For families travelling with young children, airports can be undeniably stressful places. Navigating a crowded terminal is hard work at the best of times, but with children in tow the difficulties are magnified.

In a worst-case scenario, you might have one child who throws a tantrum going through security and another who needs the toilet at the worst possible time. One child might get bored and tearful waiting for the flight while another might find the airport downright scary.

“Although the concept of a family sounds like a neat, singular object it is of course a complex body made up multiple people and personalities, and it is this complexity that can create issues when travelling,” says Matthew Horobin, director of brand engagement at Dubai Airports (DXB). “Aside from the more functional stresses and strains of additional baggage, buggies and family travel requirements, there are the emotional challenges of catering to these many different priorities and preferences all at once.”

Christopher Birch, director of guest experience at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), says the list of potential pain points is extensive.

“Dietary needs, noise, distractions, forgotten items, and the feeling of being hurried can all impact stress levels and the ability to enjoy the experience,” he says. “It is important to engage in some preparation when travelling with children.”

It is clear that airports need to pay attention to these challenges. Not only will that improve the experience for families – and mitigate stress for other passengers – but there will be knock-on benefits for the airport itself, in terms of increasing the overall passenger spend.

“Happy kids means happy parents, and that makes for a much more positive airport experience all round, which for us is the ultimate goal,” says Horobin. “It also frees parents up to enjoy the services and experiences they want to use.”

In fact, from the perspective of airport retail, parents travelling with children are some of the most lucrative customers. According to Swiss travel research agency m1nd-set, which surveyed over 6,000 international travellers last year, 48% of travellers with children enter the airport shops, compared with 41% without. Of those who made purchases, the total value was significantly higher for travellers with children ($204) than those without ($160). If airports wish to attract this business, they need to set themselves apart.

“Parents will always want to patronise a business where they feel welcome and their needs considered,” says Birch. “SFO serves mostly leisure travellers, so it is important that we understand their needs and ensure we and our tenants are focused on them. We want to be the airport of choice for everyone, including children.”

Make it quick and fun

What this means in practical terms will differ from airport to airport. However, family friendliness comes down mostly to two things – helping families navigate through the terminal as swiftly and seamlessly as possible, and providing activities for children while they are waiting around. After all, delays happen, stopovers can be long, and families often get to airports earlier, resulting in more time spent in the terminal in need of things to do. Plus, if they have a long flight ahead, kids need a place where they can (sometimes literally) bounce off the walls.

“We think we have done a good job of providing fun and engaging children’s areas, which stimulate mind and creativity as well as getting some energy out,” says Birch. “We are creating a lot of new seating areas as well. Some of these include large tables so families can spread out a bit, play cards or games, and really make themselves feel at home.”

He adds that while SFO includes ‘all the standard offerings’, such as nursery services and children’s dining menus, it also features some unexpected touches, like free colouring books and crayons at the information desks. And while distraction is key in many instances, SFO also tries to stoke kids’ curiosity about the flying experience itself.

“On we have three self-guided tours to download, and we have the always-fun AirTrain loop with great views around the terminal complex and runway areas,” says Birch. “We also just opened our first outdoor terrace and observation deck, located post-security in the International Terminal, Boarding Area G, and will be opening another pre-security observation deck in Terminal 2 in October.”

SFO is not the only airport with this objective. Chicago O’Hare has an interactive museum geared towards children and many others feature educational touchscreens just for kids.

Arguably, this harks back to an older trend, when airports actively tried to promote the joys of aviation. According to the academic Peter Adey, writing in 2007, many airports were originally designed to “encourage children and young people to interact with the airport buildings and environment”. These days, the pedagogical focus has diminished, but the desire for interaction is still there.

“Even in the space of our mobile presence, we are right now integrating gamification concepts into our app for our passengers – young and old – to explore our airport as part of a treasure or scavenger-huntstyle challenge,” explains Horobin.

In the zone

He adds that DXB has a number of family focused amenities. These include everything from the activity-oriented (such as swimming pools, play areas or trampoline parks) to the calming (kids’ entertainment screens, for instance). It has also begun to adopt a more ‘zonal’ approach to experience delivery and design.

“A wide range of shopping, dining, relaxation and entertainment concepts are clustered together to offer something for everyone in one place,” he says. “If the experiences are in close proximity, it gives important peace of mind to all involved.”

This said, designing some fun facilities for children is probably the easier side of the equation. The trickier part is passenger flow. Here, airports need to think about what the pain points are for families and how they can minimise the stress.

In part, this comes down to improving the quality of information on offer. Since parents often use the airport’s website or mobile app to plan itineraries, there are significant opportunities here for digital innovation.

“We are beginning to feature specific, predefined proposed itineraries on our digital channels to cater to specific demographics, including families, allowing visitors a shortcut to the best possible in-airport experience for them,” says Horobin.

For a reasonable fee, SFO offers an Airport Butler concierge service that takes care of many travel details on a parent’s behalf. However, there is still a need to plan ahead.

“Knowing what can and can’t be brought through a security checkpoint will help avoid last-minute stress and expense,” Birch says. “The checkpoints can be stressful, so reviewing TSA’s guidance for travelling with kids is highly recommended.”

In the US, TSA has migrated away from dedicated security lanes for families. Instead, it has developed modified screening procedures for those aged 12 and under. For example, children will not be separated from their parent or guardian when being screened, and there is less likelihood of a pat-down.

“TSA are perfectly able to handle the differing screening needs for children within the standard lanes,” says Birch. “TSA Pre-Check is often extended to children as well, which helps the overall flow. TSA is always available to address special requests or consideration – one need only ask.”

TSA is also in the process of switching up which dog breeds it uses, according to reports circulating late last year. It is phasing out the pointy-eared dogs that are more liable to scare kids, and making a conscious effort to use more floppy-eared dogs at airports. As children’s needs become more recognised, meeting them is likely to become a real point of differentiation.

“Airports are competitive, so we’re always looking for ways to offer more,” says Birch. “That includes catering to kids and families. Catering to kids, especially those with different needs, is something airports are doing better at and are really focused on. The goal is to streamline experience, give time back, and not create anxiety.”

“The airport industry is becoming increasingly competitive on all fronts, but in particular with regard to winning the hearts and minds of today’s travelling families,” agrees Horobin. “It is vital that airports cater to this key demographic and, in doing so, they can also meet the expectations of solo travellers, as all parents have personal preferences too.”