April 20, 2015
By Lee Glenn, Director of Aviation Design, HKS, Inc.

The design success factors for U.S. domestic and U.S. international aviation terminals are on a path of rapid convergence. 

This is due in part to poignant political pressure for American aviation facilities to measure up to the standards that European, Middle Eastern and Asian facilities have set. Dissatisfaction with American airline infrastructure has been documented in newspapers, online articles and a multitude of diverse publications. Most famously, Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of La Guardia to a third-world airport has struck home with the public, politicians and airport operators alike. 

In addition, success for both uses grows comes from a confluence of expectations between U.S. domestic and international passengers. U.S. citizens commonly travel abroad. Foreign citizens commonly travel domestically. What they are looking for in an efficient, calming, inspiring travel experience is informed by a global perspective. 

A Best-in-Show Example

Finished in 2005, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s (DFW) Terminal D was built as the airport’s primary international terminal, featuring 28 swing gates. However, the terminal was built with flexibility in mind. Though it contains the airport’s only fully functional Federal Inspection Services (FIS) international arrivals processing facility, the amount of international traffic does not warrant dedicating the entire terminal for that use. 

As a major hub for American Airlines, today the traffic through Terminal D is approximately 65 percent domestic, yet the terminal continues to function with a high level of passenger service and an elevated passenger experience. This success has been recognized by Forbes Traveler, which named DFW as one of the world’s best airports for a layover — the only airport in the Americas to receive this distinguished designation. The Forbes article notes that travelers prefer terminals with varied shopping, integrated hotels and leisure amenities such as art exhibits, all of which can be found in Terminal D, which it termed “state of the art.” In addition, Terminal D has won consecutive awards from Airport Revenue News for Best Concessions Program and Best Customer Service. 

In either its international incarnation or in its current, dominantly domestic use, the core design attributes of the terminal contribute equally to its success:

  •   Intuitive directional wayfinding
  •   A dynamic concessions program
  •   View to the gates
  •   Visual connection to the airfield
  •   Lightness, brightness, appropriate volumes

What’s Right

Correspondingly, the true distinction between U.S. domestic and U.S. international terminals is becoming solely one of functionality, not of experience or expression. These functional distinctions are overt and include processing components, such as Federal Inspection Services, Agriculture, Customs, bag recheck, the time required for processing and dwell time; and discrete physical elements, such as additional circulation, hold room size and the concessions mix. 

However, what is not a meaningful distinction are the success elements for a positive passenger experience, including the common desire for meaningful regional expression. To create a generally positive experience, the core design components of a successful terminal are relatively similar: 

Volume: To accommodate the large plan footprint of terminal spaces, an appropriate proportional relationship between plan dimension and volume is a necessity in order to create an aesthetically pleasing space.

Spatial Clarity: Also a function of volume in a large space, large spaces require adequate volume for clear sight lines and to support intuitive/directional wayfinding. 

Transparency: both internally and externally for orientation to gates and a metaphorical connection to the sky; to the destination. 

Lightness/Brightness: to support the natural human desire to connect to the exterior from a stressful, internalized environment. 

Wayfinding Cues: inherently built into the architecture for a macro level of orientation. 

An Uplifting Experience: to provide a sense of connectivity to something greater than the physical reality; referential; interpretative; supported by programs such as integrated art or regional expression. 

For modern U.S. terminal designs, it is really only the pragmatics that will distinguish a responsive U.S. domestic terminal from a responsive U.S. international terminal. Everything else shares common ground in the subjective, the expression, the details and the positive impact it has on the traveler, domestic or international.


Posted in Aviation
Tagged airport terminal design, aviation design, international versus domestic terminals, Lee Glenn