Revisioning Airports 2.0 - Transforming Intermodal Facilities to Multimodal Destinations

June 5, 2024
UC Berkeley
Adam Cohen, Survey Researcher, UC Berkeley
Adam Cohen, Survey Researcher, UC Berkeley

Airports have long been perceived as mere transit points where travelers wait before reaching their final destination. However, in today's rapidly evolving transportation ecosystem, airports are undergoing a profound transformation, shifting from mundane stopovers to dynamic destinations. This transformation is not merely aesthetic; it's about reshaping the passenger experience to meet the demands of the modern traveler.

From “Through” to “To”

Traditionally, airports have been viewed as places to pass through and connect between flights rather than destinations to enjoy. Just as transit-oriented development has transformed rail stations, airports also have the potential to become vibrant hubs of activity. Four key ingredients are necessary to make airports destinations:

       Intermodal Connectivity: Integrating multiple modes of transportation to allow travelers to seamlessly transition between different modes to create an epicenter of activity where people can dine, shop, and recreate both as a destination and while waiting between modal transfers. In other words, airports must bring people together and create demand for on- and near- airport commercial activity. Most large hub airports such as San Francisco (SFO), Singapore Changi (SIN), Zurich (ZRH), and others excel at intermodal connectivity.

       Land Use and Amenities:  Aerotropolises or airport cities - a concept originally developed by Dr. John Kasarda - are developments at or very close to airports. In addition to aviation services, airport cities typically offer land uses and on-site amenities at urban transit centers such as a mix of commercial, industrial, logistics, retail, entertainment, and hospitality land uses. Amsterdam airport is a great example which features its unique Schiphol Plaza featuring pre-security shopping and dining options, boutiques, and cultural experiences that serve travelers and locals alike.

       People Focused Design: Airports must prioritize the needs and experiences of users through placemaking and accessibility. Placemaking creates distinct zones within an airport, each with its own unique identity and character. Unique architectural elements, art, and iconic elements can serve as focal points. Intuitive physical and digital wayfinding can guide people between terminals, transportation hubs, commercial areas, and other key destinations. Airports are also enhancing accessibility for people with a variety of disabilities. Minneapolis–Saint Paul (MSP) is piloting a number of technologies intended to enhance accessibility for people with auditory disabilities, such as hearing loops that broadcast announcements to passengers' hearing aids, and talk-to-text that displays announcements on nearby screens in real-time.

       Digital Connectivity: The digitization of airports plays a crucial role in enhancing the passenger experience. Automation will continue to have a significant role in airports, with more self-service options for check-in, baggage handling, security screening, boarding, customer service, contactless transactions, and pre-flight services (e.g., parking reservations, food ordering, and lounge access). In addition to these core traveler services, digital connectivity will be critical for next generation passenger experiences, such as biometric identification at security checkpoints, artificial intelligence and machine learning to personalize the traveler experience (e.g., targeted retail offers and customized airport services), and augmented reality to provide immersive wayfinding and entertainment options.  These emerging technologies will contribute to the growth of connected travelers dependent on digital connectivity throughout their entire journey. 

Lessons from Entertainment Centers

Convention centers and sports venues can offer valuable insights applicable to airports. Like airports with distinct land- and air- sides, entertainment venues typically feature non-ticketed and ticketed sides, and also cater to diverse visitors ranging from budget conscious to VIPs. Similarly, entertainment centers also depend on ancillary revenue beyond core services similar to the role of non-aeronautical revenue for airports. Airports and entertainment venues also manage crowds and security. 

At the center of it all is connectivity. As was recently cited in Boldyn Network’s Sports and Entertainment Report, “Connectivity needs to be in every venue's playbook.” We can learn much from looking at world-class entertainment venues like GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, as well as at Arena in L.A. At each of these locations, Boldyn has implemented a best-in-class 5G network that unlocks a next-level fan experience.

What makes entertainment centers different from many airports, is that the most vibrant entertainment districts offer flexible multi-purpose spaces designed for various activities and they feature amenities such as mobility hubs, restaurants, bars, hotels, retail shops, and green spaces to create vibrant entertainment districts that cater to event attendees and non-attendees. Airports can adopt similar strategies by enhancing landside retail, dining, and other amenities, and designing adaptable spaces that can accommodate changing passenger preferences (e.g., modular seating arrangements, movable partitions, and multipurpose areas that can be reconfigured to accommodate different types of activities).

A Look Ahead

Airports are on the cusp of a rapid transformation that will impact how people interact with physical and digital spaces at airports. This transformation is being driven by advancements in technology, changing passenger expectations, and the need for airports to become more vibrant destinations. We can look to industry innovators like Boldyn who connect the world’s largest transit hubs, most iconic stadiums, and the busiest airports to lead this charge. They are setting a new standard with industry-leading connectivity that is transforming these centers into destinations – leveraging its experience in venues to transform airports into places we want to spend time at. These innovations have the potential to redefine the airport experience, turning them into dynamic destinations that reflect the interconnected nature of contemporary urban transportation.

About the Author

Adam Cohen | Survey Researcher

Adam Cohen is a nationally and internationally recognized researcher in innovative and emerging transportation technologies, has completed more than 50 research projects on advanced air mobility, mobility hubs, mobility as a service, shared mobility, and automated vehicles.Collectively, this work is influencing policy making at the federal, state, regional, and local levels of government. Adam also co-teaches a professional development course on Airport Systems Planning and Design. Previously, Adam worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory (ITTL) at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).