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The Idealog guide to airport design innovations

Top image: Portland International Airport’s kerbside area canopy.


Some of us love them. Others… not so much.

Cliché? You bet. But the truth is often cliché.

Here’s another bit of cliché: like them or not, airports are marvels of design and engineering. The following is a sampler of some of those marvels, while others are… well, they’re just cool design features in the structures almost all of us have visited at least once in our lives.

Berlin-Tegel and super-fast check-in and boarding

Thanks to its unusual hexagonal shape, the check-in and boarding process at Berlin’s Flughafen Tegel – the larger of two main international airports currently in use in the German capital (don’t even get started on the seemingly perpetually delayed Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which at the rate it’s going will likely open sometime after the Second Coming) – is lightning-quick. How quick are we talking? Sometimes, it’s possible to check in, pass through security, and be sitting on the plane in as little as 15 minutes. That’s because the main terminal building’s design means it can be just 30 metres of walking distance from the check-in desk to the plane. It’s a testament to German efficiency – and begs the question why more airports aren’t built in the same shape.

Inside Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Check-in desks are on the left, and kerbside pick-up/drop-off is on the right.

Moscow Sheremetyevo’s in-terminal hotel

In 2013, while on the run from US authorities, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden spent 40 days inside the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport because he didn’t have a Russian visa. As awful as that might sound for some, it probably wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, as Snowden spent a fair bit of that time not sleeping in corners or on plastic chairs, but holed up inside the uber-cosy hotel located inside the transit area. The WiFi-connected hotel charges by the hour, but also has discounted day rates for ultra-long (or in Snowden’s case, ultra-ultra-ultra-long) layovers. In this writer’s experience, it’s also surprisingly quiet, despite being inside, well, an airport. Moscow’s main international airport is also far from alone in such a design feature: other airports, such as Dubai, also have hotels inside their terminals before passengers have to clear immigration and customs.

Outside the in-terminal hotel at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Photo credit: Ben Mack.

Auckland’s e-gates

Didn’t think Aotearoa would be left off this list, did you? E-gates – found throughout New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere around the world – drastically reduce queues at immigration (at least if you have a passport from a nation involved in the smart gate programme), and can help law enforcement more efficiently catch suspected criminals or other wanted individuals who might be trying to sneak in to New Zealand or get out in an attempt to escape prosecution thanks to their facial recognition technology. While the system is not without its detractors, it’s an innovative combination of both design and technology.

SmartGate kiosks in Sydney Airport.

Portland International Airport and covered drop-off/pick-up areas and light rail

Portland, Oregon’s airport is not the biggest airport around (it handles about as many passengers as Auckland), but it has been consistently ranked as among the best airports in North America. It wasn’t always the case though, when the misery caused by traffic jams caused by poor (and narrow) access from major motorways was only compounded by people getting drenched upon getting out of their vehicles due to the Rose City’s seemingly relentless rain. That all changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a major public works project resulted in the construction of a light rail line to the airport and a canopy that was built over the kerbside area between the terminal and the covered car park to block the rain. With plans for a light rail line to go from Auckland’s city centre to the airport, Portland’s model is one the Government could perhaps look to.

Portland International Airport’s kerbside area canopy.

Portland International Airport’s light rail station.

Amsterdam-Schiphol’s in-terminal park

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport might just be the greenest airport in the world. Not only does it have innovations like stationary bikes passengers can pedal to charge their phones and other devices, but it’s also home to the world’s first park located inside a terminal. Oh, and it also uses mixed reality (MR) technology to reduce passenger anxiety. Erg goed.

Wellington’s Hobbit-inspired art

Love it or hate it, Sir Peter Jackson’s film adaptions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are something the Land of the Long White Cloud will probably forever be associated with in the minds of overseas visitors. Wellington Airport has certainly capitalised on that, with massive public artworks including Gandalf riding a giant eagle, Gollum/Sméagol doing Gollum/Sméagol things, and the fearsome dragon Smaug keeping an eye on people checking in/possibly eyeing up potential dinner prospects. Like them or not, the art livens up the space and adds a distinctive flavour that has now made Wellington Airport world-famous.

Wellington Airport. Photo credit: Ben Mack.

Wellington Airport. Photo credit: Ben Mack.

People movers and sky trains

Face it: airports are big places, and it can take a while to get from point A to point B – which isn’t helpful when you just heard your flight is boarding at the other end of the terminal, and there as no prior announcement about a gate change. Enter various transport innovations, like conveyor belts on the floor, trains and buses going from one terminal to another, and more. Examples include the Skytrain at Düsseldorf Airport in Germany, The Plane Train at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (the world’s busiest airport by number of passengers), the PHX Sky Train in Phoenix, Arizona, and more.

Skytrain at Düsseldorf Airport in Germany.

Kuala Lumpur and in-terminal entertainment and rainforest

Kuala Lumpur may be infamous now as the site of where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his half-brother publicly assassinated, but prior to that, it was known as for its large shopping mall and entertainment complex inside the terminal. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill airport shopping mecca, either: sure, there may be the likes of Burberry, Coach, H&M, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo and Hugo Boss, but there’s also a movie lounge where people can watch free movies, a gym, several hotels, grocery stores, playgrounds, spas, and more. There’s so much to do, one could be excused for never making it out of the airport. Oh, and there’s also an actual rainforest.

The Jungle boardwalk, a recreational walk path located at the centre core of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s satellite terminal.

Tallinn Airport’s library

Idealog has covered this before, and for good reason: it’s a library. Inside an airport. What more needs to be said?

Tallinn Airport. Photo credit: Ben Mack.
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