Airport terminal

The link between the sky and the ground

An airport terminal building is served as the pathway between the ground facilities and the skies. Both departure and arrival passengers need to go through the terminal when board and disembark from aircraft. An airport can have only one or many terminals and concourses depend on the size of the airport, but they all serve the same functions. Passengers can buy tickets, transfer luggage, go through security and immigrations inside the terminal buildings. “Concourse” is the building that provides boarding gates, but sometimes “terminal” and “concourse” are combined in one building. (Wikipedia, 20111)

Some large airports have one terminal connected to multiple concourses via walkways, sky-bridges or underground subway tunnels, such as Denver International Airport


while some chose to have many terminals and each has one or more concourses, such as Singapore Changi Airport


Still other larger airports have multiple terminals each of which incorporate the functions of a concourse, such as Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.



Art Deco

Many early terminals were built in the 1930s-1940s and art deco style architecture was popular of that time. Those terminals opened directly onto the tarmac, passengers would walk or take a transfer bus to the aircraft. This type of design is still popular at smaller airports, and some larger airports which needed to accommodate aircraft beyond the main terminal. Picture below is the former terminal building of Liverpool Speke Airport, it is a good example of art deco style terminal. (Glancey, 20092)



The art deco is the oldest and simplest terminal layout, as airports grow with more passengers and flights; it is very inefficient and impossible to have large groups of passengers walk across the apron. Therefore, the linear shaped terminal designs were introduced, with aircraft parked on both sides of the building and at the gate immediately. It is an improvement but still has its own problem of having to walk a long distance from the check-in counter to the gate. (Britannica, 20113)



Nowadays, most of the airport terminals are satellite shaped, the terminal building is detached from other buildings, so the aircraft can park around it. These airports are equipped with underground pedestrian tunnel to connect the two parts. This shape solved the problem of gates being too far from the check-in counters. (Wikipedia, 20111)


In order to design the most efficient terminal buildings, the designers must do a careful analysis before deciding on the shape.

Passenger perspective

The major categories of passengers that deserve special consideration in the design process are:

  • Domestic or inter community travelers, those who do not require passport or custom controls;
  • International travelers who require government controls;
  • Business and commercially important travelers, they generally travel with less luggage but require special amenities such as luxury lounges
  • Vacationers and personal travelers, often travel with families and carry many luggage, may choose charter airlines with cheaper costs;
  • Transfers, who are at the airport simply to transfer from one flight to another.

(Neufville & Odoni, 20034)

Transfers need special treatment because their needs are quite different from the others, because they will have to get off one flight and find their ways to get on another, in between this transition process, they require fast, reliable and easy to find connections. As well, they do not require check-in facilities, baggage delivery or access to the ground transportation. Thus, designers must not forget this type of passengers, and consider their needs when designing a terminal building.

Airline perspective

Airlines care about the airport terminal buildings because it affects their operating costs. Good designs may reduce the average taxi time on each operation and delays, and therefore to reduce the ground leases or charges.

Owner's perspective

Owners will always want their airports to be both nice looking and economical, and a great gateway to their countries. However the concept of the airport as a national monument often conflicts with the goal of economic efficiency, and airport operators will not be happy to pay a big bill to maintain it's good looking, so they are really interested in the economic facts. Thus, airport owners and operators insist that the configuration of terminals should allow for flexible future use. (Neufville & Odoni, 20034)

Retail perspective

Retail operators want passengers can see their shops easily and ready to shop, when choosing a design style, the designers must play the role of a good shopping mall organizer at the same time, and provide a profitable retail area. Usually, more people means more potential customers, a configuration that concentrate traffic need to provide more attractive commercial areas. Terminal design has a direct impact to the retail profit, because if the passengers in a hurry or anxious to get somewhere, then they won't be in the shopping mood, therefore, a terminal with centralized common waiting areas will appear more attractive to retailers. (Neufville & Odoni, 20034)

1. Wikipedia. (2011).Airport terminal.Retrieved on 2 October, 2011, from
2. Glancey, J. (2009).Britain's art deco icons? The BBC should get its history straight.UK: Guardian News and Media Limited
3. Britannica. (2011).Airport terminal designs.Retrieved on 6 October, 2011, from
4. Neufville, R. & Odoni, A. (2003).Airport systems.USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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Want to know more?

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