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Old Ideas in New Airport Design


Ever notice the few airports in our network that just don’t feel or look like the rest? I have. I’m a big architecture buff, and that includes airport designs. In particular, six U.S. mid-twentieth-century airports are based on three most unusual designs, all of which were incredibly innovative for their time.


The “Drive to Your Plane” Concept

The two current examples of this design are Kansas City’s Mid-Continent International and the Dallas/Fort Worth International airport, which opened within a year of each other in the early ’70s. The goal of their designs was to allow Customers to park close to their departure gate and breeze right through the terminal to the gate podium for their flight, thereby minimizing walk time and maximizing convenience. However, this type of design doesn’t work well for a hub airport reliant on large numbers of Connecting Customers without extensive, expensive modifications to increase the size of the hold rooms and moving much of the passenger concessions into the secure areas.


Both airports eventually made improvements to their designs with mixed results. DFW was the first of the two to blow out the airside wall to create more space back in the 1980s. It is now nearly finished with another multi-billion-dollar upgrade and improvement cycle. Because of the improvements, it’s had great success growing its hub status and long-haul international destination list tremendously, with nonstops available between DFW and over 200 airports on four continents.

Overhead shot of the Dallas/Fort Worth International AirportOverhead shot of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport


MCI, however, never found similar success; several airlines’ attempts to build hubs there have failed—including TWA, United, Braniff One and Two, Eastern, and Vanguard—even though they expanded the terminal footprint nearly a decade ago. Actually, the “Best of Times” is now, with a stable and lengthy list of more than 60 nonstop destinations, mostly on Southwest Airlines. (And now I’ll have everyone singing that song from La Cage aux Folles—high-kicks optional!)

View of Kansas City's Mid-Continent International Airport from aboveView of Kansas City's Mid-Continent International Airport from above


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Like the “drive to the plane” concept, the goal of this concept was to minimize the amount of walking in the airport for Customers by using elevators, escalators, and trains to move them from their cars through ticketing and to their flights. The first of these opened in Tampa in 1971, followed by a similar but MUCH bigger facility in Orlando in 1981.


Both airports have similar characteristics. You park in a multi-level garage atop the rest of the airport, then take an elevator down to ticketing/check-in (or, if desired, check in at the onsite hotel). The ticketing level is full of shops and services—and at Orlando, retail establishments include outlet shops for all three major area theme parks! From there, you proceed a few hundred feet to an automated train going to the airside structure for your airline.


Overall the TPA and MCO facilities are designed almost identically (except for size) with one exception: at TPA, security is in each airside, after you have taken the train; while at MCO, the security formalities are done in the landside building just before getting onto the train to the airside.

Tampa International AirportTampa International Airport

Orlando International AirportOrlando International Airport


 “Pigs at the Trough”

Anyone remember the old Atlanta Hartsfield or Denver Stapleton airports? They typified the old-school airport design of the 1950s. By the 1970s, both airports were severely overcrowded and badly in need of rebuilding.


Atlanta went first and used a radical new design to maximize the ease of making Customer connections as well as effectively operating hub-and-spoke schedules. The main design features a central ticketing building and multiple perpendicular gate concourses reached by an underground high-speed train. The first time my country-bumpkin cousin landed there, she looked out the window and said, “Well lookey there! The airplanes are lined up all up and down the building like pigs at the trough!” (For me, the description was apt and has stuck all these years!) The airport has expanded several times over the years and has strayed a bit from the original design to fit modern needs, but the basic principles remain.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International AirportHartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport


Denver followed Atlanta, opening in 1995 based on a very similar design concept. The facility is definitely not as utilitarian as its sister airport in ATL, with the main ticketing/baggage claim building topped by a peaked fiberglass roof built to evoke images of the distant snow-capped Rockies as well as the Native American teepees that used to dot the land on which the airport now stands.

Denver International AirportDenver International Airport


The Next Big Thing

Surprisingly, nothing truly new and innovative in airport design is in progress or planning. The most recent significant trends are hard to track as very few full-scale rebuilds or new airports are on the drawing boards. Probably the most significant current trend for airport terminals is a conscious effort to “right-size” new facilities; not every new terminal is going to be a hub, and with the expense involved, cities realize now you can’t “build the church for Easter Sunday.”


And there is always the question of where new airports go. Due to rampant  “not-in-my-backyard” mentality, everyone wants a new airport, but nobody wants it near them. LAX fought this battle for decades,  and everyone knows San Diego needs both more space and a bigger terminal. But where should it go? Offshore on a man-made island didn’t work so well for Osaka (although it’s been debated for years), and other options are equally unattractive. But one thing’s for certain: airline design architects will keep dreaming up innovative airport design for the future, hopefully coming up with more hits than misses.


Enjoy your travels—and take a second glance at the airports you visit. There are sure to be a few surprises that you’ve never noticed before!