Can America’s Airports Come Back Better?

For some U.S. airports, the pandemic pause presented an opportunity to innovate and become models for the future of air travel.

Can America’s Airports Come Back Better?

A new terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport will feature four outdoor terraces.

Rendering by Gensler + HDR in association with luis vidal + architects

As any international traveler knows firsthand, U.S. airports have long lagged behind their foreign counterparts in both aesthetic appeal and the amenities they offer. Ironically, however, the coronavirus pandemic that devastated air travel has given domestic airports a chance to up their game—and become world-class gateways in their own right.

To be sure, the crisis dealt a body blow to the country’s airports, which collectively lost $40 billion in the past year, according to Airports Council International. Some small airfields in places like Dubuque, Iowa, and Greenville, North Carolina, briefly had no commercial airline flights at all, as airlines slashed their route networks.

The biggest cities were hard hit too: John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport, the trio that serves New York City, handled nearly 140 million passengers in 2019; in 2020, that number sank to about 40 million, down about 70 percent.

But it wasn’t a total loss. Many hubs were able to cushion the impact of the crisis thanks to federal pandemic aid programs and by seeking creative revenue sources, such as private aviation flights and flight schools. (The Biden Administration also plans on injecting more investment into airport infrastructure moving forward.) And a number of larger airports used the downtime profitably, speeding up existing improvement projects and rolling out innovations that could transform the entire passenger experience for years to come.

“The airport of the future is being designed now,” says Luis Vidal, president and founding partner of luis vidal + architects, designer of London Heathrow’s much-lauded “Queen’s Terminal” (Terminal 2) as well as new facilities in Pittsburgh, Boston, Dallas, and Denver. “In the era of COVID-19, we are witnessing the birth of new technologies and architectural design that will allow passengers to travel safely but also give them a feeling of freedom.”

Modernizations of the airport experience like self-service check-in and biometric IDs (namely facial recognition technology) were already in the works prior to 2020, but with health concerns top of mind, they’re taking on a new urgency. And the developments go beyond technology-fueled advancements. Airports are aiming to offer a more visually pleasing and calming environment as well. Here are some of the main trends in reimagining the way we fly and examples of airports leading the way.

High tech, low stress

SFO’s “quiet airport” program aims to lower travelers’ stress by reducing background noise.

SFO’s “quiet airport” program aims to lower travelers’ stress by reducing background noise.

Photo by Shutterstock

For one, the pandemic is getting us faster to the utopian goal of a queue-less airport. While COVID-19 sped up demand for self-service, contactless options, the end result is that fewer people will have to line up to interact with a human being.

“Social norms around personal space are changing,” says Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), which is breaking ground on a new terminal this fall. Cassotis adds that technology is helping to eliminate crowding around counters, gates, and retail outlets. PIT, she notes, is piloting touchless technology like ticketing kiosks that you can activate with your smartphone and concessions that don’t have a single touchpoint. “These will offer a better passenger experience regardless of whether there’s a pandemic or not,” she adds.

At Tampa International Airport, automated electronic, or “E-gates,” allowing fliers to scan their own boarding passes, have been installed at the shuttles leading to the airside concourses so you can arrive at your gate ready to board. Tampa also recently rolled out a meal delivery service, akin to “Uber Eats,” that allows passengers to order food from any terminal, pay for it via their phone, and have it delivered to the location of their choice, which can also help minimize lines and crowding at food concessions.

And several airports, including Seattle-Tacoma and Boston Logan, are testing digital queuing at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints this summer, whereby travelers can reserve a specific time to pass through security.

There are also some lower-tech improvements in the works to tackle problems like loud noise that can contribute to passengers’ stress and affect the overall quality of the air travel experience. San Francisco International Airport, for example, has a “quiet airport” program aimed at lowering stress by reducing the amount of background noise that travelers are exposed to inside the terminals, such as those annoying blasts from the P.A. system. It has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in announcements at departure gates, according to Doug Yakel, public information officer for the Northern California hub. A similar effort is also underway in New York, where LaGuardia is taking steps to cut down on canned music and other sources of noise pollution.

And more airports are putting aside space for passengers who want—or perhaps need—a private place to recompose or relax. Pittsburgh says it’s one of the first airports to open a space called Presley’s Place, a room for travelers with sensory sensitivities or for families that need to “de-escalate” before or after their flight.

A sense of place

LaGuardia? Is that you?

LaGuardia? Is that you?

Courtesy of LaGuardia Gateway Partners

In the past, many domestic airports offered a bland “anywhere U.S.A.” ambience, with drab concourses full of ubiquitous fast-food chains and retail stores. And who can forget then-Vice President Joe Biden’s famous 2014 put-down that New York’s LaGuardia Airport feels like it’s in “some third-world country”?

Biden wouldn’t recognize the “new LaGuardia,” an $8 billion overhaul of the facility that even partially finished is already a stunning 21st-century showcase of its hometown with a museum-worthy collection of art from local talents displayed among the hub’s soaring ceilings. With murals depicting city landmarks, arriving passengers will have no doubt they’re just a few miles from Broadway, notes Frank Scremin, chief operating officer of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, which is developing the new Central Terminal B. (Delta Air Lines is responsible for the other half of the airport’s transformation, building its own new terminal next door.)

The terminal’s eateries are also inspired by the city’s foodie scene, including chef Marc Forgione’s Mulberry Street restaurant as well as Eli’s Essentials from Eli Zabar of the famed food empire. Other updates include floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Manhattan skyline, indoor greenery, and a new waterfall-cum-laser light show of New York landmarks and other scenes, all of which offer a welcome break from the narrow, cramped corridors of the facility it’s replacing. “Our view is that coming through an airport should be an experience equivalent to going to a nice hotel,” says Scremin.

Showcasing the local environment is also a major priority at Pittsburgh, which is building a new, $1.4 billion terminal (a project slated for completion in 2024). The new Luis Vidal–designed building “will put all of the Pittsburgh region on display” in its design, says Cassotis. That encompasses everything from an undulating roof meant to evoke the nearby rolling hills to wood from local Allegheny forests; the steel, she notes, “is actually still produced in Pittsburgh and will be rolled right across the river to the airport.”

On the West Coast, San Francisco’s new Harvey Milk terminal, which partially opened just as the pandemic hit in 2020 (the rest is set to open in 2024) features exhibits and murals honoring the legacy of its eponymous local hero, another nod to the city’s history that reminds travelers exactly where they are.

A breath of fresh air

The outdoor Sky Deck at the Delta Sky Club in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Concourse F

The outdoor Sky Deck at the Delta Sky Club in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Concourse F

Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

The old-fashioned airport observation deck, where fliers got a front-row view of the runway, seemed to go out of favor after 9/11, but now the concept is back—just in time to satisfy a pandemic-driven demand for fresh air. Most new airport terminals feature some outdoor space; Pittsburgh’s new terminal will have no fewer than four terraces, two of which are past security. LaGuardia’s central terminal will have an outdoor dining patio. Delta has opened outdoor Sky Decks at its Sky Club lounges at major hubs like Atlanta, New York’s JFK, and Salt Lake City and will reopen a newly renovated one at Los Angeles International Airport as part of its terminal renovation (another project that got accelerated thanks to COVID-19).

Airports are also upgrading the air filtration systems in passenger terminals to levels similar to those in use at hospitals and already in place on commercial aircraft. “We’re looking into a pilot of technology that measures how air circulates in various spaces to get a sense of how viruses could spread” in a terminal, says a spokesperson for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the region’s airfields.

Cleaner, greener hubs

When it opens in 2023, the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport will aim for the highest LEED certification.

When it opens in 2023, the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport will aim for the highest LEED certification.

Courtesy of Kansas City International Airport

Virtually any new airport terminal in development anywhere in the world (including the U.S.) is going green by using more natural light, fossil fuel energy alternatives, and local building materials rather than imports, among other more environmentally friendly measures. In Kansas City, where the current aging airport is being demolished to make way for a grand new $1.5 billion terminal, sustainability has been at the forefront of the project, which is on track to win the highest LEED certification (or green-building rating) when it opens in 2023. The plan is to incorporate native plant landscaping, carbon sequestration (carbon capture aimed at reducing emissions), and renewable energy sources that would all contribute to a carbon-neutral operation, according to news reports.

Existing facilities are modifying their energy use, with solar energy playing a growing role. Chattanooga Airport in Tennessee several years ago became the first in the United States to go fully solar.

The growth dilemma

There’s one major issue U.S. airports will be facing postpandemic—how to expand. No new major airports have been built from scratch in this country in a generation, and the last big one, Denver, opened more than 25 years ago. That’s in stark contrast to other parts of the world where in recent years huge new hubs have risen in such places as Istanbul, Dubai, and Berlin, most with hefty support from their national governments.

Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research, says this is a reflection of how hard it is to get local approval for new airport projects in the U.S. from municipalities. “U.S. airports are usually funded at a local or city level, and they may not place the same priority as some countries do on having an airport that’s a point of pride.” A lot of domestic airports essentially date back to the 1960s and ’70s, he notes, and the cosmetic improvements that have been made over the years “is basically putting lipstick on pigs,” he cracks.

While many of America’s airports still have a long way to go before they can compete with some of their international colleagues, the country’s post-COVID trailblazing airports hold much promise for at least making the experience of getting from curb to plane a lot more pleasurable than it was prepandemic.

>> Next: The Best Airlines in the World: AFAR Travelers’ Awards

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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