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HOK’s William Jenkinson Works to Challenge the Status Quo and Design Better Airports

Long Beach Airport

“Commercially prosperous, safe and secure, and flexible to adapt to constant changes in the aviation industry. These are the top three principles of success for any airport now and in the future,” says William Jenkinson, RIBA, regional leader for HOK’s Aviation + Transportation group in Chicago.

Thirty years ago Jenkinson began his career as a young architect in London’s West End, where he worked for a firm specializing in theater design. After moving to a larger firm in London and finding himself working on an airport project, he soon found himself engrossed in the world of aviation. “The complex planning challenges, changes to accommodate technology, new aircraft, and airlines and the inherent need for airports to make money—not just from flying aircraft but from retail, concessions and parking—absolutely fascinated me,” he recalls.

Shortly after the British native relocated to Chicago in 2001 to help lead a new terminal project at O’Hare International Airport, 9/11 happened and overnight the entire airline industry changed. Although that O’Hare project ultimately did not move forward, the airport planning principles he had picked up during his foundational years in London served him well as the industry gradually recovered and learned how to prosper once again. Jenkinson eventually found himself involved in significant airport planning and terminal projects in Atlanta; Detroit; San Francisco; Houston; San Diego; Goa, India; and Incheon, South Korea.

In 2014 Jenkinson came to HOK in Chicago, by then his adopted hometown, to head the regional A+T practice. Here he talks about what occupies his days (and nights), what fuels his passion for transportation facility design and the trends influencing airport design.

I’m responsible, with my partners, for bringing HOK’s planning, design and engineering expertise to aviation and transportation clients and then delivering exceptional design services. As a global design firm, clients hire us partly for our great depth of experience but mostly to bring innovative design and to create the unexpected.

There’s no typical day. It’s a 24/7 industry and we always seem to be on call! Why do we do it? This is exciting stuff and it just gets into your blood. On any given day I could be anywhere in the world. When we created the master plan and design vision for LaGuardia Airport’s redevelopment (Terminal B below), I was in New York City every week for more than a year.

LaGuardi Airport Terminal B HOK

Credit: HOK and WSP

Projects of this scale require many minds, ideas and voices. As architects, it’s our job to channel all these people toward a common vision, establish shared goals and work like hell to achieve them. There are so many complex layers to navigate, from the design and technical building challenges to the political, funding and team structure issues. Besides our creativity in design, we need to facilitate communication and consensus building and bring together all these different stakeholders.

9/11 altered the entire industry. Partly because of new security mandates and partly because there was a sudden shift in the business climate as travel growth stalled. But after a few years, the industry went through another transformation as airports realized that passengers who were arriving much earlier to get through security needed more amenities, shops and restaurants after they had passed through the checkpoints. So there was a paradigm shift toward providing enhanced retail, concession and amenity spaces behind the checkpoints, creating valuable new revenue streams for airports.

The commercial centers of airports will continue to evolve. Airports need to make money to thrive, so we can expect to see new ways for passengers to spend money in terminal environments. At LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B (below), a whole floor of the headhouse will be dedicated to concessions. Every traveler will pass through this elevated space on their way to and from the gates, which will be accessed across sky bridges. This is a huge, captive audience that wants to be entertained, wined and dined. Many of the world’s great cities were planned around avenues connecting plazas and piazzas. In airports, concourses with retail can act as the avenues; the plaza, or town square, is the marketplace.

La Guardia Terminal B

Credit: HOK and WSP

Airports are becoming sprawling metropolises in their own right—cities with access to the world. Just as autonomous vehicles will change how we get around our cities, we’ll have new ways of moving people and deliveries around these airport cities. But our journeys in airports are more complicated because travelers often don’t know exactly where they’re going, usually are not alone and typically have baggage. Trains and automatic people movers have taken us from A to B. Next, autonomous vehicles will be able to take us from A to B, C, D and E, either on personal journeys or shared rides that streamline the travel experience. Our increasingly aging population will need this help to navigate our airports and cities.

HOK’s canopy project is recreating the front door to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (below). The entrances to North American airports traditionally have been planned to welcome private vehicles or taxis and get your vehicle as close as possible to check-in and the gate. But in Atlanta we designed two 864-foot-long canopies over the curbside pick-up and drop-off areas that are reminiscent in scale more of a great European railway station and that embrace other modes of transportation. The canopies offer a protected, comfortable environment as travelers embark on their journeys. Most importantly, they instill a grand welcoming sense of arrival and departure—just as those great railway stations have provided for centuries.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

We’ll see more public outdoor spaces at arrival points and within terminals. At Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 there is an outdoor landscaped space sheltered by a large canopy that functions like a grand civic plaza. Though it was created on a security premise to move vehicles away from the terminal building, it also helps passengers to orient themselves. As they arrive by car, train, the Tube, shuttle, bus, taxi or Uber at this common entry point—the plaza or forecourt—they immediately see wayfinding and flight information and know where they’re going. And there are benches where people can relax or just catch their breath.

In mild climates there will be more outside spaces built within secure terminal environments. Our design for the modernization of the Long Beach Airport’s historic passenger terminal (below) took advantage of the Southern California climate by creating an open-air meet-and-greet plaza and secure outdoor spaces including a garden, wooden boardwalks and a patio. But even customers in places with less desirable climates are yearning for outside spaces. Airlines, for example, are already building club spaces with outdoor terraces in cities including New York and Atlanta.

Long Beach Airport

Airports can’t afford for their gates to have any downtime during expansion and modernization projects. This requires smart planning and construction phasing solutions. For LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B, much of the planning concept was driven by the need to build with minimal disruptions to operations. The new headhouse is being constructed in front of, rather than on top of, the existing building. The new concourses are being built to the side of existing concourses. And the concept of the dual pedestrian bridges spanning the existing terminal in use and aircraft taxi lanes (below) deters the need to build costly and disruptive below-grade connections.

La Guardia Terminal B

Credit: HOK and WSP

At Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, we designed four new gates and a new consolidated security checkpoint that will replace two existing checkpoints and provide more pre- and post-security space. After travelers pass through this checkpoint, they will enter the new “town square” that acts as the new heart of the airport. Within this town square passengers will have access to concessions, amenities and lounging areas with great views of the airport. A large skylight and expansive windows draw in natural light. We want this relaxed environment to help passengers enjoy the travel experience.

Our project at Will Rogers Airport is bringing back a cool feature from the airports of the 1960s: a public observation deck (below). This will be a pre-security, suspended viewing deck that floats above the terminal’s new town square. It will have aviation exhibits and offer views of the concourses and airfield. The viewing deck will be open to visitors and allow meeters and greeters to make visual contact with friends and family members as they pass into secure departure areas and gates. This idea was driven by Airport Director Mark Kranenburg, who is passionate about engaging his airport with the Oklahoma City community.

Will Rogers Airport

The architectural design for the expansion at Will Rogers Airport respects the existing terminal while reinterpreting the design in a contemporary way. Fifteen years ago, for example, people didn’t walk through airports with roller bags. But tiles in concourses clatter when people roll bags over the floors. For the new wing, we kept the color palette of the original floor tile but recreated it with durable terrazzo that isn’t prone to cracking and will be wonderfully quiet!

The airport is paving the way to offer direct international service from Oklahoma City in the future. New planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a mid-sized aircraft that can fly long-haul point-to-point from smaller airports, are making this possible. The client asked us to design an international arrivals facility under the new concourse that can handle two simultaneous arriving aircraft. This facility is being built as a shell. At some point in the future, after they sign an airline for international service, they will be able to easily fit out the space and have it operating within months instead of years. So the leaders at Will Rogers Airport have sidestepped a future headache by planning ahead and future proofing their operations and growth.

My pet peeves about air travel are the same as most people’s. I dislike queues, poor air quality, flight cancellations and delays, inconsiderate travelers, rudeness or poor customer service from service providers, lost or delayed luggage, and feeling disoriented. And I love that we have opportunities to make much of this better through our day-to-day work.

New tracking technologies will help alleviate some inconveniences in airports. We’re all looking to have more control of our journeys and to avoid the disruptions of ticketing, bag drop, security and queuing to board aircraft. Airports and airlines are creating smart tools that give travelers real-time data to manage their journeys. Because every move we make now can be tracked via devices like our phones, airports will have the ability to track every passenger’s journey from start to finish: who we are, where we come from and where we’re headed. That’s a game changer. When a truck shows up with a delivery, for example, the airport already knows all about it. They have intelligence on who sent the truck, what’s on it, when it’s coming and when it will leave. Just as with the delivery truck, knowing who and when each person will be arriving will be critical to the ability to secure our journeys seamlessly and with minimal disruptions.

The great ideas of the future will come from our new designers. Young architects who are interested in focusing on aviation and transportation facilities for their careers should develop an understanding of the design, technical and business challenges and then be as creative, innovative and challenging to existing norms as possible. Push yourself to design something better than what exists today. And remember that airports are constantly changing, so our solutions always must offer something different than what we have today.

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