Anyone who has tried in vain to wedge their legs under the armrests of airport seats for a few minutes of sleep may scoff at the idea that modern airports enhance the travel experience. However, comfortable seats are just one of many concerns when designing welcoming airport interiors.

“A fresh set of parameters are required,” says Melissa Mizell, design director and sustainable design leader at Gensler. “For instance, designers might use tandem seating traditional to airports as the main seating option but also add a few extras such as comfortable lounge chairs.

This type of furniture option adds to travellers’ experience of the airport but obviously has a shorter lifespan.”

During the $138-million, 65,000ft2 renovation of boarding area E at San Francisco Airport’s Terminal 3, Mizell says the team put furniture through stress to learn how things might break and how best to maintain them.

“That was a really good way to work and it helped instil that mindset into our design team,” she says. “Now, we look at objects with suspicion, in so far as we are trying to anticipate what may go wrong.”

End-to-end experience

Mizell, whose design background before airports was in workplace and highereducation, says she has learned to design for any abuse imaginable. The challenge has been to shift terminal designs into “more of a hospitality experience, while not creating a nightmare for airport facilities groups”.

Prioritising the traveller’s enjoyment is a pervasive trend in airport interior design.

“It’s about understanding the end-to-end journey in terms of passenger experience,” says James Speed, design director at Pascall+Watson, who is leading the team on Stansted Airport’s new triple-level arrivals terminal, valued at £130 million and set for completion in 2022 . “Transient and dwell areas are clearly identified, so wherever a passenger is relatively stationary from their own choosing, they are in an environment that is less stressful than it otherwise might be because of a product of interior design such as lighting or space planning.”

Part of diminishing stress in airports comes from enabling easy navigation.

“In an ideal world, a well-designed airport would not need signs,” Speed says.

Due to the “multilingual nature of airports”, compared with many other commercial buildings, there is a much more pressing need to use interior design techniques to create a sense of intuitive navigation for passengers. “It needs to be a lot more process-focused so the interior gives the building the legibility required,” Speed says.

Wayfinding strategies have evolved to rely less on suspended signs throughout airports, and focus more on travelling between orientation zones and delivering information.

“When you walk into Terminal 2 at Heathrow, you’re immediately confronted by a large information point at any one of the entrances,” Speed says. “It’s all about confirmation, but passenger reassurance also. It helps to destress the process and make people feel comfortable.”

Mizell also notes the importance of orientation zones in modern airports, and uses intuitive design techniques, such as shaping the walls, floor patterns and ceiling design, to create them.

“A space lit by natural light suggests people pause or gather in the area, or that this is an important moment to decide to go left or right,” Mizell says. “People are used to things that add visual quality to the space but also guide and give cues to what it is about, and what they need to do there.”

The most important consideration is awareness of sight-lines, she says, which requires adopting the mindsets of different passengers.

“When you’re drawing a base plan, you imagine the moment a passenger steps inside the building from kerbside,” Mizell says. “What’s the first thing they see? What’s the first bit of information they need to see? Ideally, you can see all the way to your gate, but not all airports are able to do that because they’re very big, or require passengers to make turns.

“Gensler always looks at it from the view of whether this is going to help the passenger experience, or get in the way of it.”

By explanation, Mizell says, “There are really cool designs that look incredibly beautiful, but sometimes they feel like they’re providing too much visual clutter to a space and, instead of being enjoyable, they’re actually adding to a sense of chaos, and the passenger no longer feels in control.”

Designers should ensure as best as possible that passengers maintain a sense of being in control. Only then, she says, can travellers “stop worrying and start enjoying themselves”.

Space walk

Although the notion of intuitive design can be “highly subjective”, Mizell says designers explore and present ideas with impressive 3D imaging tools that help the team and clients understand the interior. They can ‘walk’ through it while discussing the particulars starting with stepping out a taxi and ending with the traveller sitting on the aircraft.

Imaging offers tremendous value as there are plenty of stakeholders in aviation projects that provide different perspectives. “It’s a good process,” she says.

Technology is not only in place to help designers when planning airports but also for travellers to use to enhance their own experience. Speed cites Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as a good example of employing technology, with its passenger-tracking app.

It works by tracking mobile phone users along their journey, notifying them how far they’ve got until they reach the toilets, when they need to get to their gates and how they can find them, what sort of retail offerings are available, and where the food and beverage facilities are located.

“Airport operators are very keen,” Speed says. “There’s desire, but not many people actually instigate these apps.”

While there has been slow uptake on mobile apps, Speed says touchscreen information points are popular, comparable to those you would find in a “contemporary shopping centre”.

It’s the subject of shopping, Speed says, that is really important: “Prioritising retail has been the single largest design change to the interior planning of airports over the past 20 years, with a real focus on ‘What is the value and how is it tangible?’”

Referring to his current work at the international departure lounge (IDL) at Bologna Airport and his firm’s plans for Manchester and Stansted aiports, Speed says “everything springs from the IDL and the retail offer”.

This is part of the reason why airport operators have not given arrivals areas the same attention as departure areas, but this is changing.

“I think a lot of airports are very keen on – and we will probably see this in the design of airport terminals in the next few years – separate arrival and departure terminals,” Speed says.

Conflict resolution

Stansted was originally built with arriving and departing passengers on the same level. This method was soon replaced by multilevel airport designs, which split passengers so that the two never met, says Speed. This is an effective way to avoid conflicting passenger routes and complex signage.

“I think, from a passenger experience point of view in particular, a separate terminal building for arriving passengers is a huge improvement,” he says.

According to Speed, another significant trend is catering to different users. “Previously, airport passengers were just seen as a homogeneous whole or, at the very least, leisure or business travel, or typical and business travellers. There has been a lot of division and hierarchy over the past few years whereby we’re providing not only fast-track but also first class and even super class – different segregation between these different passengers – and that is a key marketing tool for some airports.”

Mizell also notes the diversity of airport users who may spend an hour or several in varying emotional states with different motivations for travel.

“Part of our task is trying to anticipate this complex group of people,” Mizell says. “It’s really interesting because at one point you might need to channel a little kid to think about how they might spend their time in the space and, at other times, channel someone elderly who may need help getting through it; so we imagine all these possibilities when we’re designing.”

Whether you’re a pensioner or a child, the use of natural light is a welcome trend in airport design. “It can save on electric lighting during the day,” Mizell says, “but it also has the added benefit of making people feel better than being in a space without it. It can also help with intuitive wayfinding and help make a certain space feel important or special – so things like that are no-brainers.”

Trick of the light

San Francisco Airport’s skylights and clerestories let in lots of light with daylight sensors used to adjust illumination levels throughout the day. Displacement air ventilation saves energy while sending out cool air at the level of people using the airport, rather than from above.

Speed also advocates natural light, which he says is a strong premise in the sustainability argument: “It was a key element of the original Stansted design and it was something the client was very keen to replicate in the arrivals terminal, in terms of aesthetics and sustainability.”

Natural light is not the only way to save on energy bills at airports. “Illuminated signs used to be on 24 hours a day and there used to be thousands of light boxes throughout an airport,” Speed says. “If you design a building effectively, it is limited to just major identification points along the passenger journey.”

An important consideration arises with security zones. They are essential for providing safety to travellers, aircrew and airport staff alike, but they can prove tricky to design. Part of this is due to security needs changing even when the rest of the space remains the same. For instance, new scanning equipment or increased numbers of lanes with varying widths and lengths can change the requirements for the area.

Speed says it is important to design “soft zones around the security area” to adapt to these changes. “It’s a case of allowing enough space around security lines,” he says.

While travellers can’t really expect turned-down beds at airports becoming the norm, it is clear that designers prioritise their comfort and ease of movement. Through intuitive wayfinding to sustainable options adding value to the travel experience, designers are finding ways to streamline the process in an aesthetically pleasing environment offering calm and control to all those passing through.