As early as 2001, officials at the Miami International Airport saw troubling signs - in this case, the kind of signs that are intended to guide travelers swiftly through the airport, but had instead multiplied into a hodgepodge of confusing and often outdated information.
To clear things up, the airport brought in a team from Carter & Burgess Inc., a consulting firm based in Fort Worth, Texas, whose specialties include environmental graphic design, also known as "wayfinding."
On arriving at the airport, Carter & Burgess wayfinder David Roberts was struck by one particular sign near a parking garage meant to guide drivers to an airport exit. It said, "Escape to the City." "We thought: 'Wow, is it really that bad in here?'" Roberts recalls.
From the viewpoint of a signage expert, it was that bad. "One concourse would have one language, another would have four, another three," he says. Two parking garages were labeled, inscrutably, "Flamingo" and "Dolphin." The garages have since been relabeled as North and South and are color-coded; the "Escape to the City" sign now says "Airport Exit."
As crowded airports launch expansion and renovation projects, more travelers are getting lost just when time is of the essence. Signage is "a big, big issue" for officials, says Andreas Schimm, a spokesman for trade group Airports Council International. Aggravated customers can mean lost business for airports and airlines.
Chintu Pandya, a New Yorker who travels more than 200,000 miles a year, blamed lack of signage at Washington's Dulles International Airport for causing him to miss a shuttle bus, and thus a flight, on a recent trip. Now if he flies to the Washington area, he chooses Baltimore or Reagan National. Without good signs, he says, "I don't have enough time to figure it out myself if I have short connections."
Good signage doesn't come cheap. A new $2 billion terminal can require a sign budget of about $12 million, including $1.5 million in consulting fees. Miami International, still implementing its overhaul, expects to spend up to $30 million.
Even so, sign consultants are in demand. For their compensation, these wayfinding specialists must navigate through a myriad of foreign cultures, local building ordinances and delicate political issues. Consultants must also sort through a morass of often-conflicting interests and opinions. Maintenance workers want signs that are easy to clean and don't require light bulbs, which must be replaced. Airport executives want signs that are easy to see and guide passengers quickly to gates. Architects want signs that won't ruin their design aesthetic.
Lawyers want signs that ward off potential liability. Hearing that people were getting injured on escalators while wearing rubber-soled shoes like Crocs and flip-flops, attorneys at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport recommended signage to solve the problem. "You can only imagine what a graphic pictogram of a flip-flop might do," said Jon Yee, the airport's signage and graphics manager. The problem has yet to be resolved.
With the rise of international travel, language issues also have become critical. Should signs be multilingual? Which language gets top billing?
Translations can be especially tricky because even within the same language, idioms vary from country to country. At Hartsfield, where Delta Air Lines Inc. has been expanding into Latin American markets, officials last year began posting some signs in English and Spanish. But controversy erupted over the Spanish translation for "gate." Delta finally decided on "salida," (Spanish for "exit"), but some Spanish-speakers complain the word should be "puerta," or "door," says Yee.
The renovations are part of a $50 million capital program that will include improvements to the runway/ taxiway, stormwater management and the baggage claim carousels.
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The international terminal, scheduled to open a week from today, speaks with a global voice and a welcoming Texas twang to put travelers at ease.