Singapore's world tallest vertex waterfall
P. Kijsanayothin/istockphoto

Airports of the Future: Game-Changing Features That Would Make Travel More Pleasant

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Singapore's world tallest vertex waterfall
P. Kijsanayothin/istockphoto

Uplifting Experiences

The pandemic may have shut down travel for a spell in 2020 and 2021, but the world’s busiest airports used the time productively, adding amenities and sanitation measures, while upgrading the overall departure/arrival experience. Airport designers have looked at the practical — touchscreens, ticketing kiosks, self-check baggage, Plexiglas screens — and the experiential, improving public spaces with artwork and introducing passenger-focused amenities like nap pods, indoor gardens, and pet-relief areas. And if the Fentress Global Challenge is to be believed, the airports of the future will have everything from hyperloops and floating runways to futuristic-style aero cities. For now, here are some of the changes already introduced and some that are coming to an airport near you very soon.  


Related: 30 Air Travel Perks We Miss

SEA Spot Saver
Alaska Airlines

No-Touch Technology

While some airports are reducing the number of contact surfaces, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is eliminating them entirely. It's currently running two pilot programs to explore moving through Sea-Tac airport without touching a single screen: the SEA Spot Saver is a virtual queuing system that explores digital reservations for the TSA general-screening security checkpoints, and the "happyhover" kiosks allow travelers to check in and drop off luggage without touching any electronic screens.


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Security Checkpoint sign at the airport
stellalevi/istockphoto

Grocery-Store Style Security Checks

Get ready to kiss goodbye to snaking queues as you navigate security. According to the government-news site Nextgov, the Transportation Security Agency is seeking to develop a more efficient passenger self-screening process, similar to self-checkout at grocery stores. The self-screening system will need to enable a self-sufficient experience in the passenger screening process and still be able to detect “weapons and organic threat items hidden on passengers."


Related: 17 Ways to Get Through TSA Airport Security Faster

Airport Lactation Pod
Luke Wendling/istockphoto

Hub Airports to Have Lactation Spaces

The Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act, signed into law in 2018 has been extended to include small hub airports. The act requires a “clean, private, non-bathroom lactation space and a baby changing table in at least one men's and one women's restroom in each passenger terminal building.” While nursing rooms differ in amenities, this post by The Points Guy points out some of the better ones and those with sinks for cleaning bottle and pump parts. 


Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for freestanding Mamava spaces found in at least 69 airports across the U.S.  


Related: 16 of the Most Passenger-Friendly Airports in the World

Hudson Nonstop store
2021 Hudson

Convenience Stores Go Contactless

Everyone is in a rush at the airport, so contactless queue-free stores make total sense. If you’ve seen the ads for Amazon’s contactless stores, now you can experience the concept at the Hudson Nonstop store in Dallas Love Field Airport and Chicago Midway International. With Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology and a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and machine-learning algorithms, customers merely swipe their credit card or use “Tap to Pay” at the start, take what they want (food, beverages, face masks, etc.) and walk out. And don’t worry, there are still store associates present to help with operational hiccups. 


Related: Stuck on a Layover? Secrets to Beat Boredom in 19 Major Airports

Young woman with virtual reality headset
Petar Chernaev/istockphoto

In-Terminal Virtual Experiences

Airports are starting to leverage virtual reality to “sell” their destination. If you’re passing through New York but can’t travel into the city in person, the virtual reality experience “This is New York” brings the city to you. Situated at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4, the interactive experience accessible via a mobile device and VR goggles gives a 360-tour of landmarks like Queens Unisphere, the Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Prospect Park Boathouse, and the 191st Street Subway Station.

airport
Kirkikis / istockphoto

​​​Say Hello to Quiet Terminals

Airports around the world are getting quieter. San Francisco International Airport has introduced a "quiet airport" plan aimed at reducing noise by 40 percent throughout SFO, according to CNN. Measures include making announcements about specific flight boarding or delays at the relevant gates and reducing noise pollution from escalators and moving walkways. Other quiet airports to travel in peace at are Qatar's Hamad International Airport in Doha and Finland’s Helsinki International Airport. 


Pro Tip: The downside of quiet airport policies means monitoring the screens constantly. To make things easier, pre-flight, sign up for travel updates via the airline/airport app or by text message.  

Key West International Airport UVD Robot
Key West International Airport

Say Goodbye to Wet-Floor Signs

Travelers concerned about the sanitation level of airport terminals will feel more comfortable knowing that disinfecting robots are fast becoming the norm. Already rolled out in airports like London Heathrow, Key West International Airport, and Pittsburgh International Airport, these autonomous robots with ultraviolet (UV-C) light technology traverse the terminals “emitting a high-intensity ultraviolet UV-C wavelength light that kills pathogens in the air and on surfaces, one of those being the coronavirus,” according Travel Pulse


Related: 18 Ways the Pandemic Changed Travel

changi jurassic mile
©TripAdvisor

Get a Bike Ride or Run In

Just when we thought Singapore’s Changi Airport couldn’t add more amenities (rooftop swimming pool, canopy park at Jewel Changi with bouncing and walking nets) and traveler distractions (cactus garden, movie theater), they’ve opened the Changi Airport Connector. The 2-mile cycling and jogging path links Changi Airport to East Coast Park so travelers on an extended layover can get outside and enjoy some fresh air and hawker food. The connector offers more than just greenery but also the Changi Jurassic Mile, Singapore’s largest permanent outdoor display of life-sized dinosaurs — it’s kitsch but makes for a good photo opp! 


Pro Tip: There are bikes for hire and pay-per-use showers so you won’t end up boarding your next flight smelling ripe. 

Philadelphia International Airport GITA
Philadelphia International Airport

Contactless and Robot-Enabled Food Delivery

The next time you fly out of Philadelphia International Airport or Salt Lake City Airport, you might meet its latest employee, Gita, a robot programmed who stands 26 inches tall and can carry up to 40 pounds in food orders. Travelers no longer need to stand in a queue or rush to their boarding gate. Gita (along with her human delivery specialist) can deliver your burrito or salad bowl from numerous restaurants and retailers — and you decide how much contact you want with either the robot or her sidekick. “If they don’t want to have contact with her, she can walk up with the robot, open the lid and [then] she can retreat back, the person can take their food out of the robot without ever having to interact with her,” says MarketPlace PHL marketing and customer service manager Megan O’Connell. 


Related: Where to Find a Good Meal at Every Major U.S. Airport

Teenage girl wearing protective face mask in a public place
ArtMarie/istockphoto

Indoor Live View … Coming Soon to an Airport Near You

Where would the world be today without Google Maps? Likely lost, and turning around in circles repeatedly — which is usually what happens inside shopping malls and airport terminals. Google’s latest product Indoor Live View mitigates such issues by using augmented reality and graphics like arrows, directions, and icons to navigate a busy, indoor space. While only available in select locations presently, when it’s fully rolled out, you won’t have to fire up Google Translate to ask where the bathroom is. 

La Guardia Airport Art
LaGuardia Gateway Partners

Striking Artwork

LaGuardia gets a bad rep for being one of the worst U.S. airports, so no surprise it's used the pandemic downtime to reform its image. Part of its $8 billion renovation is a sight for sore eyes, quite literally. Eye-catching art installations like "La Guardia Vistas," a 42-foot tall stained-glass piece by Sabine Hornig that “merges over 1,100 photographs of New York City taken by the artist from Queens and Manhattan,” according to the publication Galerie. Blending art, function, and wonder, Danish artist Jeppe Hein's space-transforming sculptural red benches come with 70 brightly colored stainless-steel balloons secured in the air and dotted about the hall. In line with ongoing social distancing measures, the benches are artfully modified to give individuals personal space.  

Salt Lake City TRAX
rRich Legg/istockphoto

More Ease-of-Use Features at Salt Lake City

State-of-the-art functionality and a focus on ease of use will be key to Salt Lake City Airport’s ongoing rebuilding plans. Aside from replacing obsolete facilities and eliminating escalators and elevators (our lower back thank you), there’s a new TRAX station to get to and from the airport and downtown Salt Lake City more easily.

Pleasant comfortable place to relax before the flight
yacobchuk/istockphoto

Capital One Sets Up Its First Lounge

Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport is the site of the first Capital One lounge. Billed as “modern, airy spaces and amazing amenities,” the lounge includes all the bells and whistles of an airport lounge: a fully-stocked bar, grab-and-go food, quiet workspaces, shower rooms, and cycling and yoga rooms. Pricing depends on the type of Capital One card held. 

Pattern of modern bathroom sink and faucet in public toilet and restroom. Touchless taps. Virus protection concept. Sanitary rules and requirements. Contemporary washroom and wc in Office centre
NVS/istockphoto

Smart Touch-Free Restrooms

A nifty traveler feature already rolled out at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, restrooms now feature motion-activated faucets and soap and paper towel dispensers (although you should expect to wave your hand more than once) to cut down on surface contact. And so you don’t have to wait unnecessarily in line, vacant stalls are now displayed on digital screens at the entrance with colored lights on the ceiling to indicate the available toilet stalls.

The Ark at JFK
The Ark at JFK/Yelp

Improved Pet-Friendly Amenities

From "wooftops" (that’s outdoor garden patio space) and animal relief stations with faux grass and fire hydrants to pet resorts and fenced-in dog parks, U.S. airports are rolling out the red carpet for Fido to enjoy pre-boarding. Upgraded Points has done a study of the 10 most pet-friendly airports weighing up the amenities and boarding options, and it’s impressive. No surprise JFK comes out tops for its multiple outdoor spaces and facilities like ​​The Ark, which provides animal care and veterinary services for a wide range of animals including exotic pets. 


Related: Traveling With Pets: 12 Need-to-Know Tips

Newark Liberty International Airport
Newark Liberty International Airport

Expect Grand New American Express Centurion Lounges

Good news for Platinum cardholders, they’ll enjoy an upgraded lounge experience. Existing lounges in Seattle, Washington’s Reagan National Airport, San Francisco, and Las Vegas are all expanding in size and getting reworked to feature more airfield views and enjoy an open-air concept feel. The jewel, however, lies in Newark where part of the $2.7 billion redevelopment program will see the largest American Express Centurion Lounge. Packed with hotel-worthy amenities such as an outdoor terrace overlooking the airfield and Newark Harbor, a jazz-themed bar, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar, and kitted-out wellness rooms, it’s almost reason enough to plan a trip out of Newark.  

Businesswoman in waiting for her flight in an empty airport
visualspace/istockphoto

Voice-Enabled Customer Service

Instead of lugging your carry-on while you search for a customer service desk, use Google or Amazon Alexa to answer airport-related questions like how long security wait times are, details on restaurants and shops, accessibility services. Already rolled out at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, customers just need to say “launch S.E.A. airport” to their device (personal or home) and ask the question.

San Francisco International Airport T1
San Francisco International Airport

More Passenger-Friendly Amenities at SFO

Clean, contemporary, and bathed in natural light was the design mandate for San Francisco International Airport’s recent makeover. The ​​revamped passenger experience now includes nook-style seating, two food courts, an outdoor observation deck decorated with planters of succulents, a new exhibition honoring the life and legacy of Harvey Milk, and a new children’s area for the little ones to run off some steam pre-boarding. 


Pro Tip: Fans of the now-shuttered San Francisco soul food restaurant Farmerbrown can once again tuck into its fried chicken and seasonal veggie jambalaya at its SFO outlet near Gate C4, Terminal 2. 

illuminated Baoan international airport building in Shenzhen
fanjianhua/istockphoto

Lush, Indoor Gardens

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport will be the latest to embrace an outdoors-indoor setting with a large covered garden as part of its 4.3-million-square-foot terminal extension. Designed by architecture studio Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, according to this post by the architecture and design site Dezeen, it’ll have a “streamlined form with an undulating, sweeping roof that emulates the pattern of airflow” with a central 107,000-square-foot garden with a landscaped walkway and large green spaces. 

Red Sea International Airport
The Red Sea Development Company

Bringing the Desert Inside the Terminal

Here’s a more enjoyable way to be in the desert. Foster + Partners are designing the Red Sea International Airport on the west coast of Saudi Arabia inspired by the colors and textures of the desert landscape. Think energy-efficient dune-like pods filled with greenery that double up as mini terminals, oasis-style landscapes, and a roof shell influenced by the desert dunes.  

Atyourgate
@YourGate LLC.

Get Your Food Delivered

With airlines reducing in-flight meal service, airport food-delivery initiatives have become more popular. There’s AtYourGate, which has existed since 2018 and is currently available in 17 airports like Boston Logan and Tampa International where your order can be delivered right to your gate. Airports like Los Angeles International Airport has LAX Order Now to facilitate food-order pickup from in-terminal restaurants, and OrderSEA at Seattle Tacoma International Airport will enable travelers to browse, order, and pay for food orders and choose pick-up or delivery to a gate or another post-security spot in the terminal. 


Related: What Flight Attendants Want You To Know About Flying Now

Passengers inside Kansai International Airport (KIX)
John M. Chase/istockphoto

New Relaxation Areas

Built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay and designed by Renzo Piano. Japan's Kansai International Airport has long been lauded for its high-tech architectural style with its symmetrical clear roof and earthquake-proof structure that resembles a glider plane. Now it’s adding new relaxation areas to enhance the passenger experience, according to Airport Technology. Expected to be completed by 2025, it will “promote the use of Fast Travel, with technologies including a self-service check-in and bag drop facility, e-gates and smart lanes to shorten waiting time for passengers” making traveling in and out of Kansai an even more pleasurable experience.

Connie at the TWA Hotel, JFK
Charles Wollertz/istockphoto

On-Site Airport Hotels

With flight delays and cancellations happening with more frequency, choosing to fly out of an airport with an on-site hotel means quicker access to a warm shower and soft bed when you’ve been stranded for a lengthy period. The Grand Hyatt at SFO is accessible by AirTrain and offers micro stays by the hour, JFK’s TWA Hotel at Terminal 5 has a rooftop bar and pool with a view of the runway (non-guests can pay to use the pool) and the Hyatt Regency is located inside Orlando’s airport and close to all the terminals and the Disney gift shop. 


Pro Tip: Even if you don’t stay at the TWA hotel, a drink at the Connie cocktail lounge located inside a restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation Starliner plane with retro-style banquette seating and a cockpit with controls is a fun way to spend a layover. 

Related: Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed: What Can You Do?

Clark International Airport
LIPAD Corporation

Highlighting Local Culture and Heritage

Airport designers are moving away from constructing cold, soulless terminals and embracing design touches that communicate a sense of place from the moment travelers step off the airplane. According to CNN, the use of local cultural and heritage elements at Clark International Airport in the Philippines won worldwide recognition when it was nominated for the world architecture and design award Prix Versailles World Selection. The inspiration for the tiles and carpets drew from the rice fields, mountains, lakes, and specifically used a sulfurous teal that hikers will recognize from the crater lake of Mount Pinatubo.

Related: The World's Most Beautiful Volcanoes

Airport security
simonkr/istockphoto

Antimicrobial Security Trays

Getting through airport security is already an unpleasant experience, but knowing that you’re using common-use trays to put some of your most personal items (like your phone and wallet) is just plain gross. Thankfully, there’s a roll-out of antibacterial security trays being trialed in London’s Heathrow Airport and select Delta hubs in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minneapolis, La Guardian, and JFK in New York. While it doesn’t nix the possibility of catching the COVID-19 virus, its inbuilt antimicrobial technology means the lifespan of microbes in the container is greatly reduced. 

GoSleep Pod
GoSleep 2021

Power Nap in a Sleep Pod

Long layovers and flight disruptions are more bearable if you manage to find a decent spot to nap. Unfortunately, airport furniture isn’t the most ergonomic or sanitary; hence, dedicated sleep pods are becoming a terminal fixture. The next time you fly out/through New York’s JFK or London Heathrow via British Airways, make use of their Concorde Room EnergyPods. For non-lounge access, use GoSleep to locate their pods (for instance, in JFK’s Terminal 5 and Beijing Capital International). When in Germany (Munich and Frankfurt) seek out Napcabs kitted out with a full-size bed and desk, or if you’re traveling in Italy (Malpensa, Venezia, Torino), chill out in a Zzzleepandgo cabin with a multimedia touchscreen and USB connections. 

Suitcases on conveyor belt in the airport
baona/istockphoto

UV Baggage Tunnels

Before you reach for the baggage wrap, know that London’s Gatwick Airport, Malaysia’s KLIA, and Seoul’s Incheon International Airport are all using a new ultraviolet (UV) disinfection tunnel system to disinfect arriving passengers luggage. How effective is it? According to Gatwick Airport, “the system uses short-wavelength UV-C light, which laboratory tests show is effective against coronaviruses, including COVID-19 and SARS, as the radiation warps the structure of their genetic material and prevents the viral particles from replicating.” 

Portland International Airport
Port of Portland

More Eye-Catching Design Elements

The days of terminals encased in glass and steel are on their way out. The next time you’re flying into Portland International Airport, look up. A curving, sculptural timber-lattice roof will be installed by 2024. According to Portland Monthly, “2.5 million board feet of timber will go into the roof, its skeletal framework swooping down from giant circular skylights and letting the sunshine in on live trees and other plantings for an outdoorsy feel.”

Autonomous Ticket Check in China
anilbolukbas/istockphoto

High-Tech Timesavers

If the brand spanking new Chengdu Tianfu International Airport is anything to go by, the traveler in-airport experience is about to go even more high-tech. According to CNN, it’s kitted out with facial recognition software, self-check-in kiosks, smart security systems, self-boarding gates, and AI robot concierges. Plus, there’s also a metro line that connects it to the city in 37 to 44 minutes. 

End-to-End Facial Recognition
Paris Aéroport

End-to-End Facial Recognition

Soon, you won’t have to scramble for your boarding pass or reach for your phone when checking in for your flight. Currently being tested on Transavia flights at Paris-Orly, biometric technology will enable your face to become the only "document" required to pass through the various security checks within the airport. Registration is required before use, and biometric data will be stored securely and temporarily. 

Istanbul Airport
igairport

Seamless Passenger Journeys

If Istanbul Airport’s striking tulip-shaped control tower and transit hall configured like the Bosphorus Strait don’t impress, its high-tech elements will. Equipped with touchless technologies and biometric recognition software, the passenger experience is designed to be as seamless and efficient as possible. Robots travel the terminal acting as virtual assistants able to answer queries in several foreign languages, there are contact-free security checks and nifty visitor features like the “Where is my car?” function within the Istanbul Airport mobile app to help find one’s car easily — genius!