Image: Rethinking airports
Courtesy: Gensler
This conceptual design for an expansion to Little Rock National Airport flips the conventional organization of arrival and departure, elevating baggage claim to the topmost, light-infused level of the terminal.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/28/2009 8:40:52 AM ET 2009-07-28T12:40:52

With apologies to George Carlin, if airports are all about going places, why do you begin your trip in a terminal?

Is it a) because early airports took their cues from the railroad industry and its famous “terminus” stations, b) because plane station just sounds silly or c) because they’re where dreams of easy, stress-free travel go to die?

The obvious answer: d) all of the above, although if various architects and airport managers have their way, at least one of the three is poised for major change.

Is this any way to run an airport?
It’s no surprise that the upheaval in the airline industry has taken an associated toll on airports as formerly congested concourses have been reduced to ranks of empty gates. The loss of revenue is bad enough — on average, airline landing fees account for about one-third of airport revenue — but, historically, those empty gates often stayed that way because long-term, exclusive leases prohibited other airlines from filling them.

“In the old days, you signed 30-year leases with your airlines, and they called the shots on what you did in terms of expansion and capital improvements,” says Ron Steinert, co-director of the aviation practice at Gensler, an architecture and design company. “Often the answer wasn’t no; it was hell no.”

Nor was “yes” always the ideal answer, especially when mergers, bankruptcies and capacity cuts can leave airports with new, but also newly empty, facilities. “Designing a terminal to be used by a particular carrier that may not be around in five years is not a particularly smart investment,” says Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and technical operations for Airports Council International — North America.

Yea or nay, the bottom line is that airports have had to take a more proactive approach to airline leases, capital improvements and the passenger experience in general. “Airlines are turning the reins back to airports,” says Derrick Choi of XChange Architects. “That’s a seismic shift.”

More to the point, perhaps, it’s also a major factor in the continuing shift to shared gates, self-service kiosks and other common-use facilities. With fewer airline dollars available, airports have even more incentive to maximize flexibility and optimize operations. “These are transformative changes,” says Choi. “People talk about the future, but the reality is that the future has arrived.”

Tomorrow’s ticketing hall today
Some of the most significant changes are redefining the check-in process and, by extension, the entire concept of the ticket counter. “Even that name is horribly outmoded,” says Samuel Ingalls, assistant director of aviation, information systems, at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. “There aren’t many tickets bought at airport counters anymore.”

Instead, more passengers head for the airport’s common-use self-service kiosks — in the airport or off-site at the Las Vegas Convention Center or four other locations — to check in, print their boarding passes and bypass the ticket counter altogether. According to Ingalls, McCarran, which pioneered self-service check-in kiosks in the U.S. in 2003, is about to print its 32 millionth kiosk-based boarding pass.

Self-service will also be a hallmark of Terminal 3, the 1.9-million-square-foot terminal set to open in mid-2012. Going a step further, the facility has been designed for self-tagging of checked luggage on the assumption that TSA will eventually approve the process. As the evolution continues, says Ingalls, “the ticketing hall will become a bag-drop area.”

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Traditional ticket counters are disappearing at other airports, as well. Raleigh-Durham International Airport, for example, opened the first phase of its 36-gate Terminal 2 project last October with common-use kiosks and island-style ticket counters that can be quickly reconfigured as carrier and passenger demand warrant.

The result, says Airport Deputy Director Dave Powell, is more flexibility, faster processing and a more passenger-friendly experience: “You don’t have to walk 100 or 200 feet right or left to get to your airline’s ticket counter and 100 or 200 feet back. Instead, you walk into the terminal and step zero feet out of your path to security.”

It’s all part of what Steinert sees as a process toward reconfiguring ticket halls to reflect the fact that the ticketing/check-in process is undergoing radical change. (JetBlue’s Gensler-designed T5 terminal at JFK, he notes, puts security front and center with a handful of ticketing and bag-check stations off to the sides.) In the future, he suggests, the entire departure sequence will diminish in importance, giving airports and the destinations they serve the opportunity to celebrate the arrival experience instead.

Furthermore, he says, airports will be able to build smaller, greener, less-expensive terminals that can be adapted to what will surely be continuing changes in the airline industry. And while the current economic crisis has put many projects on hold, that, too, will change as people begin to travel again, stimulus funds are distributed and Congress considers raising the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC).

“Eventually travel will come back,” says Choi. “In the meantime, this has been a good time for us to rethink how we implement the future of airport design.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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