased from a passenger capacity of about 100 in 1960 to more than eight times that amount in 2007’s “superjumbo” Airbus A380. Making more room for bigger jets and more passengers involves far more than just changing the configuration of gates and jet bridges; such increases reverberate throughout an entire facility, requiring larger waiting areas, security zones, retail offerings, and baggage handling facilities.

There are several airplane design group classifications — numbered boxes defined by the length of the craft and its wing span that determine necessary gate, taxiway, and runway sizes (and less specifically but still necessarily a host of internal airport changes as well). These provide a chronology of airplane development. The Boeing 737 (1968) accords to a 3, the Boeing 767 or Airbus A310 (1989) to a 4, the Boeing 777 (1994) to a 5, and the elderly giant Boeing 747 (1969) and behemoth Airbus A380 (2007) to a 6. (Naturally there are international wrinkles: The rest of the world uses a different metric box system of somewhat different sizes and defined by letters instead of numbers.)

The problem was that many airports weren’t built with sprawling expansion or shifts to their initial mode of use in mind; to be fair, few buildings are. Many were myopically focused on practices of a given moment, frequently favoring whatever airline was dominant at a facility precisely then. “Sometimes the airlines will want very specific layouts for things,” says Moore, “and then the airline will go belly up.”

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City serves as the prime example: It boasted a distinctive range of terminal architecture, with each designed solely for single airlines that soon ceased to work at all effectively. As a result, I.M. Pei’s Sundrome, built in 1970 for National Airlines, was vacant by 2008 and demolished in 2011; the flying-saucer shaped Pan-Am Worldport met the same fate two years later. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center survives only because its original purpose was abandoned — it’s now a boutique hotel.

Guests walk through the lobby of the new TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York City. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

Robert Chicas, director of aviation and transportation at the architecture firm HOK, calls the TWA Flight Center “the poster child for the non-future-proofed terminal.”

“It’s a spectacular space — I actually did my thesis on it — but entirely non-practical,” he says. “It is one of the most inappropriate designs if you could envision what aviation was going to look like in the future.”

“Future-proofing” is the hottest neologism in airport design, made newly urgent by the shifts in air travel that the coronavirus brings. Several architects emphasized in conversation that they try to create large spaces with unanticipated future uses in mind. That means simplifying the building’s outer structure, building with steel instead of concrete (that’s easier to cut through), and learning to expect the unexpected. Above all, says Chicas, designers need to “protect the flexibility of the interior.”

Some areas of the terminal are often unwittingly circumscribed: “Ninety percent of concourses are long spaces with columns to left or right,” Chicas says. “Seating areas are typically between the concourse and the walls. Now and forever that column line defines the circulation area and the seating area.” This is very common practice, but might well be reconsidered. “If you have a column-free space, you can reconfigure it any way you want.”

He pointed out that Saarinen’s Dulles terminal, while aesthetically less impressive than his TWA Flight Center, has proven far more functional. “The main terminal is a clear span from the gooseneck columns. There are no columns on the inside, and that’s what makes it so timeless and adaptable. It was also easy to expand to the left and right without altering the scheme of the project.”

Dulles International’s column-free interior space has proved to be more flexible than Eero Saarinen’s Kennedy terminal. (Angelo Hornak/Corbis via Getty Images)

After 9/11, new security screening facilities were frequently shoehorned into spaces that weren’t created for that function. Mark Shoemaker, an architect at Pelli Clarke Pelli who worked on several airport projects, noted the adaptability of space in his firm’s design for a new terminal at Reagan National Airport, which opened in 1997. “[Now] you have all the [security] queing in the large concourse. If we did that all over again, I’m not sure we’d do it that way.” Still, there was a place to fit this work that didn’t require rebuilding, which was a win by any standard of functional design.

Adapt or die

A host of issues can age an airport prematurely. Shoemaker cites the “extreme wear and tear” that comes with hosting huge crowds of passengers. Maximally durable materials are obligatory in every possible place; columns and walls need to be protected or they will be chipped away and punctured. “With some of the older airports, there wasn’t enough thinking devoted to that.”

Those crowds need to eat: Like sports venues, older airports often devote inadequate space to retail. Airport eateries and shops exist secondarily to serve passengers, primarily to fund airports. Their role is akin to movie theater concessions: the same markups are there to provide airports revenue.

Major changes in how passengers get to and from the airport has forced many a costly renovation. “The automobile drives an incredible amount of expensive infrastructure that’s incredibly hard to adapt at the front of the building,” says Moore. Many older airports feature all curbs on grade, ensuring that departing or arriving passengers would have to cross another lane of traffic and ensure slowdowns. Virtually every contemporary airport of any size features countless ramps and overpasses to segregate these functions. At I.M. Pei’s Sundrome, for example, “the front part of that terminal was very nice, but it had no stacked roadways, so congestion was always a mess.” JFK subsequently went wild in fixing this problem, resulting in five multilevel traffic loops — a massively expensive retrofit (with yet another simplifying-but-still-complicated roadway rebuild on the way).

The more recent rise of ride-hailing offers a new twist on this mobility challenge. “Uber has been one of the major destabilizers of airports across the world,” Chicas says. “It created entirely different challenges for managing the curbside.” Hailing an Uber presents a a different dynamic than walking to a taxi queue; to accommodate them now, they’ve been stuck into parking lots or garages or other slapdash or inconvenient spots.

Prioritizing good visibility and straightforward navigation is a cardinal design interest for airports, the architects agree. “Circulation should be obvious and intuitive,” Shoemaker says. “We try to imagine a terminal without any signage at all.” So why do terminals turn into chaotic labyrinths of endless corridors? Sometimes that’s the result of ad hoc interventions to deal with other problems, or battles with other elements or stakeholders. During the design of Reagan National, Shoemaker says, airlines wanted their ticket counters directly in front as one entered. Instead, the architects were able to convince them to place ticket counters against the curbside wall, behind the passengers as they entered. The gain? “You come through the front door and see the airfield beyond.”

Crowds were thin in Reagan National Airport in March. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Design caprices that produce narrow corridors, dead ends, and ramp changes can be confusing and often difficult to adapt. Some of the bigger, splashier airports built recently in Asia and the Middle East might be unlikely to survive over the long haul; Moore points to the abundance of ramps and cul-de-sacs in the new Beijing Capital International Airport.  

On the other hand, some decidedly less celebrated hubs have proven to be secret long-term success stories. Moore praises the terminal C concourses at unloved Newark International, for example. “It’s simple, straightforward and adaptable,” he says, so changes to internal and jet bridge elements were easy to accomplish. “There’s all this talk in the industry about the ‘smart terminal’ — that’s basically about all the digital dimensions. The smartest dumb terminal — those two concourses at Newark — has been resilient in ways that much smarter terminals over time have not.”

Can we virus-proof the skies?

Integrating a whole new level of health screening into these hard-working spaces is likely to be a herculean challenge. The experience of airports in China and Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak offers some sense of why. Several airports set up temperature detectors, to screen passengers with fevers. The problem was where to put them. “They were located at immigration screening,” Moore says. “It wasn't at the perimeter or at the front door, so you’d still be in the arrivals hall, mingling with everyone.” This is the current configuration for ad hoc procedures elsewhere.

Moore suggested that it might become necessary to limit access to airport buildings altogether. “There are a lot of countries that only allow ticketed passengers into the building for security reasons. It feels like there’s going to have to be some kind of check at the phase of boarding a flight or getting into a terminal.”

This could be simpler in other countries where perimeter screening of some sort exists, but more of a practical and design challenge where it doesn’t, and raises multiple questions. “You’d have to transform the front of the building into a kind of health buffer zone,” Moore says. “Would it then require certain kinds of detection equipment? Would it have to be staffed? Would you have to have a biometric ID that certified you as vaccinated or antibody-rich? That would presuppose you had to have that information before a flight, and we don’t have a system for that information now.”

Passengers wearing protective masks have their temperature measured at an entrance to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. (Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

These questions have already begun to affect their planning for airports worldwide, but they don’t have solutions yet.

Chicas also stresses that airports will need to “incorporate a set of triage areas, when incoming passengers can be scanned for higher temperatures.” But this won’t be isn’t as simple as an addition to a TSA line however — the kind of tight lines now used for security screening would also work wonderfully well for spreading viruses. In this regard, the compression of bodies that is intrinsic to much airport design suddenly doesn’t work at all. Indeed, the economics of air travel require passenger density. “Social distancing — what does that mean for facilities where we typically have a lot of people in very small areas?”

Sometimes, it’s terminal

Still, designers have proven to be resourceful in finding ways to keep people aloft. Awkward security impositions after 9/11 have since become better integrated and less obtrusive, Chicas says. It’s now to be seen just how the process of adding health screening will play out.

This will happen as commercial aviation hits rough air after decades of growth. In the U.S., passenger counts are already ticking up (along with Covid-19 case counts), but remain far below pre-pandemic levels. The industry’s long-term fate was already murky, given its role in speeding climate change; adding a pandemic seeded by air travel and a Great Depression-scale economic downturn could dampen the appetite for expensive new facilities. And those that can’t be upgraded to meet public health requirements may be quickly retired.

For tired-but-architecturally-significant terminals, the end can be ignominious. Seri Worden, acting senior field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says it’s very rare that there’s a preservation plan of any sort in place for airport structures. The TWA Flight Center’s 1994 Landmark designation was its salvation (the LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal is similarly protected). In other cases, long bureaucratic processes can save elements. She praised the functionality and “cathedral-like spaces” of Minoru Yamasaki’s original Lambert International Airport terminal design in St. Louis, which received a recent award-winning renovation, and bemoaned the bitter loss of Pei’s Sundrome in 2013. “I think that one really could have been adapted and rehabilitated.”

The key is not to demand that things remain the same but to “make sure that the potential for redevelopment and reuse is on the table. Some of these historic features of the jet age, when flying was a very different experience, are fun to reenter, which is why people are going crazy over the TWA time capsule who are by no means preservationists.”

Some airport future-proofing may be inevitable at this stage. After decades of runway and facility expansion, many airports have run up against essentially insuperable obstacles of size: They are ringed in by dense development and literally cannot expand. The size of planes, the main historical driver of obsolescence, seems to have reached a plateau; the superjumbo A380 is already out of production. “Right now we’re in a relatively stable position,” Moore says, “because nobody is taking more than the classic group 4.”

That’s for the best, since airports simply cannot be as disposable as they have been. “When municipalities are spending not hundreds of millions but billions of dollars, the notion that we would expect to get a 25- or 30- or 40-year lifespan out of these facilities is crazy,” Chicas says. “Will it need to be tinkered with updated reconfigured? Sure. But the idea that it will need to be torn down is crazy.”

Terminals may have greater challenges than other building types — and more challenges await — but by now we should be better at anticipating what might lie ahead. “It’s irresponsible not to do everything you can to anticipate the future as best as you can,” Chicas says. He cites the example of Grand Central Terminal and other venerable rail stations. “To get 100 years out of a facility like that is extraordinary. But it shouldn’t be.”

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