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Robert Chicas on NEXTT Generation Airport Design

Robert Chicas

“Everybody talks about the airport of the future, but they are becoming real at a staggering pace,” says Robert Chicas, HOK’s director of Aviation + Transportation.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International (ACI) have launched a New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) initiative. With airport travel expected to double by 2036, the IATA notes that “NEXTT aims to help deliver this future by developing a common vision to enhance the on-ground transport experience, guide industry investments and help governments improve the regulatory framework.”

NEXTT will investigate how passengers, cargo, baggage and aircraft move through the travel journey, with a focus on transformational changes related to off-airport activities, advanced processing technology and interactive decision-making.

Chicas recently described to Passenger Terminal World how HOK’s airport design teams are currently planning for the impact of autonomous vehicles, RFID tags, and the ability to track passengers and baggage electronically.

Impact of technology:

“Passengers are already going to be able to track their bags on their cell phones, and retrieve information on whether their bags are still on the aircraft,” he says. “It’s a very short step from that technology to just reprogramming it: to have a bag forwarded to the hotel, or have a meal at a restaurant first and retrieve the bag at a different location. The passenger will be able to control the end destination of their bags. … Travelers will be more comfortable and will spend more time in retail and food services. It will affect the nonaeronautical revenue.”

Creating a sense of place:

Chicas also explained how these improvements to the passenger experience provide another opportunity to use terminal design to create a stronger sense of place in each airport. “Your experience arriving in New York should be different from Utah or Los Angeles or Brussels or Barcelona. That should be cultural, physical, reflected in the art, or in something as simple as the colors and finishes. If there’s an airport in the Caribbean, you want to see the colors reflected in that. It’s about materiality, even in the food service offerings.”

Repurposing transportation infrastructure:

The industry already has been thinking about how to repurpose transportation infrastructure to accommodate these coming changes, says Chicas. “Airports have spent more than a little bit of money on new parking garages to fit 2,000-6,000 cars, but as Uber and Lyft and similar services are turbocharged and other alternative means of transport arise, whether a vehicle, a train, or light rail, it’s generally accepted that garages will become less important. … The typical parking garage has a very low floor-to-floor design and a lot of parking garages have sloped floors, so their footprints are enormous. If they were just designed with a higher floor-to-floor space, and rather than internal speed ramps they had helices, in the old way, creating a central atrium with a helix where cars turn, then when parking is no longer needed that space can serve for elevators and escalators. That can help repurpose the garage.”

Longevity and resilience:

As new aviation and transportation projects are built, says Chicas, they need to be flexible to accommodate current and future transportation trends. “We have a habit, as architects, of projects having a serviceable life of 30 years or so, but look at Grand Central Terminal in New York. It’s 100 years old. That’s how we need to start thinking about these major investments in infrastructure, as buildings that can adapt to the changes we know about and to those we cannot anticipate.”

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