Aerotropolis: Designs to transform the passenger experience

Perkins+Will’s Tim Martin explains that it’s crucial to design closer to passenger emotions

Major airports have become engines powering local economic development, attracting aviation-linked businesses of all types, including hotel, entertainment, retail, F&B, convention, trade and exhibition complexes. The rapid expansion of airport-linked commercial facilities is making it one of today’s drivers of metropolitan development, where travellers and locals can relax, meet and conduct business without going more than 15 minutes from the airport. This functional and spatial evolution is transforming many city airports into airport cities, also known as the Aerotropolis.

It’s then crucial to maximise a destination’s economic opportunity by focusing on the end user experience – in the case of aviation, it is the passenger. Influencing purchasing decisions involves a multitude of factors, but the driver is understanding your audience.

Airports are a stressful place; often people are charged with emotions when departing or arriving, and they are a place that affects many people. It’s important to understand a passenger’s stress points, their way of finding preference, physical movement and emotional connections with space.

Effective emotional design speaks to two main elements: first impressions and perceived value. The identity and feeling of an airport can install initial trust in a passenger or indeed lose that trust and create anxiety. If there is an aspect of design that evokes negative emotions with a normal person, that memory will stay with them forever; conversely, positive signals and calming designed spaces have a positive impact on passengers. Once passengers are past a favourable first impression, they look for that next pulse point signal – what they need to do next, and why. Clear navigation and intuitively designed elements prepare them for the next process in their journey, guiding them to the destination point.

Since the average human attention span is short, you also need to address: ”What’s the value of the space? Is the space worth spending time in? Is the product or service worth paying for?” Making the answers easily attainable facilitates positive feelings.

It’s important to remember that not every airport has the same function – there are scales to consider. Airports can be big Aerotropolis cities or part-time airfields in remote areas. Whatever the size and function, airports need to consider their passengers more effectively, the context of their location and the service that they are providing.

The structure should be a destination space, the business card of a country or region. It should be designed not to be a large warehouse space with just stuff in it, but to be a place that welcomes and excites, that promotes a sense of pride in a place – a venue passengers are excited to go to and be in. It should be timeless, adaptable, flexible; it should be about and for the passenger.

Therefore, we as architects and designers need to think outside the box for ways to make the journey through the airport as enjoyable and intuitive as possible, for the greater good of the passenger, the investor and the community.

A few key focus areas can make a huge difference. Let’s take retail as an obvious one. With traffic in 2018 forecast to grow 2.4% to 90.3m in Dubai International Airport alone, there is a huge opportunity to increase consumer spending. For retail to truly evolve, it needs to be more inclusive of non-passengers. We should look to create a destination where passengers can not only spend more time with their loved ones, but the space can be used outside of strict travel purposes. This to me seems a very obvious and natural step, and I looking forward to finding out who the pioneer will be.

While stress points in airports are an element of contention, there are many ways to alleviate this factor. A research document published by Rutgers Business School in 2016 shows that consumers in a state of stress are far less willing to spend than consumers in a positive state of mind, specifically feeling in control of their environment.

As designers, it is our job to create that positive feeling and reduce stress in order to encourage passenger spending, amount of dwell time in an airport and likelihood of a return visit. Stress can be affected by anything from long queues to colours or travel distance. For example, passengers do not like to walk further than 250m at any one time, so what can we do about this? We can break up long distances by installing travellators or adding an experience.

Stress is affected by almost every touch point a passenger experiences, including ease of wayfinding, security transparency and the development of a sense of location. Because all passengers are different, it is also important to ensure space remains flexible, physically and technically; space should be experiential.

Bringing the calm of nature indoors is a key objective in an airport terminal. Research shows that the ability to focus and relax goes up when people see and experience nature. For example, a space that mimics an outdoor nature experience would have a much higher success and occupancy rate, should it be free to passengers to make use of and spend time in.

An airport is basically a large processor. There are of course compulsory processes that need to be followed for international security and safety, and there are many think tanks on how to break down these processes to make it easier for the passenger. However, there is still a large element of the unknown for passengers. We want to make them feel included in the process, and part of it, rather than giving them additional stress about which process is next, and why.

Operators and owners need to make money, of course; they also need to keep up with the pace of the passengers and their needs and wants. 2018 is forecast to see over 4.3bn boarded passengers globally, a big market opportunity. Airports and airlines alike will be fundamental in driving these 4.3bn destination and travel decisions. Now is the time to invest in the future of aviation.

Designed airport spaces that retain the passenger will result in ROI. Countries are realising the importance of their infrastructures and the need to invest. The airport industry is a collection of big employers, and their success affects not just those who work and pass through the space – it affects the community as a whole.

The bottom line is that Aerotropolis development and smart urban growth that is economically efficient and environment, resident, visitor and worker friendly can and should go hand-in-hand.

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