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SPS Aviation Blog

20-07-25 / SPS Blog

Evolution of the Modern Airport Terminal: Lessons Learned from Seven Decades of Experience

By Jeffrey N. Thomas and Douglas F Goldberg and Qianlin Li

Abstract:Scientific and technological progress with social change have brought about continuous improvement of passenger travel – the birth and development of the terminal is a microcosm of this development process. The terminal design process is concerned about safety, passenger experience, multimodal transport, city image and other elements that require flexibility and foresight in the design.  Insight into the evolution of science and technology has brought about profound changes in terminal design. The final requirement of the design process is to coalesce efficiency, safety, experience, and balance in the  careful planning and design of new terminals.

The earliest images of commercial aviation found in our history books invoke memories of a time long passed – when flying was novel and was primarily enjoyed by the privileged few.  International flights were long and slow, with frequent stops along the way.   Passengers were often served with fine dinnerware and exquisite meals.  And airports were designed in the image of the grand train stations built in the early to mid-decades of the 20th century.   We have learned an enormous amount about what makes an airport terminal great by examining the evolution of airports from the early days of commercial aviation.

Many of the world’s oldest airport terminals were built in the 1950s when the predominant aircraft were piston-driven DC-7s and Lockheed Constellations, soon to be replaced with the dawn of the jet age in the early 1960’s by the B-707, the DC-8 and shortly thereafter, the B-747.   Airports consisted primarily of former military low-capacity airfields with single or intersecting runways, a basic terminal building, no passenger loading bridges.

simple baggage claim counters (often outside in warmer climates), and very limited technology.   There were few options for purchasing a meal, except perhaps for a white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant like Seven Continents upstairs in the rotunda at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  

There were no security checkpoints, and there was usually an outdoor observation deck where passengers and visitors could watch the marvel of flight.   Families would escort their loved ones all the way to the gate and would be there waiting at the gate upon their return.  Passengers would arrive at the airport early to purchase tickets from a travel agent, just as they would at a train station in so many great cities.

Most terminals were initially designed to celebrate the departure.   Since many passengers would be experiencing their first flight, the departure experience generated a feeling of awe and inspiration.   This resulted in grand departure halls with lofty rooflines designed by the world’s leading architects, such as TWA’s JFK terminal and Washington Dulles International Airport terminal.   The experience for arriving passengers, on the other hand, was not so grand.  Instead, the arrival level was often placed below the departure level with low ceilings and limited natural light, as if to say to arriving passengers, “welcome to our city’s basement!”

In the 70 years since many of the world’s first major airport terminals were built, we have witnessed many changes that have affected virtually every element of the modern airport:

  • Piston-driven aircraft were replaced by jet aircraft, requiring more apron space and larger hold rooms.

  • Both domestic and international travel have become more prolific and less restricted, and as a result, peak hour passenger demand has skyrocketed at major airports from a few hundred to tens of thousands!

  • Airlines established global hubs and international gateways, requiring unique processing requirements for the transfer of passengers and baggage.

  • Runway and airside systems have evolved from serving 10-20 flights per hour during good weather to 250 or more flights per hour in all weather conditions.

  • Ever-increasing security protocols have been implemented at all the world’s commercial airports.

  • Concessions and other Non-Aeronautical revenue sources now account for 40 percent of the average airport’s revenue base and provide an opportunity to substantially enhance the passenger experience (and help finance airport operations and development)

  • The extent of technology in all smart phones now affects every step of a passenger’s journey, from the time the ticket is purchased, through check-in, boarding, bag claim and ground transportation.

  • A newfound focus on protecting the environment now means we must increase our efforts to conserve energy, reduce emissions, and make our airports more environmentally friendly.

  • Although China has been routinely conducting health checks since the 2003 SARS outbreak, the COVID -19 Pandemic has now changed the way all airports work to protect the health of passengers and workers through routine cleaning/sanitizing and contactless passenger processing.

  • Ground transportation networks have evolved to include not only private/rental vehicle access, but also direct integration with Metro and other rail mode connections, transportation network companies (TNC) such as Didi Chuxing, and soon, autonomous vehicles.

As the aviation industry has learned to adapt to these and many other changes, the way we approach the design of airport terminals has also dramatically improved.    As the number of passengers has increased exponentially over the decades, the global regulatory environment has become more complex, with the objective of ensuring our health, safety, and security, and to protect our natural resources.  At the same time, with limited financial resources, further reduced by the effects of the pandemic, many of the world’s greatest airports are exploring innovative methods to generate revenue to offset the enormous cost of developing and operating major airport terminals and multiple parallel runway airfield systems.


The modern airport is designed with the passenger in mind – from the beginning to the end of the journey.  This means the airport must be designed with a keen understanding of every step of the passenger’s journey – from the time they leave their homes or hotels , through their arrival at the airport, as they make their way through check-in and security, as they board their flight, and upon their return, as they claim their baggage and proceed with the ground journey to their destination.    As such, we strive to minimize walking distance, reduce the stress of travel, and make the experience more intuitive and enjoyable.  We consider the effect of queues and processes and attempt to minimize the number of “touchpoints” that require a passenger to wait or otherwise contact agents.   We think about how the building architecture itself serves to guide each passenger in the proper direction – which we call, “intuitive wayfinding”.   And we work to limit the number of level changes – especially with consideration of the aging traveling public who may have difficulty with mobility, steps, and other vertical circulation, and confusing decision points.  And finally, we strive to bring in natural light and well-defined open spaces to create a pleasing environment for all passengers.


An airport and its ground transportation ingress and egress elements are a City’s first and the last chance to make a good impression on air travelers.   These are the first thing an arriving passenger sees when coming to a new city, and the last thing a departing passenger will remember.   A bad experience at the airport or within the ground transportation interface can offset even the best other experiences in the City.  So, we often try to design the airport terminal to serve as a City’s welcome mat – to represent and complement the City’s cultural identity, and to give a “taste” (often literally) of what one can expect.  Perhaps most important, the terminal can provide the last memory of a successful vacation or business trip, including the opportunity to take home souvenirs of their visit.  To address this consideration, many terminals are designed with the culture of the city or the region in mind.   This means providing restaurants that feature local cuisine or interior décor and art that remind travelers of the City’s best-known characteristics.  For example, the roof structure of the Denver International Airport is reminiscent of the nearby Rocky Mountains.  Similarly, Chicago O’Hare International Airport provides restaurants that serve local favorites like Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.


The world’s best airports are those that seamlessly integrate multi-modal transport options and operate efficiently in today’s environment, but also have the flexibility to adapt to the changing regime of tomorrow.  Terminals like Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal that were designed with sufficient space to serve future unknown conditions were among the most efficient when more stringent security screening was required following the 2001 U.S. Terrorist attacks.  Specifically, the large atrium at Denver provided the ideal location for added security screening mandated after the 2001 Terrorist attacks.

New spacious air terminals designed subsequent to these unanticipated events such as Shanghai Pudong T2, London Heathrow T3, and Guangzhou Baiyun T2 have greater floor area in key passenger and baggage processing functions providing flexibility to accommodate evolving technology, changing  airline alliances and carrier allocations, new security regulations, innovative passenger amenities, and composition of passenger activity or unforeseen capacity needs.  Similarly, large terminals provide the flexibility needed to ensure proper social distancing associated with health pandemics like COVID-19.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes in commercial aviation over the decades has been the transition from piston driven aircraft to the jet, and the associated capability to serve increasing numbers of peak hour passengers.   Terminals designed for smaller aircraft are not efficient in serving modern wide-body aircraft.   And terminals designed for commuter-style turboprops are not able to efficiently serve the proliferation of regional jets at many airports.  As an example, circular concourses, often called “Banjos”, were common at many airports including Toronto, Newark, and Charles De Gaul.   While some of these still exist, this concourse design has proven difficult to expand with insufficient capacity for large numbers of peak our passengers.  The circular concourses of Newark International Airport are in the process of being replaced with a more modern and efficient linear terminal design with greater flexibility for serving a mix of larger jet aircraft.  The modern terminal is designed with extensive forethought about space for parking and maneuvering large jet aircraft.   Airports like Shanghai Hongqiao are known for their well-planned aprons that allow a wide range of aircraft types to maneuver into and out of gate areas with minimal congestion. 


Airports have always been dependent on the latest technology for flight operations, passenger processing, security screening and virtually every other aspect of design and operation.   Today, the most efficient airports are those designed with artificial intelligence and smart technology that provide management with critical real-time information about passenger wait times and delays that can then be used to reduce congestion and optimize the utilization of available resources.   Using strategically located sensors and cameras, smart airports can predict hot spots before they occur, so management can dispatch added staff or reroute passengers where necessary to reduce congestion.  This technology is also used to help keep bathrooms and other facilities cleaned and sanitized.  The use of biometrics can reduce the amount of contact throughout a passenger’s journey and make the overall journey more efficient.  Passengers can use their own smart phones to order a meal and have it delivered to them as they prepare to board their flight.   And passengers can also track their baggage and chose to have it delivered directly to their home or hotel.    This technology will prove to be critically important in providing travelers with the confidence to resume flying in the current Pandemic environment – by reducing the extent of their physical contact with ticket agents, security screening, and vendors.

As an example, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airports monitors cell phone signals to estimate the number of people in each security checkpoint.   The Airport has installed sensors that analyzes this data to estimate passenger wait times.   This information is published in real-time on the airport’s web site so passengers can know in advance the estimated wait time before beginning their trip to the airport.  Many airports, such as Bangalore International Airport, are establishing special smart-phone applications to allow passengers to check-in without having to have physical contact with agents or even electronic kiosks, thereby promoting the “contactless journey”.


A passenger’s journey does not begin nor end at the airport.   An often stressful stage of the journey involves the trip to and from the airport.   Modern airports must often deal with roadway congestion, which has the potential to cause people to miss their flights.  The most visionary airports in major cities recognize the critical importance of a well-integrated metro or regional rail line that connects airports to where people live and work.   In some cases, passengers can check in, and even check their baggage at an in-town railroad station before starting their journey to the airport.   Smart airports have developed fit for purpose facilities that allow Transportation Network Companies such as Didi Chuxing to efficiently pick up customers in designated zones.   And airports are already thinking about how best to accommodate the day when passengers rely on autonomous vehicles to take them to and from the airport.

Because ground traffic congestion can be major source of delays and a source of air pollution, the best airports have developed innovative solutions for managing surface vehicle traffic and minimizing the amount of congestion   First and foremost, it is important that airports provide sufficient ground access and curb-front capacity for efficiently serving peak hour demand.  For many airports, such as Los Angeles International and Chicago O’Hare, this means providing a special ground transportation center for busses, taxis, and hotel shuttle busses.   These and many other modern airports also provide “cell phone lots” where people can wait in their vehicles until passengers claim their baggage then call for pick-up.   This helps eliminate passengers waiting on the curb-front, a common cause of congestion.


The most efficient airport hubs being designed and built today, recognize the important role of connecting people.   Airports are no longer thought of as just a stop at the beginning or end of a long journey.   Instead, airports are considered an important element of a City’s overall transportation network, which ties together major segments of entertainment, business, and recreation.   This means airports are developed to include important amenities like hotels, restaurants, conference centers, shopping and other functions that support the human experience.   Instead of being the last stop at the end of a city’s transportation network, airports are planned to ensure they are seamlessly integrated into a comprehensive metro network, which includes information about flight schedules on monitors in trains and in stations, as well as in-town check-in capability.   Shanghai Hongqiao’s Terminal 2 is a great example of an airport planned as an integrated air-rail hub, with highly efficient, award-winning facilities for rail and airline passengers alike.

Many of the world’s leading airports have incorporated a rail connection directly into the design of the terminal.   Airports like Shanghai Pudong and Hongqiao International Airports, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Paris’s Charles De Gaulle International, Seattle, San Francisco and many others offer a seamless rail connection between the airport and the City Center.  A rail passenger arriving at these airports’ train stations is greeted by clear signage and monitors with information about flight schedules.   When they arrive at the train station, they know they have arrived at the airport.


It is often said that the capacity of an airport is defined by its weakest link.   A lot of thought goes into the planning and design of great airport terminals.   However, the best airport terminals are those that are very carefully integrated into the master plan of the entire airport.   The relationship between the terminal/concourses and the aircraft apron, between the aircraft apron and the taxiway system, and between the taxiway system and the runway system are critically important to the overall efficiency of the airport and the passenger’s experience.   An airport with a beautifully designed terminal but with insufficient runway capacity or with a poor network of taxiways will be plagued by delays and congestion.   Moreover, the master plan for efficiently connecting and serving cargo, aircraft maintenance, and the dozens of other important support functions must be deliberately planned to ensure the highest level of efficiency, safety, and security.   The network of service roads to bring in supplies, parts, food, beverage, and retail products, to remove and dispose of waste, and to remove snow and ice in cold climates must also be well thought out.   Finally, the airport must consider its relationship to the surrounding community to ensure compatible development and reduce the effect of noise and emissions.

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A well-planned airport is one of a city’s most important economic assets.   It is a source of growth and jobs and an indicator of economic prosperity.   Of course, the world’s airport terminals will continue to evolve.   70 years from now, Airports will likely look quite different than our best airports today.   But if we continue to apply best practices and lessons learned from the past 70 years to the planning and design of new airports, we have the opportunity to make the experience of connecting people, business and cultures from around the globe the best it can possibly be.

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