The airport of the future might look like this


This clever proposal from global design firm HOK replaces long concourses with zippy automated shuttles.

There’s nothing like emerging from the security line at the airport, checking the board for your gate number, and discovering an estimated trekking time of 25 to 30 minutes. Airports are already sprawling beasts, and with the number of air passengers still growing in spite of the pandemic, they’re only getting beastlier. But does a bigger airport have to mean a bigger workout?[Image: HOK/Airbiz]

Global design firm HOK—which recently overhauled New York City’s LaGuardia airport, nearly doubling its size—doesn’t think so. The firm has come up with a radical new airport layout, developed with aviation consultancy Airbiz, that boasts many intriguing features, like one great hall that combines arrivals and departures under one roof, and highly efficient hold rooms that can turn flights in 15 minutes compared to the average 45. But the essence of it all boils down to three words: Group Rapid Transit.

Many airports around the world use some form of internal transit to move passengers from one terminal to another. Now, HOK is proposing an efficiency upgrade to that system: shuttles that can drop people off directly at their gate. HOK envisions a layout where people would check in and go through security as normal. But then, instead of walking to another concourse to get to the gate, travelers would shop, eat, and hang around in the building where they first checked in. When it’s time to board their flight, passengers would start that process at the very end of that hall where they’d board a Rapid Transit shuttle by seating group before whizzing to their departure gate in minutes. [Image: HOK/Airbiz]

Once at the departures gate, passengers begin boarding their flight and can walk directly onto the plane without ever having broken a sweat. It’s too early in the process to say what these gates might look like, but HOK envisions them as utilitarian, transient hold rooms that are less about creature comforts and more about efficiency. “It’s all about the traveler experience,” says Matt Needham, director of aviation and transportation at HOK. No more labyrinthine corridors, no more walkathons.[Image: HOK/Airbiz]

HOK’s proposal would demand a complete overhaul of how airports operate today, but it’s a compelling vision for a few reasons. First, it would reduce walking times, which would be particularly beneficial to older people and people with disabilities who have to navigate complex terminal layouts and unreliable airport assistance. It would also remove the need for duplicate amenities like restaurants, shops, and even restrooms. If you’re spending all your time in one building and taking a shuttle directly to your gate when it’s time to board, all you need is one set of amenities in the main building.

Finally, HOK’s proposal could reduce the amount of surface-level construction by an estimated 75%. Just think about the sheer number of concourses that branch out of an airport building today. Now add the miles and miles of corridors that connect them to the main terminal building. All these enclosed spaces must be lit and heated properly; they require plumbing and mechanical systems and everything that makes for a comfortable environment just so you can transition through them to reach the other end of the airport.[Image: HOK/Airbiz]

Needham says that a single terminal building with consolidated amenities paired with smaller, “semi-conditioned” hold rooms that are kept at 68°F all year-round could help lower energy and operating costs, and reduce the embodied carbon that building a new concourse would entail. And by changing the function of the hold rooms, which are essentially distilled into simple boarding platforms, boarding times could become three times faster, and airports could turn three times as many flights in one gate.

The idea relies on a robust and reliable transit system and a highly optimized operational efficiency, but if airport officials wanted to give it a shot today, they actually could because the technology already exists. In fact, HOK came up with the idea for airside Group Rapid Transit more than two years ago while creating a RFP for a new airport in the Philippines. The firm’s proposal was not selected, and Needham says the project ended up falling through, but he couldn’t let go of the idea. “[Group Rapid Transit] has been in existence in The Netherlands for about a decade, fully autonomous,” he says. “We took that and used that as a way to reimagine how one gets to an aircraft gate in a way that reduces walking distance.” For this particular concept, HOK envisions collaborating with Dutch manufacturer 2GetThere, whose automated minibuses can accommodate up to 22 passengers (8 seated, 14 standing).

At this stage, this is just a speculative proposal, but Needham says HOK is in conversations with a major airport in the U.S. about building a stand-alone terminal based on this concept. Naturally, building a brand-new airport would make the most sense, but Needham says parts of the concept could easily be integrated with existing airports, as well, most likely during a concourse expansion.

“The most efficient way to expand an airport to get more gates, is to make the concourses longer if you can, but if you’ve been to airports with long concourses, the walking distances are incredible, the cost per square foot is going to be over $1,000, and then you have to take things out of service,” he says. Instead, this concept could allow airports to connect the end of an existing concourse with a new concourse via a small Group Rapid Transit system, and build out the hold rooms in the new concourse using modular construction whereby components are built off-site and snapped to one another, “like legos.”

It may be a decade before any of this materializes, but by the time it does, maybe HOK could use what they learned and apply it to LaGuardia again, where the most distant gate at the new Terminal C is now almost 30 minutes away from the entrance.


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