Tomorrow’s airports might be a destination unto themselves.
What should airports of the future look like? Where should they be positioned? And how do you build flexibility into infrastructure with a 20- to 50-year design life?
It’s impossible to predict what air travel will look like in 20 years, but that doesn’t stop the industry from trying. And with good reason: airports are big investments with long design lives, and they need to be ready to adapt to the pace of technology as they make upgrades today.
Historically, airports grew organically as needed. If a new airline needed a terminal, it was built on land available; if a new security threat appeared, new processes and scans were adopted.
Unfortunately, as any traveller knows, these changes came at the expense of customer experience, with the distance to flight gates and time spent queuing at security checkpoints significantly increasing.
Airport stakeholders are now looking to designs that put the traveller’s experience first. Innovation focuses on constraints such as economic pressures, available space and sustainability targets, which can be fine-tuned to work in favour of the passenger experience for years to come.
“If the airport is a precinct in your city, you need to treat it as you would any other city and think about the people who live and work there.”
Earlier this year, the Airports Council International explained that passenger-related revenues outweighed airline-related revenues by two-thirds. That means airports rely more on the wallets of travellers passing through than on the airlines they do business with – a trend that the Council expects to continue into the future.
In response, integrated business hubs have already begun to appear around the airport landscape – what industry experts are calling the ‘airport city’ and the ‘aerotropolis’.
With the aim of reconfiguring the airport as a destination for business, the airport city uses urban design principles to entice businesses to relocate nearer to or on airport lands. The aerotropolis concept, championed by air commerce expert Dr John Kasarda, takes this one step further, putting an airport city at the centre of a larger metropolis and integrating other forms of transport with business hubs and residential areas that stretch as far as 30 km from the airport.
The benefit is to bring rapid connectivity to businesses that rely on the airport – think shipping and consulting companies that move products and people over long distances. The airports themselves gain resilience to unforeseen challenges to the industry, from fuel prices to security issues, by not relying solely on airlines.
However, international design practice Hassell’s principal and aviation sector lead Mark Wolfe isn’t convinced the mega-structure of the aerotropolis is sustainable for the majority of the world’s airports.
Rather, he sees a trend of industries aggregating around a particular precinct of a city, the way new tech companies flocked to Silicon Alley in New York or SoMa in San Francisco – where the talent is. Rather than placing the airport in the centre of the city, the airport and its economy becomes another section of an already existing city.
“The idea is that areas are clustered into a tech precinct, a law precinct, a health precinct. Why not a transport precinct with the airport as an anchor?” Wolfe asked.
The traditional airport sits on the periphery of the city, and with good reason: cheaper land and fewer complaints about noise pollution and related traffic.
“What’s changed in recent years is the perception of airports,” Wolfe explained.
“Once you start developing an urban environment with multiple uses – not only offices but crèches, shops and gyms, for instance – it goes far in the minds of commercial tenants. If the airport is a precinct in your city, you need to treat it as you would any other city precinct and think about the people who live and work there.”
In some instances, it can be taken to extremes, like with the massive structures and amenities of Hong Kong or Dubai airports. Singapore’s Changi Airport has space for hotels, theatre entertainment and a butterfly garden, and much more is planned with the upcoming Jewel Changi extension.
But not every airport needs a butterfly garden. Major international hubs benefit from passenger transfers, people waiting around who need things to do. Changi in particular has extended periods of time to interface with travellers during the layover between Europe and Asia-Pacific.
On the other hand, many airports in Australia are considered origin and destination airports, where passengers are unlikely to be waiting for air transfers. For instance, Adelaide Airport has limited time to interact with travellers as they turn up at the last minute to board a flight.
Australia’s domestic destinations are doing more with less by looking for flexible solutions that either fit the existing infrastructure or provide flexibility into the future.
More with less
As it stands, experts at engineering firm Arup do not see the physical growth of the current stock of airports being able to cope with the long-term demands for air travel. The company predicts increased long-term demand for air travel in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to double by 2030.
At risk are increased delays, overcrowding and inadequate service. Australian airports, following international trends, are looking to optimise assets and operations by pushing functions off site. The solution, according to Arup’s Global Aviation Skills Leader for Australasia Ronan Delaney, is for airports to become smarter and more efficient to serve the growing number of people flying.
Airlines are already using technology to put more control in the hands of travellers, for instance, with online and mobile check-in apps. As a result, airports are able to reduce the number of check-in desks as savvy air passengers do all of their pre-boarding before they arrive at the airport, downloading and scanning tickets, or printing baggage tags. So much of the old boarding processes are done offsite before the traveller arrives at the airport.
“Areas are clustered into a tech precinct, a law precinct, a health precinct. Why not a transport precinct with the airport as an anchor?”
Consequently, terminals are becoming smarter and smaller as communication technology allows passengers to move more quickly through airports. This requires less queuing and waiting time, and reduces the peak-hour demand number of passengers having to be accommodated in the terminal, said Delaney,
The idea, he said, is smarter, leaner terminals that will not only be cheaper to build and operate with less environmental impact, but they’ll also provide a more convenient and better-tailored customer experience.
The next step, he said, is airports exploring automation to further streamline the main functions they accommodate. Recent passengers departing through Geneva Airport have been greeted curbside by a robot named Leo that is being trialled to check-in, bag-tag and transport up to two pieces of luggage. It might seem like science fiction, but fully-automated baggage handling is already being rolled out in large competitive airports such as London’s Heathrow Terminal 5.
In fact, the airline industry is looking to other industries, such as mining, for driverless vehicle systems and seaports for automated cranes and other ideas that can integrate into a faster, more space efficient baggage-handling system.
Twenty years ago, luggage was sent down a cul-de-sac belt allocated to an aircraft. With more aircraft, more belts were built; taking up more space, needing more people to travel up and down the belt to find which bags are for which plane, before transporting them.
“Instead, imagine your bag gets a unique identity with bag tags and RFID tags,” Delaney said.
“It’s not linked to the aircraft but to where your aircraft is going – international versus domestic – and it will go to a different part of the factory for screening and holding until the system indicates it’s time to load a cargo container of baggage for your flight. It’s already optimised the location of each bag so it can do that as quickly and efficiently as practical.”
As the entire air travel system becomes more sophisticated, plane technology and airport design are meeting halfway. In terms of sustainability, countries are more aware of hitting carbon emissions targets and encouraging the more environmentally-friendly travel.
On the ground, Delaney points to European airports that have directives to move to all electrical ground service equipment. The electricity is typically sourced from sustainable energy grids such as solar, wind turbines or hydroelectric to meet carbon dioxide targets and keep their eco-footprint static, even as passenger numbers continue to grow significantly.
In the air, Delaney said each new generation of aircraft launched by manufacturers typically gains between 8 to 20 per cent improvement in efficiency.
“Whether it’s a new high performance, quieter engine, a new aircraft like the Boeing 787, the Airbus A350, or composite carbon components driving down the weight – the fuel per passenger kilometre is being driven down,” he said.
More efficiency means airline manufacturers can build bigger planes without compromising on performance. Boeing is looking into a folding wing concept such as the new 777X series of aircraft, essentially telling airports they don’t need to rebuild infrastructure to accommodate bigger, more efficient aircraft.
Both airlines and airports need to leave room to accommodate future sustainability directives and technological advances, like bio-fuels, electric aircraft and carbon neutral airports, which might even end up being able to contribute power to the grid.
Whether an aerotropolis or an end-to-end destination, airports are meeting technology halfway in a build-it-and-they-will-come scenario. As long as airports are engineered to please today’s web of stakeholders – airlines, governments, passengers, contractors and regulators to name a few – innovation is finding and filling the gaps left for flexibility in the long design life of the infrastructure.
Sydney Airport reported a record 40 million travellers passing through in 2015 – does that mean Australia is ready for an aerotropolis at Badgerys Creek? It wouldn’t hurt to be flexible.
Hassell’s 6 essential elements to the airport city
- Multi-connected: Enabling multiple individual journeys – pedestrian and cycling routes, access to car parks and city trains.
- Co-operative: Allowing opportunities for people to connect, such as a public meeting space for events.
- Super-concentrated: Diverse uses that blur the traditional boundaries between air travel, business, entertainment and other facilities.
- Restorative: Reintroducing landscape for sustainability benefits and encouraging healthy activity with outdoor walking tracks or lunch areas.
- Distinctive: Creating a space that is unique in culture and local identity through initiatives such as architecture, art and events programming.
- Adaptive: Embracing change with flexible design that adapts to future development and need.