It’s time for a rethink on airport interiors

Airports are stressful places, but is retail therapy the only way for travellers to relax? Adam White makes a plea for some healthier alternatives

Assuming the ash clouds disperse and dormitories do not become the norm, we might be able to look forward to a future in airport interiors that goes beyond yet another retail experience. For sure, our recent work to develop a new bathroom standard for BAA, which has been delivered at both Gatwick and Stansted, taught us that airport authorities are very interested in the revenue-earning ability in every square metre they own.

hat’s not to say they don’t also take looking after the passenger very seriously. BAA has a protocol to continuously monitor customer satisfaction, a quality of service monitor, which carries genuine weight in its decision-making process.

I have enjoyed many trips in the past year to Abu Dhabi, which has a new airport terminal building with the very best retail names Bond Street has to offer, as well as a reasonable spread of cheap ciggies and sweets for the kids. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that shops will become a thing of the past, but online shopping is having a huge impact (with the UK leading Europe in online buying) and it is hard not to imagine that this is a trend set to continue. So where does that leave the mall – or the airport?

In the same way we can see a huge growth in Internet shopping, we can examine the scenarios around how it happens: a well-known high street brand has recently waged a successful campaign promoting itself as the store where you buy the things you saw in the smart shops in London’s West End – the retail trend is becoming ’browse now, buy later’. This applies to buying on the Web as well, and suggests many upmarket stores may soon go bust unless they can augment their income with ever more capricious spenders.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. On the contrary, the airports of the world hold the key to the biggest problem with air travel in the 21st century – they’re the bit most of us would like to avoid. Let’s face it, when you actually sit down on the aeroplane, the airline has complete control of that part of your journey and you largely get what you pay for. If it’s short-haul, the likelihood is the onboard experience will be the briefest part of your journey, and the most acceptable, and if you are travelling long-haul you increasingly hear in research that this is the only time people feel they can relax without a phone ringing.

So it’s both the departure and the arrival through the noisy, congested and often quite hostile airports that travellers will often cite as stressful. And I haven’t even mentioned security yet. Since 2006 there has been a 100ml limit on liquids in hand luggage and all sorts of other items needing to be dropped into a clear, plastic bag and declared. This situation will continue until 2013 (in the European Union) and will therefore cause high stress-levels for the less frequent traveller for another few years. This is not the ideal background for airports to provide a seamless and pleasing journey experience .

I think airports are missing a big opportunity. Every traveller knows that if you can treat the bit between getting from A to B as part of your ’time away’ – a journey rather than a race to get there – everything feels better. That’s why cruise ships exist. So if retail is no longer satisfactory as the beginning and end of a holiday or business trip, something else has to fill the gap and, in turn, influence the whole airport experience.

The past few years have seen airlines put a huge amount of effort into their business and first class lounges, and I think this is a good indicator of what everyone wants: a nailbar, head-massage with bird song, and warm pebbles laid along their naked backs – essentially a spa mini-break. If they get it right, I could imagine an airport becoming a destination location. On another tack, it has always interested me that many of the aircraft flying in and out of airports, including the ones full of passengers, have a downstairs called ’the hold’ that, as well as carrying a lucky few people’s luggage, also carries freight. In fact, from a monetary point of view (rather than weight), more than 20 per cent of goods moving about the world fly. These tend to be either high value (watches, say, or pharmaceuticals) or perishables (fruit and vegetables). And yet, as a passenger you have absolutely no sense of this vast trade going on around you, other than in duty-free shopping, which seems a shame.
So my vision for the future of airports is essentially this: a spa hotel (with short-stay, capsule-style bedrooms, health and wellbeing promoted at every gate), and a global farmers’ market (’…picked freshly this mornin’ that was, sir… in Timbuktu’).

Adam White is a director of Factory Design

Visions of a future airport

  • Spa hotels with short-stay, capsule-style bedrooms, and health and wellbeing facilities like head massage
  • Global farmers’ markets, selling the fresh produce which is transported by passenger aircraft, a fact unknown to most travellers

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