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New-wave airports: Laura Swain on the terminals of tomorrow

Gone are the days when airports were purely functional. Now, says our assistant editor of Food, Beverage & Hospitality, they’re destinations in their own right.

They are, to most of us, equal parts exciting and infuriating. On the one hand, airports mark the beginning of an exciting overseas trip; on the other, they confine us with hundreds of others, sometimes for hours on end.

Part of the problem is that airports have traditionally been functional places. That, however, is beginning to change with the emergence of new-wave airports – and Laura Swain, our assistant editor of Food, Beverage & Hospitality, talked us through their aquarium-themed security areas, crowd-following robots and mood-boosting departure gates. The airport of tomorrow, it seems, is already here.  

From reading your report, it seems that airports are becoming entertainment destinations in their own right?

“Yes, to some extent, though obviously things can’t be too scheduled because you have people passing through all the time. Art, like Rijksmuseum Schiphol, is a good example because people can visit as they’re passing through.

“What’s interesting is that airports are making more use of the space they have, especially ones where stopovers are common. Also, passengers are finding they have more time to explore because of time-saving developments like facial recognition in security.”

The mini Rijksmuseum at Schiphol… is it important for airports to reflect, through their entertainment offerings, the destinations they represent?

“Yes, I think so. The new dual terminal at Changi borrows things from Singapore’s National Heritage Board, while we’re now seeing airport cinemas showing films by local producers. Airports are mindful of showcasing local areas in ways that are relevant.” 

Your report mentions the emergence of airport robots. Is this something passengers should get excited about?

“People love robots. At Tokyo Haneda, a humanoid robot called EMIEW3, which launched in 2016, gives people directions in Japanese or English. Developments like this will limit the number of people needed on helpdesks.

“Robots are something different, and they certainly add a bit of excitement. Another thing that caught my eye is Kate, an intelligent check-in kiosk that finds its way – using geo-location and obstacle-avoidance technology – to areas it knows are going to be busy.”

Another breakthrough is facial-recognition technology. Will it become mainstream?

“Absolutely. Not only at security, but when you’re going through the airport. I’ve just written a blog post about Dubai International Airport’s ‘virtual aquarium’. It’s basically a tunnel fitted with facial recognition cameras – as passengers walk through and look at the virtual fish, their faces and irises are scanned.

“When they get to the end, they’re either greeted by a sign that says ‘Have a nice trip’ or ‘Wait’, in which case security gets called. So there are fun, and clever, things you can do with facial recognition rather than simple standing scanners.”

Presumably airports are keen because it helps get rid of queues?

“Yes. Airports are getting busier and busier, so their prerogative is to speed things up – they don’t want people waiting around in queues. So facial recognition is kind of dual purpose – getting rid of queues, but also adding a bit of interest. Having cameras at different angles, like in Dubai’s virtual aquarium, is about getting a better image of you as well.” 

Are airports getting greener?

“Definitely. Nature is a big thing in tourism now anyway – hotels around the world are putting eco at the centre of everything, which we spoke about quite a lot in The New Rules of Luxury. And now it’s started creeping into airports. Changi, for example, is going to have the tallest indoor waterfall in the world in 2019. It will even have its own rainforest.

“Greenery is very good at calming people down. In October 2016, Heathrow unveiled its Garden Gate (number 25 in Terminal 3), whose walls are adorned by almost 1,700 plants, all of which are known for having specific calming properties. Which is good, because people tend to stress out at airports. If you’ve got calm people in your airport you’re more likely to have calm people on your plane, so that transition is going to be beneficial for everyone.

“This isn’t necessarily new, but airports are using a lot more glass. Doha International Airport in Qatar, for example, looks like a wave, with windows looking out on to the desert. The idea is that there’s a seamless transition between airport and desert.” 

Are airports quite competitive in terms of new launching features?

“Definitely in Asia, where airports are continually doing things that are bigger, better and more exciting. Changi is the jewel in the crown, but there are new developments all the time – next year China alone will open 25 airports.”

What’s your favourite airport, and why?

“One that really surprised me is Budapest Airport. There was a lot more going on after security than I thought – lots of locally inspired places to eat. But I think my favourite, just because it’s so flashy and so insane, is Changi. 

“It’s got a rooftop pool that’s accessible to everyone, a butterfly garden, and obviously the new terminal is just going to be insane. It was hard not to just write about it throughout the entire report to be honest! It’s like a theme park inside an airport.

“What’s also quite nice about Changi, with all its greenery, is how it’s reflecting the direction Singapore itself is going in. It’s trying to be greener, with Supertree Grove being a case in point.”

What three things should every good airport should have?

“One: free, reliable wi-fi. Two: enough staff to deal with problems. Despite the implementation of robotics and automated systems, there should be someone you can speak to if you have an issue. And three: airports need to recognise that people don’t want their lives to stop when they have to spend time there. 

“This is another reason why airports are evolving into places where people can feel entertained, and where their precious time isn’t wasted. The same goes for why things like gyms are cropping up behind security.”

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