Airports are perhaps the most Twilight Zone-ish places in the universe, where people wander in slow motion, red-eyed and confused. They can make travellers feel anonymous and interchangeable, temporary and forgettable.
But many airports are bucking the trend and becoming engaging places where travellers actually want to spend time – and get a taste of the country they’ve pit-stopped in.
There are good reasons for doing so. Airports are the last place you encounter before a flight and serve as the ‘welcome mat’ to a new country. Around 4.38 billion airline passengers jetted around the world in 2009. One of the world’s busiest airports, London Heathrow, welcomed a record 70 million passengers in 2011.
FUN YOU SAY?
Are the words “fun” and “airport” mutually exclusive? Not if you enjoy amusement park-styled entertainment. Singapore Changi Airport’s slide – the world’s tallest in any airport – stands at a height of 12 metres high or four storeys tall. Shriek your way down the slide “while reaching top speeds of up to 6 metres per second”, beckons the airport.
The Airbräu brewery at Munich Airport, meanwhile, not only brews its own beer but also captivates travellers with cabaret performances. And the airport’s beer garden features musical acts.
Passengers with an interest in health and fitness will appreciate Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which allows you to charge your mobile phone by pedal power on energy-generating bicycles. Then relax in the world’s first airport park, which comes complete with butterflies projected onto the walls and floors, and a soundscape of bicycle bells and playing children.
Schiphol also offers a wedding service that allows brides and grooms to plight their troth in the presence of an airport registrar and hop on a plane. The quick and cheap ‘Say Yes and Go’ package is basically just the ceremony, while the luxury ‘Ticket to Paradise’ option includes a dedicated wedding planner arranging an elaborate honeymoon.
Airports prove to be unique venues for other events as well. For instance, runways at Berlin’s Termpelhof Airports were transformed into fashion runways for Hugo Boss’ latest collection this year during Berlin Fashion Week.
Airports are beginning to highlight the best that their countries can offer; some are moving away from the homogenised model to provide tastes of local culture, cuisine and literature.
Here again Schiphol shines, offering the world’s first departure-hall cultural institute. Created by none other than Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the museum of The Netherlands, the institute showcases a rotating selection of artwork from ten Dutch masters in the free-entry area, including Rembrandt’s famed portrait of his wife, Saskia. An adjoining library features 1,200 books by Dutch authors and free downloadable music representing the country’s history and culture.
Indeed, displaying art for art’s sake at airports is becoming increasingly popular around the world. Vancouver International Airport displays sculptures, murals and tapestries from native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, whilst San Francisco International has an ever-changing collection of sculptures, paintings and photographs on loan from museums around the world. Denver International Airport’s impressive art collection is only upstaged by the stunning view of the Rockies outside.
The world’s first airport library for e-books can be found at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. Operated in collaboration with the government-funded Institute for Information Industry, the library features 30 devices to read over 400 titles in English and Chinese.
London Heathrow, meanwhile, last year employed a “writer-in-residence”, Alain de Botton, who was given unprecedented access to the airport – and the ability to speak with everyone from airline staff and senior executives to travellers passing through – to write the book, “A Week At The Airport”.
Of course, airports need shops and concessionaires, but some go the extra mile to be original. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport offers a supreme example; it has recreated a local Edo-Style street from the early 1900s by using authentic, traditional materials, and housing shops such as the century-old stationer Itoya and the 50-year old Kaneko Optical Shop
Late last year at Singapore Changi, students from the local poly created a fashion store called SPELL to use as a ‘learning studio’ where they tackled different retail roles from buying and managing operations to selling and strategy.
World-weary passengers can feel Zen again at Tokyo Narita by taking a nature walk through gardens of orchids, ferns and fishponds, or fight fatigue and jet lag at Vancouver’s Absolute Spa. South of the Canadian border, several US airports have introduced premium XpresSpa facilities that offer massage and beauty treatments, while Paris airports experimented with free light therapy during the winter.
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport offers the world’s first ‘beauty parlour for men’ with manicures, haircuts and massages. London Gatwick in 2010 offered pop-up tanning booths so that passengers could get a free spray tan before hitting the beaches of the Mediterranean.
Forward-thinking Munich Airport has a medical centre on site in Terminal 1. The AirportClinic “offers an innovative medical full-service concept”, and boasts “renowned specialists, state-of-the-art medical technology and comfortable surroundings”, it says. You’ll also find ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Andreas Stehle’s office at Munich Airport.
A lot of airports are investing in mini-hotels to allow passengers to get 40 winks without dislocating their vertebrae on plastic-moulded seating.
Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport has debuted the so-called Sleepbox, with comes complete with bed, TV, Wi-Fi access, luggage storage and safe deposit box.
Munich Airport’s Napcab sleeping cabins let you alter the mood lighting, play Bach and even wake up to the sound of birds chirruping. The much-publicised Yotel cabins at London Heathrow claim to offer “a first class hotel experience at a great value price”.
Lately, however, British airports have found themselves in the news more for queuing hell rather than passenger heaven. Darren Caplan, CEO of the Airport Operators Association, acknowledges the need for engaging travellers, but points out, “UK airports have invested heavily in improving the passenger experience, but most of it has gone on upgrading services and facilities.”
There are still glimmers of hope for weary globetrotters. Glasgow airport provided the stage for flash mobs, including a “Singin’ in the Rain” tribute by Dance Glasgow, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing an impromptu rendition of Ravel’s Bolero at the departures desk, with instruments disguised in pieces of hand luggage till the last moment. “We choose events that reflect what’s going on in town,” says Brian McLean, head of communications, “so that people who are arriving or leaving take away great memories of a great city.” It’s a canny way of supporting the local economy through promoting Glasgow’s charms as soon as people’s toes touch the tarmac.
London Heathrow’s head of consumer PR communications Julia Gillam agrees that experiential showcases and theatre add an unexpected dimension to airports. She says the airport has started to put together a series of thought-provoking and inspiring installations and exhibitions, including a showcase of emerging designer talent for London Fashion Week, a range of Olympic-themed installations, and a role in British Telecom’s upcoming Artbox installations, where old red phone boxes are being reimagined as art spaces before being auctioned off to raise money for ChildLine. “It’s about pushing the boundaries creatively to make passengers actually happy to be in an airport,” says Gillam.
Now, about those queues…