Major Challenges in Airport Design

In the mid-20th century, people envisioned air travel as something sophisticated and cool. After all, flying seemed exotic. It wasn’t something consumers had the chance to do before then, outside of climbing into a zeppelin.

Now, nothing seems more pedestrian. While airports around the world – such as Changi Airport in Singapore – are sleek and modern, many airports in the United States look old and dilapidated. They certainly don’t have a 90-foot vortex waterfall like they do in Changi.

In 2014, then Vice President Joseph Biden said that if you blindfolded someone and dropped them into LaGuardia Airport in New York, they’d say it’s like “being in a Third World country.” He is one of many prominent politicians on both sides of the political aisle who have called for infrastructure improvements in the U.S.

Everyone seems in agreement that changes are needed; however, the challenges to airport design are considerable. They involve both design architecture and aviation management. Here is a look at some of the issues.

Check-in Process

This involves many steps, all of which could be improved. Remote check-in and mobile boarding passes have already cut down on the time required by passengers to stand in line. However, bag checking is still a hassle, and some airports are considering the idea of allowing bags to be checked in a remote location, such as the parking lot. The idea is to move passengers into the security line as quickly as possible.

Passenger Journey

Anyone who travels has at least one terrible airport experience story. They usually involve huge crowds, inadequate or incomprehensible signs, long lines, etc. Architect Roger Duffy told Medium that one of his most memorable experiences was in an airport in Bangkok, which he described as a “sheer horror” that gave you the feeling of “constantly walking along underground supply tunnels.” Using architecture and design to mimic the ideal flow of passengers in wide spaces is one way to direct passengers without restricting them to confined spaces.


Some programs – one is already in use at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas – tracks bags through an RFD tag. This allows security to know where bags are and who they belong to. It also cuts down on lost luggage. Facial recognition technology may eventually make standing in line obsolete. Others are focusing on creating more comfortable areas for airport patrons to put their shoes back on and repacking bags after security.

Some of the issue involves passengers themselves – you haven’t been able to bring a liquid on a plane in a container of more than three ounces for a decade, but people run afoul of this every day.

Cultural Differences

Building in features that are desired by people from diverse cultures is another aspect of modern airport design. In the Medium interview, Duffy gave an example of building larger areas for people to send off or welcome a passenger in airports in India because sometimes the entire family comes. He also noted that in Southeast Asia, airports have larger shops and restaurants. All this also needs to be considered when designing airports in the U.S.

Environmental Challenges

Airports must be built to withstand natural disasters. In 2011, more than 1,000 passengers were trapped in an airport in Japan after a tsunami wave hit Sendai Airport. That’s an extreme example, but airport design must minimize the risks for disaster. They increasingly also use materials, lighting and other features that make these buildings more sustainable.


In the U.S., airport development faces more regulation than in many other countries. Laws designed to protect nearby areas from noise pollution, greenhouse gases and other environmental threats mean every airport project must jump through many hoops before completion.

Rising Passenger Expectations

Against the backdrop of all the above, passengers also expect more. While they may not need a waterfall, flyers (especially those who have gone to international destinations) expect a cleaner, smoother experience. Walking through tunnels, illogical passenger flow and areas where grey is the only color are not meeting expectations.

These are some of the challenges facing airports in the U.S. While redesigns are certainly needed, getting them done will prove a challenge.

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