Runway success: 21st-century airports

With more people flying today than ever before, airports are finding that building a proposition that places customer experience at its heart is key to gaining the edge over competitors

We’ve all been there. You’re rushing to get your flight for that important business meeting overseas. You’ve battled with a creaking public transport infrastructure and a spirit-draining taxi ride of slow-moving traffic and your driver’s ‘short cuts’. Now, with baggage checked and security negotiated, you heave a sigh of relief – only to be confronted by confusing airport signage, shop workers who want to sell you designer fragrances, and crowds of flustered-looking fellow travellers trying to work out where their gate is.

At least that’s the way it can be in so many airports around the world that were designed for another era and are being repurposed for the demands of today. But with one eye on what came before and another on projected future growth, the modern, 21st century airport is a rather different proposition – a slicker, user-friendly and altogether more pleasant place to be.

Starting over

When Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) opens to the public  it will, says Ralf Kunkel, Head of Communications at Berlin Airports, have passenger experience at its heart. “We had the unique opportunity to design a completely new airport,” he says. 

“This enabled us to balance operational and commercial needs, taking into account the latest developments in air travel. Fortunately, we found that what works well operationally is also good for passengers. For instance, all passengers will go through the one central terminal and through centralised security, which is convenient for them but also efficient for the airport operator.”

The new airport will replace Tegel and Schoenefeld and has a capacity of 27 million, extendable to 45 million. Served by an extensive transport infrastructure, its design followed a ‘one roof concept’.

“It’s easy to navigate and distances are very short,” says Kunkel. As well as practical considerations, close attention has been paid to aesthetics, too – there are even six specially commissioned art installations dotted around the airport.

And as for those commercially essential but often inappropriately positioned shops, Kunkel casually wafts away any concerns. “Retail and other amenities at BER are ‘on your way’, not ‘in your way’. Conflicts between operational and commercial considerations arise mostly when existing airports are modernised, not when you can plan an airport from scratch.”

World centre

One such ‘moderniser’ is Manchester International Airport, originally built in 1938. It is now the UK’s third busiest airport (behind London’s Heathrow and Gatwick), with annual total passengers to January 2013 of 19.9 million. Manchester Airport Group (MAG) continues to expand its operations – the group recently bought Stansted Airport – and its ambitious new Airport City project hopes to position Manchester as a centre for global business.

“Airport City aims to transform Manchester Airport from a regional transport hub into an international business destination in its own right,” says Airport City Director, John Atkins. The project will deliver five million square feet of business space over the next 10 years, putting Manchester in competition with similar airport developments in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Frankfurt.

“Factors such as globalisation, demand for air travel and pressure to diversify mean 21st century airports are evolving into destinations people travel to, rather than just through,” he says. “They complement city centres, offering not just a gateway for travel but also an economic hub where people live, work and even play – which is why the airport city concept has evolved at several major airports worldwide.”

Passenger numbers

Having a competitive edge globally is something that Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, is certainly very conscious of. Dubai International Airport (DBX) last month announced that it had become the world’s third ranked airport for international passenger numbers, overtaking Hong Kong, with an annual traffic figure of nearly 58 million. “We now have London’s Heathrow and the number one spot firmly in our sights,” says Griffiths.

At Dubai – and every truly 21st-century airport – the focus is on having the edge over the competition. Back in Berlin, that means being both “global and distinguishable from other airports across the world. We wanted the airport to have a particular Berlin flair while at the same time offering well-known brands and restaurants.” In Manchester, too, the need to be different but recognisable is important.

“In order to attract world class companies we need world class designs and high quality public realm as well as high quality buildings,” says Atkins. The days of an airport just needing a runway and a few shops are, it seems, well and truly over.