Asia 2013 Philosophy Singapore Thailand

How to Design an Airport

Dear Airport Designers,

I respect the work you do. Really, I do. Airports are complicated places that have to serve a multitude of needs. Getting passengers on and off planes. Immigration. Baggage facilities. It’s tough work, I’m sure. But you could really stand to learn a thing or two from Asia…

SIN Baggage Claim
Baggage Claim at Singapore’s Changi Airport, Terminal 3. Stunning, isn’t it?

Yes, Asia is putting all your western projects to shame. Here, airports are BEAUTIFUL! A good deal of thought is put into every detail. Dramatic architecture like in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Stunning decor and amenities like in Singapore’s Changi airport. I mean, how many American airports can boast orchid and butterfly gardens, a movie theater and a swimming pool? How about a chance for everyone, not just people in a lounge, to step outside the concourse and admire a cactus garden?

BKK Airport
The dramatic architecture of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport

Asian countries have taken steps to make their airports destinations! Why, yes, Singapore, I’d love to have a long layover at your airport. Yes, I’d rather spend a little bit more to fly from Kuala Lumpur’s beautiful main terminal than from their crappy Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). Am I crazy? Maybe. Or maybe I’m just an airline, airplane and airport connoisseur (self-proclaimed, of course).

Concourse, KLIA
The main concourse at Kuala Lumpur International Airport
Photo Credit

But seriously though, there’s something to the design of these airports that sets them apart. Take Singapore, for example, rated the best airport in the world by Skytrax (a fact they are happy to gloat about). Arriving international passengers are not cordoned off on some special level like they are in most countries, treated as if they’re in a vacuum until they clear immigration.

BKK Arrival Walkways
Isolated from the terminal upon arrival at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport as the walk to immigration begins

No, in Singapore, you just walk straight into the terminal. You mingle with departing passengers and get to access all the amenities that everyone else does. When you’re ready to officially enter Singapore, you just take an escalator down to one of the arrival areas, where you go through immigration. Or you could just chill in the butterfly garden for a bit before you go down. It’s really quite nice and security is done at each individual gate, which really cuts down on wait times.

SIN Butterfly Garden
The Butterfly Garden at Singapore’s Changi Airport

I used to think that Singapore could only pull that off because there was no such thing as a domestic flight in Singapore. But then I flew into Kuala Lumpur (KLIA) and had the same experience! You fly in, enter the main departure area and head down to immigration whenever you like! And there certainly are domestic flights from KLIA, they just leave from a totally separate area, as they do in most airports around the world (outside of the U.S.)!

SIN Cactus Garden
The rooftop cactus garden at Singapore’s Changi Airport

Maybe it’s that these airports were built to be transit hubs for their respective national carriers who do a great deal of international flights. So many Asian airports are built with long haul passengers in mind. Showers. Quiet places to nap. Free WiFi. Outlets. It’s the little things that make you all the happier when you’re between long haul flights. Why aren’t U.S. or European airports built with a mindset like this?

A sign leads passengers to the arrival area whenever they are ready at Singapore’s Changi Airport

For that matter, why are U.S. airports set up so differently than anywhere else? There’s no outbound immigration check and there are no transit facilities. It’s sheer lunacy to me, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a guy who travels a lot.

BKK Light Fixture
A light fixture at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport

I think what I’m trying to say here is that little details matter. In the U.S. they tend to get wrapped up with the big picture. Airports are decaying, left over from an era where terminals were created exclusively for a certain airline. Why don’t we start a new with some fresh new ideas and new terminals? Denver had the right idea in building a whole new airport and look at its famed roof!

Denver: Denver International Airport
Denver International Airport
Photo Credit

But when you go back to that drawing board, take a tip from those airports across the globe. You might just learn a thing or two about how to do it the right way.



By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

13 replies on “How to Design an Airport”

They sure do. It definitely feels like a “passenger first” sort of mentality, where as here in the U.S. we passengers sort of feel like an afterthought.

oye oye! makes you wonder what “airport improvement fees/charges” of European and US airports are used for.

Mind you, AMS Schiphol was the first to come up with the idea of duty-free shopping (“SEE BUY FLY”!), and boasts a division of the national Rijksmuseum, libraries, casino and designated areas with lounge chairs where you can nap in (even for those who are the “Great Unwashed”)… And at one point in time, they even came up with the igenious idea of setting up a “red light district” at the airport, but that was scrapped as it may be too shocking for unsuspecting visitors.

Then again, like SQ and MH, KL’s business model is much based on sixth freedom rights to transport pax from one region of the world to another with a stopover in its hub airport, which may explain why these countries invest so much to beautify their airports and make them amazing places you wouldn’t mind spending a few hours at.

Hehe, more space for security improvements, perhaps?

I’ve only transited through Schiphol once and it was in 2000, so I don’t remember much other than walking forever and a day. Interesting, though, that Amsterdam was such an innovator.

It’s true that big Asian hubs are built to be just that…international transit hubs. They’re very transit friendly and very traveler friendly. Whereas seemingly no airport in the U.S. was built to be a big international hub. Domestic hub with lots of international flights, sure. But even airports that have tons of international flights, like say ORD, LAX or JFK still don’t even come close to the experience to be had in Asian airports. It just feels like a very different mentality over there. Even the few brand new airports that have popped up in North America (like Denver) don’t really do anything terribly innovative, say for interesting architectural details. Yes, there are little things here and there, like art installations, which are getting a bit more popular in North American airports. Still, though, it feels like we need to rethink the entire concept of what an airport is…

I wonder if a lot of the difference between North American and European airports compared to newer ones in Asia is just that: they were built more recently, and these things you talk about have become more important lately so architects were able to take them into account.

It’s possible, though there are new airport terminals in the U.S. that have opened up that don’t really have all these amenities. Look at Denver, with it’s glitzy main terminal building. Aside from some classy shops, its kind of the same once you’re through security.

The biggest difference is probably that many major Asian airports were purposely built to be major international hubs, where passengers transit through. I can’t really think of any North American airports that were built to be big transit hubs in the same way.

Heading to Singapore next week and have to wait with for the daughter…so orchid and butterfly garden here I come. I completely agree…get it together US airports…comfort for us, comfort I say!

Nice! Do note that all the fun stuff to do at Singapore airport is is on the departure side of Immigration, so if you clear immigration, you’ll need an outbound flight to get back in. Enjoy! And wear walking shoes! It’s a HUGE airport!

I’ve flown into and out of Singapore a couple of times but I didn’t realize there was a butterfly garden, that’s awesome! Also, I’ve only ever flown in/out of Kuala Lumpur’s LCCT, so I’ve never seen the main airport. The LCCT is like a barn. Also, I’ve always been confused by the US not having outbound immigration/passport checks. I assume the check-in counter people look at the important info on passports to make sure no one has overstayed or anything, but I really have no idea how any of that works in the US since it’s always a completely separate thing in other countries. I agree, so weird.

Yeah the Butterfly Garden is in Terminal 3. And thankfully, the LCCT at KLIA is slated for demolition. I believe it used to be a cargo facility, hence its “barn-like” feeling. And I haven’t got a clue how outbound immigration works in the U.S….

Yes to this! Seoul’s Incheon Airport is fantastic, and Dubai’s is pretty good, too. As far as Europe goes, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is wonderful. I also thought Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (the British Airways terminal) was pretty decent too, ditto Edinburgh. I’ll have a stopover in Kuala Lumpur on my way to Taiwan next month, and I’m actually looking forward to checking out KLIA!

I’ve heard Dubai has a nice airport. And it’s been such a long time since I’ve flown through Amsterdam (14 years or so), so I can’t say I remember much about the experience. And I’ve never flown out of Heathrow, though everyone always seems to complain about that experience… I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on KLIA. I wasn’t all that impressed with TPE airport (transited there en route to Singapore).

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