Opinion: Airports Need to Surprise and Delight Travelers


Geoffrey Ax leads the aviation practice in the Americas region at global design firm Populous. With more than 20 years of aviation industry experience, Ax has led the small and large-scope design of terminals, operations, cargo facilities and more for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Los Angeles World Airports, and Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru.

“With COVID-19 as a catalyst for innovation, airports have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change.”

Geoffrey Ax, Aviation Practice Leader, Principal, Populous

Many airports are strapped for cash as a result of the pandemic. Is it possible to innovate on a budget?

Yes, of course it is. Innovation does not inherently equal high dollar investment. It can also be tailored for short-term or long-term installations, thus changing the evaluation of the total cost. Innovation should create revenue along with improved experiences.

COVID-19 has spurred the introduction of many hygiene-focused innovations, but which other areas should airports be focusing on? Why?

Airports should focus on ensuring that passengers feel comfortable. Keeping ourselves safe and healthy is the most basic of requirements while we travel; we should not have to sacrifice enjoyment during the process.

Dining and concession offerings are important to passengers, so airports should provide options for remote ordering and collection or delivery options, as well as flexible spaces to dine, for example. They should also focus on new holdrooms, outdoor spaces and lighting to overall better the passenger journey.

Populous has extensive experience in designing live event venues. How can airports use elements from these spaces to improve the airport experience?

The parallel between live events venues – including the events themselves – and airports are numerous when you look at the way they both draw people together for a common purpose. Live events venues have security protocols, journeys through spaces, and retail and dining options. They see thousands of people coming together from all backgrounds for just a few hours.

Whether it’s a pool in the end zone of TIAA Bank Field, an on-site brewery at Canvas Stadium or a zipline at Major League Baseball stadium SunTrust Park, these unique experiences allow for guests to make authentic memories within a venue, and the same can be true for airports.

Where else could they gain inspiration from outside of the aviation industry? Can you give some examples?

Detached or off-site security for live events is certainly an achievable model for airports in the near future. In fact, our team at Populous is working on a concept called FLYPASS to make traveling more efficient and safe before, during and after global events. Passengers begin their journey at security access points distributed around the city. Screened and cleared passengers then take a socially distanced seat on a secure mode of transportation to the airport terminal. Meeting passengers where they are reduces airport congestion, streamlines travel and enhances passenger enjoyment.

Besides their safety, what do you think is most important for passengers while they’re using the airport?

From our survey of more than 2,000 passengers in North America, we know that passenger concerns about their safety encompass seating, transportation, security, shopping and dining. Put simply, passengers think about their entire journey when evaluating their safety. But they have a desire to enjoy their experience in addition to feeling safe. Delivering new and enjoyable experiences using outdoor spaces, immersive environments in public areas, and concessions and lounges that match what users want will surprise and delight them.