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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 10:44 GMT

What makes a good airport?

DesignSignageRetailTransportNo queues
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

After 20 years trying to get off the runway, Heathrow's Terminal 5 is about to open and promises a better experience for passengers. But what kind of features can make catching a plane less of a headache?

Flying is an inherently stressful experience. There's the waiting, the queuing, the crowds, the luggage and the wandering kids, even before the butterflies in the stomach at take-off.

Most of these irritations are beyond the control of the passenger and while travellers averse to the bus or train have other options, getting to a far-off land leaves only one option open.

[Marseilles's MP2] is extremely efficient and a model of airport design, unlike Terminal 5
Simon Calder
Independent's travel editor

Increased security measures in 2006 compounded these woes and the sight of queues snaking outside terminal buildings at Heathrow underlined its reputation as a difficult place to begin a holiday.

Terminal 5, which is officially opened on Friday, will go some way to addressing that - and at £4.3bn and 20 years in the planning you would expect it to.

But these are not problems unique to Heathrow. So what makes a good airport? Here are five key features:

SIGNAGE

Sign at Stansted
Black text on yellow began at Schiphol and spread to the UK

Orientation is always among the top demands by customers, says Paul Mijksenaar, whose company by the same name has designed the signs for airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Athens.

"The first requirement is reliability, that once you are looking for something that you find it on a sign close by and you are sure it will direct you all the way to reach your destination. A lot of sign systems are not good and sometimes the trail is lost and it stops."

Charles De Gaulle airport is particularly bad, he says, because it uses too many figures and jargon.

There are so many services in airports that it's difficult to direct people to everything, so it's best to point out "clusters" like a food court or shops.

Sign at Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol
Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol have contrasting styles
Colour coding saves reading time by a third, he says. It's common to use black text on yellow background for flying information (departures, arrivals), yellow text on black for bathroom facilities, green for exits and blue for food and retail.

"Passengers don't even realise it. People use a system like that but an hour afterwards, you can ask them and they have no idea. It's very intuitive."

Pictograms should only be used for services easily imaged like taxis and phones and all signs at one airport should use just one font (his favourite is Gill sans serif).

"What would be fantastic for a passenger is to fly from London to, say, Hong Kong, and you find the same pictograms, colour coding and nomenclature.

"It helps enormously and makes you feel at home. Airports like to be different but airport signage is not the tool to be different, it should be in harmony."

Tell that to the architects, who commonly prefer signs to be discreetly placed and understated.

BUILDING DESIGN

An architect's key aim is trying to reduce passenger stress, says Simon Smithson of Rogers, Stirk Harbour and Partners.

He was project architect of the new terminal at Barajas in Madrid, which won the architectural Oscar, the Stirling Prize, and he thinks a building's design can go a long way to easing traveller tensions.

Roof at Barajas
The wavy roof in Madrid is calming
"The most obvious is being able to understand how the building is organised. Some of the worst cases like Gatwick or Schiphol, you enter the building and you have no idea what your route is."

Out with corridors and enclosed areas, in with space, daylight and views.

Barajas has a high, wavy roof that makes the space feel airy and unconstrained, he says, and the roof almost floats, as if looking at the water surface while snorkelling. The glass walls are like "great big curtains" and give views of the planes outside.

Airports are the new plazas, the new town squares, he says, and should try to be a public space rather than a building.

"The visual and acoustic onslaught of advertising spaces and announcements is very wearing.

"Your foreground is a riot of information and conflicting objectives - 'Buy, buy, sell, sell, go here, go there'.

"As architects we recognise that we have little control over that foreground but we have control over the container."

Terminal 5
T5, yours for £4.3bn
Travel editor of the Independent, Simon Calder, picks Marseille's budget "mp2" airport as a model of simplicity.

"Flying is a simple pleasure instead of the ghastly experience it is at Gatwick and Heathrow.

"Marseilles is industrial-feeling in design, bare concrete and steel, nothing extra. It's extremely efficient and a model of airport design, unlike Terminal 5, which is all very well but I can think of better ways to spend £4.5bn."

TRANSPORT LINKS

No matter how snazzy an airport building, a fraught journey getting there will put passengers in a dark mood.

The forecourt connection between air side and land side modes of transport - the space in front of the building - is most innovative
Simon Smithson
Rogers, Stirk Harbour and Partners
The luxury and speed of the Heathrow Express, for example, comes at a high price (£15) compared to the often overcrowded Tube.

Driving to Terminal 4 can be stressful too, says Mr Smithson. But Terminal 5, with which he was once involved, is a huge improvement and recognises that airports are major transport hubs.

"The forecourt connection between air side and land side modes of transport - the space in front of the building - is most innovative.

"If you come out of an airport you can feel you are nowhere but you exit there and feel you are in a street space. It is setting a precedent."

That's great if you want to get a taxi, but it's still the slow and crowded Piccadilly line for people who need the Tube.

Fewer problems at Birmingham, where the long-term car park is a short walk from the terminal building.

Or at Hong Kong, where the Airport Express train takes passengers from downtown into the heart of the airport in 20 minutes.

NO QUEUES

There are lines for check-in, then passport check, then security, then the gate, then your seat on the aircraft and then baggage reclaim and immigration at the other end.

No queues at Denver airport
If only all airports were like Denver
It's not all the fault of the airport or airline - the Immigration Service and the government rules on security play their part, says Rod Fewings, who lectures in airport design at Cranfield University. But Birmingham can offer lessons in how it's done.

"Birmingham security is very quick and efficient. The airport has expanded its terminal building piecemeal but they seem to have got the balance right and baggage reclaim is pretty quick."

Other top performers, he says, include Munich, Helsinki and Luton.

Online and self-service check-in is becoming more common to speed things up, and there are plenty of kiosks at T5 for this purpose, he says. But it's no good if the bag drop-off is under-staffed, as it was once in his experience at Madrid.

The processing of people may be beyond the control of architects but a good design can ease the trauma of queuing, says Mr Smithson.

"The actual function of the building and the perception of the passengers is to some degree out of our hands but the quality of the space in which we are waiting - the views, the acoustics and daylighting - can make an experience either good or bad.

"Ten minutes in a horrible space can feel like half an hour but in a nice space can pass relatively fast."

RETAIL

Air passengers need to be entertained and ever since Shannon, Ireland's second airport, opened the world's first duty-free shop in 1947, retail has become a big earner for airport authorities.

Suvarnabhumi airport
Shops at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, blend in
This week Ferrovial, which owns BAA, sold its World Duty Free shops to Italy's Autogrill for £546.6m ($1.10bn), partly to pay off Ferrovial's debts.

Shopping is now fundamental to the passenger experience, says Robbie Gill, managing director of The Design Solution and an expert on retail architecture.

"The danger is that too many airports are beginning to look the same and the challenge for the smartest airports is to integrate with local flair the well-known national brands and the international powerhouses."

This is something that Rome Fiumicino and Barcelona demonstrate well, he says.

But there is an ongoing tension between retail planners and architects, he says, because the latter treat the commercial activities as very much secondary to the "architectural dream".

No passengers like to feel overwhelmed or pressured into buying, says Mr Smithson, and one way Barajas tries to avoid this "invasion of space" is by maintaining outside views.


Below is a selection of your comments.

How about airport passenger-only trains (determined by passport verification) with check-in kiosks on board complete with printers? How's that for good use of travel time? Internet access on board this train would be useful too! Automated bag-drop... why not?
Nic, London

Changi Airport in Singapore and Auckland Airport in Auckland New Zealand - are great for long haul passengers. Airside hotels and recreation areas including cinemas and swimming pools, water gardens, 'fung shuied' spaces built for comfort, outdoor gardens for smokers, plenty of space for sitting/relaxing but also the retail franchises for bored people.
Diana, London, UK

UK airports have become nothing but huge shopping centres which happen to have aeroplanes attached. In Manchester and Stansted, it's almost impossible to find the gates! I agree with Roger Jackson that Kastrup airport in Copenhagen must be one of the best - 15 minutes by either tube or train to the city centre, for only about 3 pounds.
Bryan, Malmö, Sweden

Family bathrooms. If I've got my little daughter with me I can never fly through airports that force me to take her into the men's rooms ( e.g. Newark ), which are usually disgusting and have no space for strollers etc. Atlanta Hartfield is a very nice airport ( though I never use it nowadays because Delta operate there and they cancel far too many flights ).
Ste Cork, Madison, WI USA

Design is all very well for large airports, however, the low-cost boom renders this moot in some respects, since people can now travel into smaller airports and bypass a great deal of the stress, provided connections from destinations (for example, Hahn, Pisa or Berne - Pisa has a rail station at the airport) are good enough. London City prides itself on rapid transit from landside to airside and this is helped in part by the fact that the airport is so compact.
Richard Faith, Bath, England

The first thing I would include a new airport design is a smoking lounge. It is totally unreasonable to expect smokers to have to check in hours before their flight and not be able to smoke in this time in addition to the many smoke free hours they have to spend in a plane.
Nicholas Berry, Cambridge

The most stressful part of airport travel for me is the dropping off / picking up followed by trying to park the car. It would be really cool if you could check in your baggage in the car park, then get a transfer by coach or whatever to the terminal building unencumbered.
Chris, Cardiff

What makes a good airport? Just go to Orlando International Airport in Florida and you will see. Lovely place to be. The problem with British airports is they don't put enough effort into appearance, they need more plants and some indoor water fountains adding to the atmosphere.
Steve, York

How it looks is totally secondary to how it works. Unsecured entry with shops, info etc. First level secure area - ticketed passengers and registered helpers only, heavy luggage checked in. Plenty of shops etc. Second level secure area - ticketed passengers only, passport checked, plenty of seating NOT queuing nose to tail in a seat-less shed. Internet access, cash machines, ticket sales in ALL areas. And SEATING. Plenty of it.
Sandy, Derby, UK

Just pop over to Kuala Lumpur or Dubai airports for a stress free enjoyable experience. Heathrow is an absolute disgrace and an insult to its users.
A Glenister, Bushey, Herts UK

I'm rather surprised that Heathrow doesn't just get itself down to Singapore and copy, brick for brick, shop by shop ( and for sheer customer-centric attitudes ) each member of staff at Changi Airport and re-engineer it over in London. Efficient, calm and pleasant - now that's how an airport should be.
Simon Cuthbert, Halifax West Yorkshire UK

In my recent experience of airports I would vote Frankfurt and Philadelphia as the worst and Copenhagen and Schiphol as the best. However, that is from the point of view of a transit passenger. Luckily I start from Manchester and avoid Heathrow with its scattered terminals.
Roger Jackson, Stockport, England



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