Why U.S. Airports Are Designed for Everyone EXCEPT Passengers

One of my all-time favorite songs is Roxy Music’s 1982 single ‘More Than This’ from their albom Avalon (it was covered by 10,000 Maniacs in 1997). I loved it as a kid, and am even more emotionally tied to it because of Bill Murray’s karaoke rendition in Lost in Translation.

Roxy Music’s Brian Eno recorded perhaps the greatest muzak ever, Music for Airports, in 1978.

The music was designed to be continuously looped as a sound installation, with the intent of defusing the tense, anxious atmosphere of an airport terminal. To achieve this, Eno sought to create music “as ignorable as it is interesting.”[11]

Rather than brightening the atmosphere as typical background music does, Music for Airports is “intended to induce calm and a space to think.”[11] Eno conceived this idea while spending several hours waiting at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid-1970s and being annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.[12]

Music for Airports played in the Marine Air Terminal at New York LaGuardia “for a brief period during the 1980s.”

Chris Holbrook asks in the New York Times why airports are ‘designed for everyone but the passenger’ and laments that many architects have forgotten the “obligation to please the people who use their space.” Holbrook begins by recounting the story of Brian Eno caring about the experience for people inside the airport, which airports often pay only lip service to. But it’s not at all surprising why this is.

U.S. airport projects are generally designed to satisfy their funders and secondarily their customers. But while passengers are an airline’s customers, passengers are not an airport’s customers (at least directly).

Airports in the US are for the most part public construction projects.

  • So they have to satisfy the political boards that oversee the airports, the political bodies that oversee the airport authority, and the political bodies that sign off on funding mechanisms.
  • Architects are hired not for inspirational vision or creativity, but based on political connections, ability to satisfy contract set-aside requirements, or because they’re the low cost bidder.

Many US airports are old, designed before deregulation and prior to the rise of modern connecting hubs, and designed for passengers who used the spaces in different ways.

An airport’s primary customer is the airport’s dominant airline. There’s a master lease for the airport, usually, that’s largely negotiated between the airport authority and the airport’s major tenant when there is one. That’s true at least for larger hub airports. Contested airports, like LAX, will see more multi-party negotiations.

Airlines are concerned with issues like:

  • project costs which will flow through as facility fees
  • design elements that speed aircraft turn times. They want long enough runways to land their planes, but they don’t want longer runways and taxiways, things that will slow down getting to the gate and off the ground.
  • their cut of retail concessions.

An airline is going to take a percentage of the airport’s revenue from retail sales in the airport, usually split amongst airlines using a formula based on the airline’s traffic. The airport will generally get not just lease income but a percentage of revenue from each retail establishment. So airport design will focus on how to maximize retail sales.

It’s why you are forced to walk through duty free shopping areas at international airports. The door at London Heathrow just past security that lets first class passengers straight into the Concorde Room bypassing duty free costs BA one million pounds a year.

United’s C concourse at O’Hare pulled up the moving walkway because it meant fewer people browsing retail shops. DFW did the same thing in its terminal D.

Security issues are another paramount design concern, which has the added benefit of being a cause of why airport restaurants are so bad.

Regardless do not think for a moment that you are the customer (as passenger) or the investor (even as taxpayer) in an airport.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think this isn’t a problem confined to the US. I am based out of HKG and while in some respects it’s a good airport, if you spend time at the airport (waiting for your flight or a visitor) then you are basically stuck in a luxury mall without much of a food court, particularly after security. On the other hand, I don’t mind much at all being stuck at ATL for a layover as there are plenty of places to get a snack or wait with a beer.

  2. Airport Improvement Suggestion of the Day: Get rid of TV’s blaring CNN, etc. The cacaphony only adds to an already hectic travel experience. Besides, with everyone glued to a smartphone, does anyone really pay attention to a TV in an airport? Substitute cool jazz, classical or ambient music. Ditch the mindless TV noise.

  3. Interesting stuff, as usual. On a non-airport note, I am using points to fly to Washington, DC to see Bryan Ferry perform in July.

  4. That explains how at FRA, just after security you are forced to walk through a luxury shop. You actually walk between the aisles of the shop.

  5. You have to walk through the duty free shops after passport control and before security at BRU as well. In fact, they make you walk in a 3/4 circle through the shops rather than walk through in a straight line. I don’t mind that so much as in other airports where, usually due to pre-9/11 designs, you cannot go from terminal to terminal without going through security again. LAX was bad about this, but seems to be opening underground walkways all the way to the international terminal (which should be nice since that is where the good lounges are). BOS, JFK and CDG are others that come to mind where going between terminals is hard.

  6. Gary, you mentioned that “Music for Airports” played at LGA in the 80s. It also played for many years at ORD in the moving-walkway-passageway between terminals (it may still play there – not sure).

    This song keeps coming up in my life – two weeks ago I was surprised to hear it playing in the elevator at the InterContinental Shanghai Pudong (and I have owned the album for over 30 years).

  7. And DFW isn’t done w/ Terminal D. They too are planning the ‘post-security Duty Free compulsory walk’ as well. Coming to the airport sometime in late 2017/early 2018 (they say early 2017, but let’s be honest). Driving retail and food sales is paramount for airports where remodels are underway and need to be paid for. You can only jack up fees to the airlines so much.

  8. It would be nice if US airports (and LHR) could reduce the inane amount of useless announcements. Also, the light bulb icon from the DFW presentation is ironic, because DFW has to be the most poorly designed airport in the world, and removing the walkways (which never even seemed to work to begin with) will only make it worse. Will it make me shop? No. Will it make me resent the fact that I have to schlep my crap past idiotic stores selling “Don’t Mess With Texas Shirts?” Yes.

  9. DFWSteve says:

    “Airport Improvement Suggestion of the Day: Get rid of TV’s blaring CNN, etc. ”

    Excellent idea!

    “Substitute cool jazz, classical or ambient music. Ditch the mindless TV noise.”

    How about: “play nothing.” If I want to hear music, I’ll listen to my own. If I don’t have my headset on, it’s because I want to listen for announcement, or I want to talk with the person I’m traveling with. If it’s not an announcement, it’s a waste of my time and thought.

  10. Columbus, OH (CMH) just completed an $80 million remodel across all 3 terminals. While the terrazzo floors and skylights are nice and all, I just would have been happy with them spending $3,000 and adding in one water bottle filling water fountain per terminal.

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