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Robert Chicas Discusses the Future Passenger Terminal Experience

Kempegowda International Airport Terminal 1 in Bangalore, India

Robert Chicas, a director of Aviation + Transportation at HOK, explains how airport design has evolved over the past 20 years and offers predictions for the future.

Can you tell us about HOK over the past 20 years?

In 2015, we will celebrate our 60th anniversary. HOK’s three founding partners all were graduates of Washington University in St. Louis and that is where the company was formed – in the heart of the US. Fast forward to today and we have 23 offices globally, with nearly 1,700 professionals across the globe. HOK has become a completely decentralized organization and our senior leaders reside in different locations worldwide.

In 1968, we experienced a turning point for HOK in aviation when we were awarded the master plan and design for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. HOK developed the master plan and terminal diagrams for the airport as it exists today. We didn’t design all of the terminals but we established the framework that is still in place.

What started for HOK with a master planning effort in Dallas has evolved into our current position as a leader in designing major airports and terminal facilities around the world. 

What is HOK’s biggest achievement in terms of the airports that the company has worked on?

One of our most important achievements is helping clients, both internationally and in the US, get as much value as possible from their investment in these facilities. The business proposition is extremely important. We have built a reputation for designing and delivering projects that are well-suited to each client and that provide them value for their investment.

We designed the new Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi and have designed several airports in Asia Pacific and in the Middle East.

In the Middle East, regional positioning is an especially important driver. Cities and countries are competing to become the gateways to the Middle East. The HOK-designed Hamad International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex in Doha opened earlier this year.

Hamad International Passenger Terminal Complex in Doha, Qatar

HOK has established a strong, industry-leading reputation in sustainability. We are perennially ranked as a top sustainable design firm. Sustainability is part of all of our projects – not just aviation. It’s in our firm’s DNA.

In recent years, we have expanded our service offerings for airport projects. In addition to planning, architecture and interior design, we have a robust engineering practice. We offer structural, mechanical and plumbing engineering in addition to an IT and electronic systems consulting group.

In this competitive industry, passenger satisfaction is paramount. We have designed terminals that are recognized for their high levels of passenger service. This is not solely a commentary on the architectural design, but it is a reflection on our thoughtful approach to planning.

How do you see the Middle East market progressing?

Countries in the Middle East are wisely investing their oil money in infrastructure – whether it’s airports, other transportation systems or cities.

The market in the Middle East eventually will settle down – but this won’t happen quickly. There are still major projects being pursued from Saudi Arabia to the UAE. Compared with international airports in the West, the scale of these terminals is massive. They are designed with the intention of having a major impact and creating an iconic structure that will attract passengers. In the Middle East, the hospitality and luxury aspects of airport terminals also are quite important. 

Are there any airports that stand out from the rest?

Our airport terminal projects respond to the region in which they are located. The passenger terminal at Hamad International Airport, which has been very successful, was a complex project. What began as a very large airport facility – in the range of 3 million square feet – ended up being a project of approximately 6.46 million square feet. Projects this large are not often seen in the West.

Indira Gandhi International Airport’s Terminal 3 and Kempegowda International Airport’s Terminal 1 Expansion in Bangalore, India, are two notable projects. In the US, one of our current major projects is the new Salt Lake City International Airport Terminal Redevelopment Program.

Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3 in New Dehli, India

HOK’s Aviation + Transportation practice does not just design iconic, new, large-scale terminal projects. We pride ourselves on offering a wide range of services. We have several on-call service agreements in which we respond to smaller-scale projects on an as-needed basis. These smaller-scale projects are quite important to the airports and their operations.

How has passenger terminal design changed over the past 20 years?

If we were to go back to 1994 and try to imagine what the industry would look like today, there are several things that we would not have expected. One notable change is the evolution of security in airports. When I was a young boy, our family would travel on holiday every summer. The entire family would be able to walk unencumbered up to the gate and the well-wishers would accompany you almost to the door of the aircraft. That would be unimaginable today.

The ability to fund large-scale projects is a challenge. Airport authorities, airlines and cities are looking at a variety of delivery methods, including traditional design/bid/build, design/build or P3 (public-private partnership) projects. P3 is an interesting approach because it places the responsibility for financing and delivering projects in the private sector. The public sector benefits from the ability to use these new facilities and then share in the revenue.

Technology has been another important change in terminals over the past 20 years. Not long ago, international sterile corridors had solid walls to prevent communications between in-transit passengers and meeters and greeters. Cell phones made that a non-issue.

There is an increased focus on generating revenue in passenger terminals. Airports have always needed to turn a profit and generate revenue, but never to the degree that they are experiencing today. If we accept that the charges that airlines pay at airports are basically a breakeven proposition, we can understand why airports and airlines are focusing on the non-aeronautical areas of the terminal: the concessions, retail and other special offerings.

Looking ahead, what are the main trends that you expect to see over the next 20 years?

Airports will increasingly become a combination of retail shopping center and upscale hospitality facility. They are going to evolve from facilities that process passengers to places that accommodates guests and customers. That terminology is now becoming part of the aviation lexicon. Very few airlines and airports refer to “passengers” anymore. They are “customers” that they need to attract and engage. We need to provide them a high level of service to compete with other airports and airlines.

From a technology standpoint, there is going to be a dramatic change in the operations of terminals. The customers’ travel experiences begin the moment they turn on their cell phone to check in and continue through the moment that they deplane at their destination. Because travelers don’t differentiate between the various segments of their travel experience, they will measure their door-to-door travel experience by the weakest link. This is why we are finding more cooperation between airports, airlines and even transit entities. If one bag is lost, it doesn’t matter if Airline X has provided a superb flight and wonderful service. That lost bag is going to be the traveler’s lingering memory and the airport and airline are both tarred by the same brush.

As the challenges involved with protecting people increase, security will continue to change. I envision a more seamless and invisible security screening process. Some conversations about the airport of the future, for example, mention a security tunnel.

Long Beach Airport Modernization, Long Beach, Calif., USA

Much of the anxiety that travelers experience in the terminal emanates from a lack of clarity. They are not clear about where they need to go. We are designing airport terminals that are more intuitive to navigate without relying on signage. Providing daylight and views outside so that passengers intuitively know which direction they need to go is a no-cost proposition: It just requires smart and thoughtful planning.

The future is always changing. The future we are predicting today will be much different in just a few years.

If you could introduce one process or technology not taking into consideration constraints or challenges, what would it be?

Designing for one-step processing would be transformational. Today, customers that arrive at terminals have to get their boarding pass if they don’t already have it. Next, they have to check their bags, go through security screening and then pass through the podiums as they are boarding the gate. In the not-too-distant future, I can imagine that these processes will be consolidated at a single point in the terminal so customers arrive, check-in and seamlessly pass through security at the same time. The technology to do this is within our reach.

I would like to introduce better technology and processes for handling the baggage. It seems archaic that we are still lugging heavy suitcases to the airport, struggling to get them into the terminal, giving them to an agent and then hoping that that our bags arrive at the other end. Both the technology and the desire to greatly improve this process already exist.

We need a more civilized way of gathering passengers prior to boarding. Let’s dispense with the term ‘hold rooms.’ A hold room is for products. We would like to think of these spaces as enhanced waiting areas. There should be retail and concession areas and luxury amenities that make the waiting experience much more tolerable – even enjoyable. If we can couple that with a better way of boarding passengers, rather than the cattle call that we see at many airports, it would be transformational. This is slowly happening.

Is there one airport that offers a glimpse of what the future holds?

Various airports offer different glimpses into the future. Providing transportation and transit access to airports is a universal need for the future. Because some new airports in Asia Pacific and the Middle East are being developed as part of broader infrastructure projects, they have been more successful in providing transit to the airports.

The UK does this well. Heathrow is successful in providing rail access. HOK was involved in the heavy rail and on designing the airport rail station connecting Heathrow’s terminals. Our practice is focused on both aviation and transportation.

Though we can speculate, we can’t predict the future. We have to plan and design terminal facilities that are adaptable to change. Too many airports around the world have become obsolete because they haven’t been able to adapt to change. They may be structurally and mechanically sound but failing because they can’t adapt to changes in the travel industry. This adaptability is critical. We are designing terminals with fewer columns, more open space and a more flexible, robust IT infrastructure so airports can completely reconfigure the layouts as needed.

Anything else to add?

As a profession, we all need to keep in mind that our goal is to improve the customers’ experience and provide high levels of service for them. We need to provide high quality and exceptionally well-designed terminals while providing value for money to the funding agencies and airport operators.

This interview originally appeared in Passenger Terminal Today.

About the Author: 

robertchicasenvironmental-109x109Robert Chicas is a director of Aviation + Transportation at HOK.