How To Build A Brand New Airport -- Without Heathrow's Baggage

By James O Malley on at

Last week, the government finally made a decision that had been put off by successive Prime Ministers for around 20 years. It concluded, at long last, that Heathrow Airport would be getting a third runway.

The decision is a hugely controversial one due to concerns about air and noise pollution, congestion, and a myriad of other factors. Not to mention that the villages of Harmondsworth, Longford and others are due to be bulldozed almost entirely from the map.

Henrik Rothe is a senior lecturer in Airport Planning and Management at Cranfield University. He’s worked all over the world on projects ranging from the new Khartoum International Airport to Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg. I asked him what he thought of the Heathrow plans - and his first reaction was to point out the huge number of challenges. In addition to the glacial pace at which political decisions were made, there’s Britain’s slow planning system to contend with, as well as the physical location of Heathrow being relatively close to the city, and bounded by the M25.

But could it be worth the pain? Henrik points out there could be one big advantage, in that the expansion could enable Heathrow to tidy itself up.

“I think [the third runway and construction of Terminal 6 are] a great opportunity to kind of straighten up the airport and have a more rational structure between terminals and runways,” he explains. Essentially, because of the way Heathrow has grown in a piecemeal way, and the way Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are structured there is a complex network of access roads, buses and train stations.

So Heathrow isn’t the ideal place to have a massive airport, or certainly not to expand one into -- but the government thinks it's the best option we have.

Preparing for Take-Off

The complexities of Heathrow raise an interesting question: Imagine if we could start again. How the heck do you design an airport? Airports aren’t just buildings. They're insanely complex machines and are pretty amazing, even if it doesn’t really feel that way when you’re jammed into a Ryanair seat and stuck on the tarmac for an hour because your plane has missed its take-off slot.

Hong Kong built an island to put its international airport on.

Every single day, airports manage to shepherd hundreds of thousands of people between a range of ground transports into metal tubes -- and then from metal tubes back into the cars, trains and buses. What’s more, they manage to coordinate internationally so that your baggage will arrive with you too. And on top of this? They manage to keep things secure and keep passengers broadly entertained and happy throughout. Well, content at least.

I asked Henrik, as someone who designs airports at the concept stage, what he considers on day one. What questions would he think about first when designing a brand new airport?

A good place to start is with IATA, the International Air Travel Association, he told me. The body lays down rules on the number of square metres per passenger an airport is expected to have -- as well as expected processing times. So it is a case of taking your passenger forecasts and doing the maths in order to reveal how large your airport and your terminal buildings need to be.

Similarly, this data can also be used to inform how many aircraft movements you might expect and how many gates you’ll need to serve them. It will also help figure out if the new airport will be able to board passengers using bridges, or whether you’ll need to bus them out to the plane. “All these need to be developed in a holistic way between the airport operator and the airline”, he explains.

Of course, every airport needs check-in, security, a departure lounge and so on, but there can also be significant differences which impact on how the airport is designed.

“So what are the criteria? What are the priorities?” asks Henrik. “Ideally you will have a breakdown of your passenger profile -- so the percentage of international and domestic passengers. Are these passengers transferring through the airport? What are the expectation of passengers?”

Liszt Ferenc International Airport.

He gives the example of Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport. After Hungary’s flag carrier Malév was bankrupted, the airport was taken over by mostly low-cost carriers -- and as a result fewer passengers needed to transfer to other flights as the airport was no longer a hub for Malév’s connections.

The profile of the passengers he mentions is hugely important too -- especially given the increasingly commercial nature of terminals -- and what passengers want will vary. High-flying business types may want high levels of service -- for example, it’s now possible to pre-book a meal in the departure lounge at some airports -- but users of low-cost airlines may be happy with something a little more spartan.

Henrik also mentioned local factors might also hugely impact how airports are designed, as every city or environment has different expectations.

Bangalore's Air Conditioned Terminal.

For example, Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport in India is the country’s first privately owned airport and part of the brief from the owner was that the airport should keep out anyone who doesn’t have a ticket to fly. The reason is simple: the terminal is air conditioned, and that's an expensive feature. So the management wants to keep out freeloaders.

This contrasts with the approach of European airports, which want to encourage people inside, in the hope that they'll spend money. Even if you’re just meeting someone rather than catching a flight yourself, the aim is that you’ll still buy a drink while you’re there.

Kotoka International Airport (Pic Source)

Kotoka International Airport in Ghana is another fun example. In central Europe, Henrik says that the average number of people at the airport waiting to pick up a new arrival is only 1.5, whereas in Ghana the average passenger has seven people meeting them from the plane. To accommodate this, Kotoka has built an outdoor arrivals area with just a canopy on stilts, rather than trying to pack everyone inside.

Business Class

When it comes to airports, commercial space is increasingly important. This is the space given over to shops and restaurants, and the reason most modern departure lounges look more like shopping centres. Henrik likens it to how most modern museums will also include a gift shop at the end, or how large supermarkets also include a cafe and other facilities.

These sorts of things are increasingly expected by airport customers too. And that could be beneficial to the airports. According to Henrik, in some cases revenues from commercial operations could be even more profitable for an airport operator than the actual aviation(!). Commerce is something that new airports can be specifically designed for, whereas many old airports started life as military airfields. Back in the day, Generals didn’t really consider tourists and their neverending love affair with massive Toblerones.

“There needs to be a master plan developed [...] about the financials of the operation including all of the non-aviation revenues, from retail, restaurants etc. and that often is underestimated but it has a major impact,” Henrik says.

Using the shops and the restaurants in the terminal isn’t just trivial -- it's also a useful distraction. If passengers need to wait around for a couple of hours, they have the potential to make it a much more bearable (perhaps even enjoyable) experience. But Henrik says that the passenger profile makes the design of these commercial offerings important.

“Some airports deal with less educated passengers and for them it's more important that the airport guides those people so that they don't run through the commercial [area] into the lounge and stay there,” he explains. “I think a vast majority of people want to have coffee or want to enjoy their time, but they are nervous to miss the flight. They would rather go to the gate and wait for an hour or so, just because they're feeling insecure. ‘Can I go back or do I miss my flight?’”

This can also be a challenging part of designing airports, because of the opposing interests of different stakeholders. Airport operators want passengers to spend as much time in the shops, as that is how they make money, but airlines on the other hand would rather passengers were queuing at the gate with plenty of time to spare. “They're not bothered if the passenger spends an hour in the duty free shop, they want to have them on the plane.”

Good Design

So are there any particularly good examples of well-designed airports?

“From a passenger point of view I think [Amsterdam] Schiphol is a very interesting airport [because] it’s entertaining passengers and it has become a business hub where people meet whether they fly or not.”

The airport transcending its utilitarian functions is clear -- the hub is now so popular there are more people using the airport’s rail connections than there are taking flights. And the departure lounge even contains a branch of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum art gallery, which must be more fun than wandering through the duty-free shop wondering who the hell buys so much perfume.

The art gallery at Schiphol. (Image: Kat Walsh)

Munich Airport is another example Henrik gives, explaining that there is a public piazza between the two terminals which always contains extra entertainment options for passengers. For instance, in the winter it often has an ice rink. But there’s perhaps something more important about the airport: it was designed with expansion in mind.


Munich Airport.

“It's one of the few airports where planners made radical decisions to accommodate growth for the next 40 years. It was a brutal decision to place the airport in a natural reservoir, [but] there was a long process [and because] that decision was made, the airport has the potential to grow and also develop commercial facilities around the airport and residential areas in relation to the airport,” Henrik says. “So that’s come as one of the few occasions where you have seen a long-term planning being successful. It can expand up to four runways and there's space for new satellite buildings so that's a good example of how an airport can be developed with the anticipation that it will be growing.”

Four runways? It’s a level of forethought that Britain’s transport planners no doubt wish their predecessors had. What’s clear is that starting from scratch certainly has some advantages -- especially given how restricted Heathrow is in terms of space and existing infrastructure. Could we ever achieve something like Munich? Could we ever start all over again in London?

Boris Island

Enter the so-called “Boris Island”, the plan put forward by the former Mayor of London in which he wanted to create an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary, which would be free of many of the constraints of Heathrow. Since the decision was made, it now appears to be well and truly off the table (whether it was ever really on the table is an argument for historians). But could it have made sense?

Boris Island could have looked something like this.

“I think from an urban point of view it would have been good,” Henrik says, pointing at the eastward-shift that has been going on in the capital, with major new population centres being created in the Docklands and Stratford (thanks to Margaret Thatcher and the Olympics respectively). “In the long-term, growth will only happen in the east, not in the west. So in that respect it would be a good decision,” he continues -- but he now thinks that the opportunity has been missed, as any major decision like this should also have been made a couple of decades prior. Now it is pretty much impossible.

His reasoning isn’t just related to the airport, but all of the infrastructure and commerce surrounding it. Given the huge amount of businesses located in west London because of access to Heathrow, and the fact that it would be the taxpayer paying for the roads, bridges, tunnels and trains to get people to “Boris Island”, a whole new airport would probably be a non-starter.

But there could be some good news, even if like Munich, we have to make some painful decisions now.

“By developing Terminal 6 there's a possibility that the airport will be looking similar to Munich but [having come from] a very different history,” Henrik says.

So we may not get to start all over again and design a new airport from scratch with all of the advantages that might entail, but at least Heathrow might soon make a little more sense.

Henrik Rothe is Senior Lecturer in Airport Planning and Management at Cranfield University and Managing Director of Leit-Werk. His current project is called The Urban Turbine, and is looking at how airports can be used to generate urban development, and he’ll be publishing more on it soon.