In the film, The Terminal, Tom Hanks' character spends nine months living in New York's JFK airport. Nine months sounds like a long time to you and me, but it is only a fraction of the 18 years spent at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport by Mehran Karimi Nasseri, on whose life the film was based. Eighteen years is an astounding length of time. But, if you really consider it, it's far from unbelievable that someone could spend such a prolonged period in an airport.
Not only are all the basics available, but many airports now boast substantial facilities, from restaurants and spas, to swimming pools and lounges that could rival five-star hotels. In fact, airports have in many ways become microcosms of the modern cities they otherwise serve. They also face similar challenges, and need to address these to best serve their "citizens."
The similarities begin when we look at the physical scale of cities and airports. As our cities grow, they face the ever-present challenge of urban mobility, needing to ferry more people across greater distances as quickly as possible. Before building new terminals or entire new airports, the best way for existing airports to deal with such high footfall is to improve efficiency with existing infrastructure. The move towards online check-ins before flights has reduced our time spent queueing, but this was just the start. We're now also accustomed to checking in our baggage via automated systems, with some airlines even going as far as to allow self-boarding. Thinking big, some players have developed their own traffic systems. Tokyo's Narita airport has a terminal designed like a running track, with colour coded lanes directing passengers towards their destinations: blue pathways for departures and red pathways for arrivals.
In cities, automation is being used to speed up the mundane processes that otherwise create bottlenecks. To get rid of the long wait to pay in grocery stores, Amazon is attempting to automate the grocery shopping process by removing the need to queue - you simply walk out. If security allows for it, it's possible to picture a day that involves walking into an airport and, once baggage is dropped, straight onto your plane.
As the size and spread of airports increases, I know I am not the only one who has made a dash for the gate that always seems to be on the far side of the terminal! It seems airport operators have finally taken notice, and are making use of the latest transport technology to move people quickly across vast distances. Quicker moving walkways are essential to ensuring efficiency in larger airports and guaranteeing accessibility for older passengers. On a larger scale, an increasing number of airports have their own train networks, often connecting to the city which they serve. London's Heathrow airport alone has three of its own Underground metro stations - that's an airport making use of transport infrastructure designed to help traverse cities, emphasising how large the complex is!
Beyond simple efficiency, airports now also function like miniature cities in terms of the quality of life they offer, featuring entertainment and lifestyle experiences. They're becoming destinations, rather than just a stopover. Considering the time we spend in airports, this approach makes sense. Most of us often arrive a long while before take-off to ensure our flights aren't missed. But while we don't want to be stuck in queues, we also don't want to be sitting around idly before a flight. That means the airport has to be designed less like a processing line and more like a city, with various ways to spend time and engage your interests. It's not just about traveling quickly, it's about traveling comfortably too and enjoying some 'me' or 'family' time.
As we think back to the 2004 hit film it will be interesting to see what airports look like in 2054. While many sit outside of cities, developments in transport technology mean that it won't be long before airports and cities integrate seamlessly. Their focus on consumer experiences may make them new retail and experience hubs - the places you go shopping, see a film and, perhaps, even catch a flight. Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal is eager to escape the airport. But in the airports of the future, we might just be looking forward to spending time with them.