With the pandemic waning, airline travel is back in full swing. That’s good news for Salt Lake City International Airport, which opened a new expansion in September. Once the full expansion is complete, the airport will be large enough to accommodate 32 million passengers annually as they fly around the globe.
Of all the places that coerce us into a state of designated idling, few offer the anonymity and transience to behave in ways we would not otherwise if we were not soon launching 30,000 feet into the air.
Being inside an airport terminal is to experience a blip in human ambition. On the other side of a security check used to detect metal and our ability to follow instructions, we become nonessential, tasked to find a restroom, browse, eat, shop and sit. Our surroundings, short of an anthropological “place,” prompt us to act accordingly — arbitrary, hedonistic and apt to do things a little differently than our “normal” selves.
I call this “Secret Airport Behavior.”
If you’ve paged through a magazine that you’d never subscribe to while eating a snack you’d normally turn your nose up at, that’s Secret Airport Behavior. If you’ve tested out varied seating configurations from gate to gate before settling on one near a window that seems optimal for productivity or paid to get into an airline lounge, that’s Secret Airport Behavior. If you’ve sauntered down halls debating whether to pick up geographically enthusiastic merchandise — “I Heart Dallas!” — or grab a Starbucks beverage worth half your daily caloric intake, that’s Secret Airport Behavior.
It feels secretive because we think no one is watching us. But no one has to. The architects and designers who built airport terminals knew how we’d act inside of them when the blueprints were being drawn, long before passengers walked into the terminal.
Matt Needham, director of aviation and transportation at HOK — an architecture, engineering and urban planning firm that oversaw the design for the new, $4.1 billion Salt Lake airport — knows not every passenger on a flight will sit at a gate at the same time. “Some percent of customers are going to be dining or shopping until 15 minutes before the flight,” he says. That shouldn’t make sense considering no one goes to the airport to eat or shop or have their nails painted, and yet, many of us do all those things before rushing to our gate at the last minute.
It’s all by design. According to InterVISTAS, an aviation consulting company founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, modern concourses (meaning concourses built since the ’90s) are wider for comfort, as well as curvy and directionless to pique curiosity. They are also optimized to attract right-handed customers (that’s 90% of us) by placing concessions to the right, where we tend to look first. Shops are clustered to create a “marketplace” ambiance and encourage “pinballing” between vendors.
“If you’re walking to your gate and see one store, you might just pass by, but if all of a sudden you’re flanked on either side by a series of storefronts, you feel like you’re in a shopping district and subconsciously are more willing to shop,” Needham says. He admits that his Secret Airport Behavior is finding an out-of-the-way spot to people-watch, “both fellow travelers and the operations folks on the ramp below.”
In almost every airport in the United States, we’re inundated with familiar boutiques, logos, restaurants and even duty-free shopping centers we must pass through to find our gate. Maximizing “dwell time” (as it’s known in airport lingo) is critical to airport designers, specifically the first 60 minutes post-security when they know we feel most spendy. That “golden hour” is meant to convert us from stalled, frantic passengers into valued, relaxed customers.
“Flying is stressful,” environmental psychologist Dak Kopec says. “And unfortunately, every step has an unknown variable that adds to that level of stress.” There’s the risk your shuttle breaks down. That your overweight luggage forces you to rearrange piles of laundry, hunched over, exposing impatient bystanders to your underwear. All the while, your personal space is compromised, civilian virtue is put to the test and your bladder is yielding to the remaining liquids you chugged while power walking to the check-in. For most of us, travel-related stress is well-tolerated, but Secret Airport Behavior proves it’s not inconsequential.
“I have never bought a Cinnabon outside of the airport,” Kopec, a person who values health and fitness, says with a laugh. He divulges that his other Secret Airport Behavior is walking laps, preferably in Chicago O’Hare’s underground tunnel between the B and C concourses in Terminal 1, where moving walkways churn beneath mirrors and rainbow-colored neon lights give off a “nightclub-y feel.” His Cinnabon, gooey and searingly sweet, may present as a reward, but Kopec knows it’s not an indulgence as much as it is an act of autonomy.
“There are so many things out of my control, so many restrictions put on me now,” he says. “I’m going to have that Cinnabon, and I’m going to make sure it’s loaded with butter, because I would never eat that in my normal life.”
Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist and principal at consultation firm Design with Science, says our purchases — uncharacteristic or not — could be our way of distinguishing ourselves from the herd. “A Cinnabon can even be used to claim territory,” she says. Its pungent scent creates an olfactory zone around its carrier, an overlooked but common technique used to stake ground.
“We also manipulate visuals by putting our sweater on the seat next to us so no one else can sit,” she says. This behavior is called “nesting.” Associated with birds collecting sticks and mud, nesting is our instinct to create protected space — and it kicks in while we wait to board our flights. Nesting gives us a sense of control, which we lose the moment we step inside an airport. Whether we try to regain that control by buying something frivolous or acquiesce by paying for something necessary — $5 for a bottle of water hurts our conscience more than our wallets — airports are designed to make us shell out.
Last year, Airports Council International found the average revenue per passenger was $17.94, with $7.03 of that being nonaeronautical revenue — meaning it’s not related to your ticket. The total cost per passenger, however, was $13.76, “illustrating the importance of developing sources of nonaeronautical revenue to bolster the revenue collected from aeronautical activities.”
In other words, airports need more ways to take our money. Concession and retail space in Salt Lake City’s new airport will be 120,475 square feet after phase three of construction is completed — more than five times the concessions space of the previous airport.
“It used to be coffee shops and a place to grab a book, but the idea of a concession is becoming more like an amenity,” Salt Lake Airport designer Needham says. Inside San Francisco International Airport, which has the highest per-passenger spend in the country, you can buy a Montblanc pen for $285, he says. In Singapore Changi Airport, there are two movie theaters and a butterfly garden. Airports like Dallas/Fort Worth International and Vancouver International boast high-end day spas where you can hydrate your skin before climbing into a cabin with less than 20% humidity.
“It’s not stuff you need anymore — it’s stuff you may be interested in,” Needham says. “The quality of our time is more important now than ever.”
Designers and environmental psychologists know how quality can give us both the experience we want, and also subtly make us better travelers and customers. According to reciprocal determinism theory, our actions are influenced by where we are — and vice versa. If you’ve ever splurged in London Heathrow Airport or studied a 19th-century Dutch masterpiece at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, your Secret Airport Behavior is designed to be elite and proper, thanks to help from your surroundings.
“If you’re in an international terminal seeing luxury brands and nice things, you’re likely to behave with greater civility and think, ‘How do I fit into this?’” Kopec says. “In a lesser environment, you start to see poorer behavior.”
Adult tantrums evidence another theory: the frustration-aggression hypothesis. People are more likely to act up if there are frustrations in attaining their goals. What’s worse — when the source of frustration cannot be challenged, the aggression is displaced onto an innocent target. Ticket agents, flight attendants and survivors of any customer-facing job knows this better than anyone.
Today, concessions and retail dominate airport terminals. But it didn’t used to be this way.
Until the 1990s, holding areas were small and bare, optimized for aircraft efficiency and ambivalent to passenger joy. Many U.S. airports are owned by state and local governments, which contract out numerous services, such as retail, to private firms. Part of the business model requires airlines to pay rent to lease space. It wasn’t until airports, which act as landlords, realized concessions could help offset operating costs that an emphasis on customer experience drove airport design.
In Europe and Asia, where some airports operate as for-profit businesses and are often publicly traded, owners have even larger incentives to make money. In 1951, Shannon Airport in Ireland became the first airport to offer duty-free shopping — an invention by its own catering comptroller, Brendan O’Regan, after international travel bounced back from World War II. By the ’60s, duty-free had hit the States, first in Hawaii.
Today, global travelers spend $77.87 billion in duty-free and travel sales annually ($155 billion is projected for 2027), and 40% of all airport funding comes from nonaeronautical revenue like retail, concessions, rental car operations and in-airport advertising.
Pat Askew, director of aviation at international design firm HKS, who’s collaborated with planners at most major airports in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Tel Aviv, Doha and Dubai and is currently updating Terminal 1 at San Francisco’s airport, says his basic philosophy in leading a design team is to minimize choice. Remember, we want the illusion of variety, but having too much of it stresses us out — fickle, aren’t we?
“You shouldn’t come to a fork in the road and have three similar options,” he says. “My ideal terminal is one where I know where I’m going without having to look for a sign.”
Surprisingly, signs in airports are not meant to stand out, leaving you to intuitively weave your way to shops and — eventually — to your gate. Signage typefaces are in one of three sans-serif fonts in 75% of airports worldwide: Helvetica, Frutiger or Clearview. Look them up and be stunned at their plainness. As it turns out, in a transitory environment where a captive audience needs to feel in control of themselves, simplicity is king. That’s why Askew’s design mantra is such: It’s all about the passenger.
In the future, he wants to see more areas for children to play, for busy people to work and more functions of convenience so you can have a burger delivered to your gate. Or in his case, a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. It’s on brand, considering that a “bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel” is his Secret Airport Behavior, he says. “Nothing scandalous!”
Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal” stars Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a stranded Eastern European traveler forced to live inside John F. Kennedy International Airport after a revolution back home renders him stateless and unable to enter the U.S. Navorski walks around panicked and confused, he scarfs down junk food, he falls asleep where he isn’t meant to, and he catches the eye of an attractive stranger.
The plot — dire as it may be — is balanced by his wit, charm and creative resourcefulness. “How will he not only survive but entertain himself inside an airport terminal for so long?” becomes the question scene after scene. Viktor prevails in a unheroic, yet relatable way. It’s Secret Airport Behavior at its finest.