Estimated reading time: 6 min

The design of an airport terminal is a complicated process due to the many factors that need to be considered. With emerging technologies, passenger comfort and safety, and airport efficiency being at the forefront of these considerations, it is essential to have a highly-experienced team involved with the design and implementation of any airport terminal design project.

When designing an airport, we follow 3 pillars: exceptional design, constructive rationality and functionality to turn passenger flow into a tour of a logical and efficient work-of-art.

Pedro GasparRMJM Brazil Project Manager

RMJM’s impressive portfolio features a number of airport design projects on a global scale, ranging from Terminal design to Air Traffic Control Facilities. With several architects, designers, and project managers that specialise in the development of new and existing airport buildings, we are committed to providing user-friendly solutions that will withstand the future of technology.

We had an opportunity to chat with RMJM Brazil Project Manager, Pedro Gaspar (left), about the ever-changing needs of airport terminal design, and his thoughts on how to combat the inevitable challenges that come with projects of this nature.

1) In general, departures section of terminals hold far more amenities than arrivals sections. What design factors can be put in place to ensure passengers in the arrivals section of an airport terminal enjoy an experience similar to the standard of that enjoyed by passengers in the departures section of a terminal? 

Upon arrival, passengers want, above all else, a fast flow to the exit. An area always neglected in the structure of the arrivals area is a service to those who may have problems with luggage. One way to cater to this is to incorporate a lounge area for passengers who have been travelling for a while, and are flustered because of having to deal with lost luggage. The premise for comfort should be primarily focused on the arrival hall and the visitors waiting for loved ones and colleagues to arrive.

2) According to Christian Ceccato, an associate director for Zaha Hadid Architects, and Project Director for a new airport the firm are designing in Beijing, passengers are only willing to walk around 600 yards from security to their gate (roughly the length of five football fields). How can designers use the space optimally without the airport terminal appearing crowded with amenities?

A big issue with “traditional” airport design is that they were initially developed as large corridors where vendors were later set up, thus increasing the feeling of a “long road”. One option is to break the trend of confined and long space, giving attention to the connection spaces and breaking its reading with patios and squares. One option to improve the boarding area on domestic flights, is to move security areas closer to the boarding gates.

3) In what ways can airport terminal design contribute to helping passengers feel calm and at ease as they journey through the terminal?

Architects should always focus on the comfort of those who will enjoy their spaces. As such, when it comes to airports we must break away from the feeling of a machine that processes passengers at a high speed. The use of natural elements such as water, vegetation, and large spaces with good width and height free from obstacles is one way to help with this. One of, if not the biggest, fear for passengers is that they will miss their flight. It is therefore important to incorporate good signage and visual communication.

4) In terms of materials used and design factors, how can designers ensure that an airport terminal can be adapted to meet shifting consumer needs and industry changes? 

An airport has to be thought of as globally used equipment, so regional needs and consumption habits lose some of their importance. Being aware of new market technologies is crucial, but not always possible. For instance, Barajas Airport was conceived before self-service kiosks were developed. This technology emerged while the construction of this airport was already underway. The result was a last-minute installation in a space that had no infrastructure for this equipment. As such it was necessary to break the floor shortly before opening to the public in order to install the necessary infrastructure. With that being said, it is difficult to design an airport terminal based around technology that might not be readily available yet, we just have to do our best to ensure that we research technologies that could possibly be released during the construction phase.

5) What measures can designers put in place to minimise queues in busy terminal areas, like security and border control? 

Minimising queues is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of airport terminal design, and safety areas are the most fragile elements of passenger flow. What the industry has been doing to combat this is to automate critical points through self check-in and using bio-metrics for passport control. Another important item that will surely come in the future is the creation of self-baggage drop. On the other hand, the security check tends to get more and more details, and it is necessary to ensure these spaces are expanding to cater to the capacity of these points.

Images courtesy of RMJM. Heathrow Airport – Terminal 5

6) How can architects use design techniques, like orientation, to make airport terminal buildings more sustainable and environmentally friendly? 

First of all, we need to understand the location and climate of the place where we are deploying the airport, as we may be in a place of extreme heat or intense cold. We need to provide passengers with maximum thermal comfort, so natural ventilation is difficult to use, but we can create indoor spaces that make use of natural vegetation that help improve air quality. An important factor is natural lighting. When we think of a project considering this premise, we can generate energy savings, especially if we pay attention to the colour of the materials used in the environments. The use of renewable energy sources and solar control systems are also important items, but in the end, we always have to analyse the project by considering its surroundings and local weather conditions.

7) In your opinion, what constitutes an engaging and well thought-out passenger airport terminal journey?

As I mentioned previously, an airport is primarily about “flow”. It needs to have easy and intuitive flow. With the growing expansion of existing airports, it has become increasingly difficult to have such equipment with these qualities. Additionally, the inclusion of visual communication is essential, and a primary factor during the design phase. After all, the last thing we want is a passenger getting lost – adding to the inevitable stress of travel. Lastly, we need to provide comfort and activities in the waiting spaces to ensure the reduction of stress among travellers, and ultimately staff members.

8) What does the future hold for airport terminal design? Can you pinpoint any decisive factors which will shape the industry in the coming years?

This is the million dollar question. In my opinion, an airport must increasingly be an inter-modal terminal in which the shopping area has gained greater importance. Trade areas are coming into their own and we will certainly see the industry grow in this department. On the other hand, we have to think about urban mobility and understand how it will affect airports. Electric cars are already a reality and we anticipate the rapid emergence of autonomous cars, not to mention the development of autonomous air taxis. technology advances rapidly in bio-metric reading devices, thus speeding up the passenger processing process. It is difficult to predict the future, but we need to do our best to adapt as it heads towards us at a rapid rate.

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