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The more I travel, the more I become aware of the characteristics of airports. Before, an airport seemed like an airport, but now I can appreciate and loathe the differences that make each one unique. Generally the better reviewed airports have more food & drink options, convenient connections and pleasant public spaces. On the other end, airports that normally get a bad rap are cramped with limited public spaces and connections.

The Connected Airport

airport design
McCarran International Airport. Photo by Craig Howell.

I am from Las Vegas and our airport, McCarran International, is generally regarded as being fairly good. For the longest time about 95% of McCarran’s flights operated out of one terminal with 4 concourses. Now a new Terminal 3 has been built, however it too is connected via train to the rest, so the entire airport is accessible airside. This is the type of airport I think people generally tend to like.

There is of course a drawback to a large connected airport such as McCarran. Security is centralized and thus it can take a long time to get through at peak times. It is also a sprawling complex with a sort of maze of ways to get between concourses. In other words, it can take awhile and a lot of walking to get around, especially if you are connecting between one of the newer and one of the older concourses.

The Unconnected Airport

airport design
The cramped waiting area at Berlin-Tegel.

Which brings me to the second type of airport. I recently flew through Berlin’s Tegel Airport. In Berlin, you walk in the door, head to the kiosk or check-in counter to get your boarding pass and then go through security to a very confined waiting area at the gate. Once through security you are sort of stuck. The one positive to this system is that you can arrive and be at the gate within a couple of minutes.

Of course Berlin’s Tegel Airport is being replaced with a much more modern facility. In the U.S., an airport that is very similar is Kansas City International. I read an article last year about the push for a large centralized terminal instead of the 3 cramped terminals they have now. Airport officials argue that it will help to save on costs, while many people complain that it will make the process of flying more complicated.

There are of course exceptions to the rules I laid out above. Some sprawling airports like Singapore Changi also do security at the gate. This is different though, since you have a million and one facilities available before going through security. At Berlin there was nothing, but a simple shop and food outlet. Kansas City is similar.

Reasons for Airport Design Changes

There is no doubt that large connected airports are the future. In many areas older style airports such as Berlin-Tegel are being phased out in favor of centralized or connected terminals. This more modern airport style is seen as better since it helps operations when it comes to logistics and security and also allows for a higher capacity of airline traffic. Of course they can cram more facilities in as well, which helps passenger comfort.

My Favorite Type of Airport

airport design
Cochin Airport. Nothing can compare to the utter chaos of an Indian Airport, but the experience is far from convenient.

I don’t really mind walking and have grown to love sprawling airports. There are a couple of exceptions though. Bangkok’s airport is far too big and doesn’t have enough ways to get around. A couple of years ago I ran 20 minutes across the airport to catch my flight after seeing a “Now Boarding” message on the screen. (yes the airport is that big.) When I arrived, I discovered they hadn’t even began boarding yet. My guess is they have to trick passengers because it takes too long to get from one side to the other.

In many ways my home airport is my ideal one. It isn’t too big, all concourses are connected and it has a decent amount of food options including a Centurion Lounge. Most days security lines are manageable and it is quite possible to be in the lounge or at the gate within 15-20 minutes. That amount of time works for me. While I enjoyed getting to my gate in Berlin in 2 minutes, I didn’t enjoy the experience once I was stuck there.

Conclusion

This topic actually came to my mind in Berlin and I thought it would be an interesting one to talk about. As I experience more airports around the world, I begin to have a better idea of what I like and what I think doesn’t make a lot of sense. Definitely not life changing stuff, but good enough for a Sunday morning discussion.

What type of airport are you most fond of? Which is your favorite airport in the world and why? Let me know in the comments!


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