Celebrating Arrival at the Airport
10.1.2012
Ty Osbaugh in Airport Design, Airport Design, JetBlue, New York

At JFK International Airport, JetBlue will break ground on a new addition to its terminal, T5, on October 1, 2012. The addition will add three international gates to T5, greeting international passengers with both daylight and a view of New York City. While that may seem like common sense, it's a radical change from the typical international arrival.

Throughout the 20th century, airports served as civic icons for the dreams, aspirations, and the identities of their cities. Even for terminals that inherently represented the fanciful nature of flight (JFK's TWA Terminal, pictured above, and Washington Dulles are great examples), the segment of the journey that was always emphasized was the departure sequence. This created a magical experience for those passengers embarking upon a journey or for visitors ending their holiday. Yet for an airport that looks to announce its city as a desirable destination, isn't that backwards? Shouldn't the arrivals sequence be the moment where an airport welcomes guests to a city with a grand architectural gesture, or at least with daylight and a view?

Let’s start with the basic steps on an arrivals path. You’ve just arrived from a long flight, and your plane slowly taxis to its gate. Inevitably, you must wait for several minutes while fellow passengers sort out their disheveled belongings, and remove over-stuffed bags from overhead compartments. As you alight from the plane, your first impression of your destination is the jetbridge, a dank, unforgiving metal box that may or may not be watertight. Within this artificially-lit, un-conditioned tube, you encounter the distinct possibility of getting wet or stumbling over a wheelchair.

For international travelers, the indignity goes a step further. Once leaving the jetbridge, you arrive in a "sterile corridor." The sterile corridor is a dedicated space where international travelers arrive and are kept separate from other passengers until going through immigration and customs. International passengers have typically been on their flights for an extended time, and in many cases these are travelers who have spent a significant amount of money on a flight. To welcome them to the U.S., domestic airports greet them with a narrow walkway leading to the immigration hall, the proverbial five pound bag, strategically located in the most remote point at the basement level of the terminal. After negotiating this space, the passengers remain in the baggage claim level to navigate the customs gauntlet. As my colleague Arthur Gensler so succinctly put it, what our airports are saying—whether we realize it or not—is: "Welcome to America! Now go to the basement." Put in such direct terms, it's clearly a ridiculous approach to greeting people. Yet that's standard airport protocol today.

We should, and will, do better. While there is no simple way to correct this approach at existing facilities, we are taking incremental steps to make aspects of the process better.

One terminal taking a more refined (and I would argue civilized) approach to greeting international travelers to the U.S. is the new international addition to the JetBlue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which breaks ground on October 1, 2012. Gensler and JetBlue worked together to plan the interior of the terminal from the passenger's perspective, anticipating travelers' need for a fast yet humane experience. The design puts people first by welcoming international travelers to the United States in a bright, clear environment that's easy to navigate. Here's what it will feel like to arrive at T5.

After getting out of the jetbridge, international passengers arriving on JetBlue will still need to move to either the departures level or the sterile corridor. Our approach is to make that experience substantially better by infusing the sterile corridor with natural daylight, and offering passengers a view of city. Access to natural light and a view of exterior weather conditions seems like a simple thing, but is critical to the process of acclimating to a new city and new climate. Upon arriving into the immigration hall, the passenger is greeted with something unexpected—a window with a view. While greeting international passengers with natural light seems like common sense, I challenge you to name an airport today that has some form of natural light in these spaces.

A simple, direct path that can be quickly navigated is the most urgent need of any arriving international passenger, and that's typically the whole focus of airport design for the arrivals sequence. Rather than the architectural pinnacle, we see that as the baseline. Passengers must have speed and clarity, but as they arrive in a new country, shouldn't there be something to enjoy as they arrive? At JFK's JetBlue terminal, some natural daylight and a view outside will make all the difference.

To learn more about Gensler's ideas about aviation and airport design, read our other transportation related blog posts at here.

Ty Osbaugh dreams of flying. More specifically, he dreams of making the experience of flight better through smart design. A principal and leader of Gensler’s global Aviation + Transportation practice, Ty teams with clients to improve their business by creating a world-class passenger experience. And encouraging them to dream as well. Contact Ty ty_osbaugh@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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