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Three Airport Terminal Trends Affecting the Future of Aviation

Feb 5, 2019 7 MIN. READ
How will modern trends impact the design and operation of airports in this century and beyond?

The era of airport terminal development is occurring in the most rapid period of change in human history. After all, society has actively built roads for over 6,000 years, while railway development has existed for a little over 300 years.

Airports and terminals: just under a century in the making.

While previous generations of airport architects grappled with new technology (understanding functional efficiency in terminals—an area we have yet to master), today’s planners must now account for evolving processes, structural factors, and preferences that will shape the airports of tomorrow.

Many terminals built today will continue to operate at the end of this century, meaning current design decisions will have long-term, far-reaching consequences. Today’s investors need to make informed decisions to protect and optimize their returns.

How will modern trends impact the design and operation of airports in this century and beyond? Three key tech and social influences will shape the travel industry in the coming decades:

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1. An evolving terrorist threat

Over the last two decades, few areas of airports have changed as dramatically as security. Prior to 2001, airports were akin to bus or train stations—passengers could hop on or off with ease. That open-access approach changed markedly after 9/11 and once again after the failed liquids attack of 2006.

In the wake of 9/11, mandatory regulatory changes initially led to reduced service levels and increased passenger dissatisfaction. Technology has since caught up with the evolving threat and mollified these challenges. In many parts of the world, security still remains a deeply unpleasant part of the air travel experience; in others, it has improved demonstrably since 2006. London Gatwick, in particular, deserves recognition for throughput rates that were unheard of 10 years ago.

Increasing requirements for hold luggage screening are driving technological improvements. These advancements are notable, but they do not amount to a permanent solution: technological progress will only occasion newer, smarter terrorist tactics. And those terrorists, served by the same data-rich environment, may be able to realize new threats as rapidly as new technology can respond.

A nimble, innovative terrorist can take advantage of new threats faster than legacy infrastructure can respond. For airports, upgrading a legacy system is fraught with challenges: long lag times between technological investments; a financial need to recoup investments; and reluctance to invest in the next generation of technology too quickly. The typical response is to slow the process down, resulting in longer luggage inspection times than newer technology might enable.

Conversely, as with customs checks, increasing intelligence will aid the border authorities, provided they can share information and intelligence effectively across borders.