Passengers inside the Sky Plaza terminal at Hong Kong International Airport; Passengers inside the Sky Plaza terminal at Hong Kong International Airport;

Airports and passenger-centric design

In the competitive world of global aviation, airports designed around the ever-changing needs of passengers will continually gain the edge over their competitors.

Visit the best airports in the world today and you’ll notice they have something in common: an elegance, simplicity and clarity that enable you to move easily through them to board your flight. Airports like Hong Kong, Incheon and Beijing airport provide a superb passenger experience because they’re designed around the people who use them.

For example, roads and rail lines don’t just enter these airports where it’s easiest to build them; they’re placed where they’re most useful for passengers. So in Hong Kong International Airport, the train line enters at the same level as the check-in islands. With large wayfinding super-graphics suspended from the ceiling, it’s easy to see quickly where you need to go next.

This simplicity and clarity are particularly important in airports because people are potentially in an unfamiliar environment and don’t always behave logically when they’re stressed or in a hurry. It’s an approach architects like Foster + Partners have followed since their ground-breaking work on Stansted Airport in the 1980s and more recently have refined on Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3 where I was lucky enough to work with them.

Designing airport infrastructure, buildings and wayfinding around the needs of passengers is vital. But I also think technology has an increasing role to play in helping travellers move through airports easily. Indeed, thanks to new technology we’ve already seen the passenger experience evolve more in the last five years than it probably did in the previous 20 years.

For some Arup projects, we’ve been looking at wireless technologies like Smartphone apps that recognise when you enter the airport precinct and terminal. They would then give you personalised relevant information about your flight, gate number and check-in island most convenient for you to use – all straight to your phone.

I’m also one of around 8 million people with a Qantas Frequent Flyer membership card. This uses radio-frequency identification technology (RFID) to make my journey ticketless and I’ve seen first-hand how it’s significantly reduced the queues at check-in / security clearance and even aircraft boarding. With fewer check-in desks now needed at Qantas Terminals around Australia, the departure hall has become more spacious and the whole experience is a lot more efficient and pleasant.

And technology advancements have the potential to eliminate more pinch points in the system, although some of this would need changes in customs and border control procedures. In the Middle East, you already find airports where check-in and immigration are combined. And on certain flights to Indonesia, you can even go through passport clearance when you’re on the plane and on your way to Jakarta.

We’ve recently been working with some of the new big ‘hub’ airports to look at what an airport of 2050 might be like. The answer, I think, is that the airport of the future will be very different from anything around today. Emerging technology and a continued focus on passenger experience promises to offer everyone a smoother ride. And that can only be good news for the aviation industry.