The modern airport: fun or functional?

John Grant, Chief Analyst at OAG, on the forces that shape our favourite air hubs
John Grant
Changi airport
Singapore Changi airport

Picture your perfect holiday. You can probably imagine a dream destination, a luxury hotel, and perhaps even the ideal type of flight to get you there. An iconic colour scheme, a greeting you recognise, an in-flight dish you perhaps don’t love, but which makes you feel at home.

Many of us have a soft spot for a specific airline. There are certain carriers that offer unique levels of connectivity around the world or apparent levels of luxury that make them stand out from the crowd. Some airlines are a bit more niche, perhaps closer to the local culture; yet others are just so big that they seem to fly everywhere, and you can’t ignore them.

But how many of us have favourite airports? Would anyone go so far as to change their journey just so they can use their favourite connecting point?

Airports have changed immensely over the years. Some are now classified as “airport cities”, meaning that, while they may have an airport and a few runways, the land around that runway is used for commercial centres, logistical hubs, major conference facilities and in some cases, even leisure resorts. Just think of Singapore’s famous Changi Airport, with its indoor waterfall and 1,5 million square feet shopping mall. Airports are constantly innovating, evolving, and building their brands around the globe.

But what exactly is driving the motivation? What considerations are shaping the modern airport?

Maximising efficiency and reaping the benefits

Few pieces of land are as capital-intensive as an airport. Large buildings, hangars, security fences, expensive operating machinery, large X-ray facilities, baggage belts, passenger facilities and office accommodation for all the staff – these all involve significant costs and maintenance. Many airports are now owned by private operators, who are always looking maximise profits while avoiding scrutiny from regulatory reviews.

Every marginal improvement that these airports make can result in an increase in revenue and profitability. A recent ACI survey found that a 1% increase in passenger satisfaction resulted in a 1.5% increase in non-aeronautical revenues. Not a bad multiplier for any business, which explains some airports’ almost ruthless desire to increase operational efficiency.

Another way of getting the most out of airport assets is squeezing as much commercial property onto the airports land as possible. At any major airport, a short drive around the airport perimeter fence will reveal logistics centres, call centres, off-site car parks, an ever-expanding range of hotel accommodation and even expansive shopping malls. While these are often (rightfully) positioned employment opportunities in the local economy, in many cases, such developments can also lead to a reduction in airlines’ fees and charges.

Symbolising national excellence

While profitability and operational efficiency is always key, some airports take into account other factors. For some, it is also crucial that they reflect the global status of their country. Often, this leads to intense competition as national airports try to trump others. This is how we end up with giant swimming pool and a flashy new runway at one airport, and a giant teddy bear and a state-of-the-art terminal at another. Some airports trade on fast, super-efficient connecting products and others on expensive tax-free shopping to symbolise the nation’s wealth. Yet others have golf courses between parallel runways, which makes for an interesting round.

For smaller, domestic airports, the tarmac becomes a state of national pride. In South Africa, some airports serve safari experiences, and often look more like a traditional house built of wood and straw than hotspots connected to global networks. But for the traveller, they reflect the total holiday experience. Meanwhile in Male, nearly every holidaymaker reaches their destination via a sea-plane transfer, and each operator has their own departure lounge offering an early glimpse of the dreamy holiday experience that awaits people.

Facilitating connectivity

For many “mega airports”, it all comes down to the efficiency of connection, especially in the case of travellers using the airport for connecting flights. This leads to the complex question of finding the perfect connecting time. Cut it too short, and you’re left with a constant, nagging worry of missing your onward flight. Leave it too long, and you end up with lengthy dwell times.

From a business point of view, this is even more crucial as airports must maximise non-aeronautical revenue. A safe range is between 90 minutes to three hours. This provides the ideal window of opportunity for spending and ensuring that those connections are made. Airports that trade on “rapid” connectivity and fail to deliver ultimately get a bad name, damage their reputation, and create lots of hassle for the airlines concerned; all of which may explain British Airways increasing their minimum connecting times by 15 minutes at Heathrow from January 2024.

Airlines and airports: a perfect symbiosis?

Travellers don’t make decisions in a vacuum. While some may prefer a certain airport, often that is explained by the airlines that fly from that specific connecting point. It’s no surprise that some of the best airports in the world are home to the largest quality airlines operating. Take Singapore Changi with Singapore Airlines, Dubai with Emirates, Doha with Qatar Airways and Paris Charles de Gaulle with Air France. The connection between airport and airline is inextricable; the two are forever linked.

Airports are shaped my many different trends and needs, from optimising passenger experience to squeezing the highest possible revenue at every aspect. Ultimately, however, airports remain travel hubs, not just between flights but also increasingly between different modes of travel. Some passengers might be swayed by a given airport because of its art gallery (Amsterdam Schiphol) or the free city tour (Istanbul), but it’d difficult to say that these “extras” matter more than the airport’s placement and connecting opportunities. As is almost always the case, travel is an efficiency game, and this is what rules the modern airport, too.

Written by
John Grant