Airports after 9/11
Bill Hooper in Airport Design, Airport Design
Gensler airports

Most post-9/11 architecture commentary has focused on the design of tall buildings. That’s understandable, but 9/11’s impact on tall buildings was actually quite simple and immediate: construction on most supertall buildings in the United States halted in the wake of the attacks. People were afraid to inhabit and invest in skyscrapers, and it took time to design new security and structural measures to address concerns and move forward.

The building type most quickly changed by 9/11 was airports. After the attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) swiftly transformed airport screening procedures, forcing airports and passengers to adapt. Within weeks of 9/11, stringent and unfamiliar security protocols were in place, airports were crowded, and travelers were agitated and uncomfortable.

In the years since, airports have taken great strides to improve the passenger experience. Most post 9/11 changes are not evident to the average passenger and that’s intentional. Airports didn’t want to disrupt the passenger experience any more than they had to. Travelers don't see the Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) which automatically scan bags for contraband. They don't see the increased surveillance equipment. They don't see sky marshals that have separate screening areas from regular passengers, and they don't see alarm systems at ticketing or gate lounges. It’s the job of architects and designers to incorporate these changes in a way that does not draw attention, disrupt passenger flow, or make people uncomfortable.

The real question that airports continue to address is what do travelers do now that they didn't used to do?

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One of the biggest changes that we’ve focused on is creating post-security spaces that allow passengers to regroup in peace after passing through security. The post-security benches at JetBlue and Recompose Area at SFO T2 are two examples. These areas enable passengers to re-acclimate themselves in a calming environment.

Since passengers now spend more time in terminals waiting to board their flights, the focus is on providing an environment where everyone can access the amenities they want while staying informed about their flight status. This means designing terminals that offer restaurants, lounges, shops and even mini-spas, all within clear sight of departure gates. Terminals including JFK’s JetBlue terminal even offer food delivery options, so that you can sit at your departure gate and have a meal delivered directly to you. Designs include options for families, like the children’s play areas at SFO’s Terminal 2, which include art installations in play areas with clear sight lines to departure gates. The idea is that if children and adults alike have the space they need to enjoy pre-flight time, everyone will share a more pleasant travel experience.

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Travelers today carry a multitude of electronic devices, so access to convenient electrical outlets and a variety of seating options are important. Business travelers need places to work at a counter, plug in their phones, and access WiFi. Leisure travelers might want to watch a movie on an iPad while relaxing at lounge seating. Students may want to enjoy a cup of coffee at a counter while finishing a homework assignment on a laptop. In short, people need access to amenities that enable them to make use of their time waiting for a flight. Airport architecture should support those needs.

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Passengers judge airports based on their experience in the terminals, so we strive to incorporate design elements that reinforce a sense of place and tie a terminal to the city at which it is located. That adds a level of distinction to each journey and hopefully eliminates the monotony commonly associated with many airports. At Jackson Hole airport in Wyoming, that means incorporating architectural elements reminiscent of ski lodges. At SFO, it’s an emphasis on San Francisco’s local food culture and a very visible commitment to sustainability.

9/11 had an immediate impact on airports, and changes in digital technology and sustainable awareness have added additional levels of complexity to the field of airport design. In the past decade, we’ve had the opportunity to address a multitude of security changes unseen to most travelers, and we’re now able to add amenities that passengers can see and enjoy. The pleasant experience comes from familiarity. As we continue to adapt terminals to the next demand and help passengers acclimate to security changes without having to think about them, we will continue to elevate the passenger experience.

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Bill Hooper lives and breathes airport design. He’s traveled the world to design terminals from Jeddah to Chennai, and has the travel stories to prove it. He’s flown a flight with chickens on board, passed time in business class with an actress who shared her pharmaceuticals, and once rode the baggage claim belt at Washington National Airport (not as fun as one might hope). He is a Principal at Gensler and leads our global aviation and transportation practice, and you can contact him at
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