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Airport 2000: Terminal Improvement

Shu hardly batted an eye when I raised the topic. He was far more interested in the system's potential. We watched an airline employee fasten a bar-coded tag on a suitcase, then push a button to send it onto the conveyor. "You can check in bags at any counter and they'll automatically go to the right place," he said. "Sensors read bar codes at each step of the process."

So what went wrong?"Human error," he said. "It took a while for personnel to get used to the new system. I don't see any problems in the long run."

Baggage-handling has proven to be the Achilles' heel of several of the world's more ambitious airports. In 1995, experts hailed Denver's new airport as the most advanced facility of the decade, with an unparalleled flight-control system. But its reputation went into a tailspin as its high-tech automated baggage system came a cropper. "I guess we were trying to advance the technology too fast," admits Norm Witteveen, Denver's deputy director of aviation.

The lesson should have been obvious: the more complicated a system, the more testing it needs. But new airports have continued to make the same mistake. Ten days before Chek Lap Kok opened, Malaysia inaugurated its new $3 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The computer controlling the baggage system promptly crashed, and pandemonium ensued. Even JFK's Terminal One suffered its share of baggage foul-ups—but not enough to make headlines.

FOR ALL THE NOVELTY, I WAS NAGGED BY AN INEXPLICABLE SENSE OF FAMILIARITY. The whiteness, the light, the open space—Chek Lap Kok is Terminal One writ large. Airports of the future, it seems, will follow many of the same design imperatives.

They'll also follow the same economic imperatives. If Terminal One feels like a shopping arcade, then Chek Lap Kok is a mall, with more than 100 shops and 25 restaurants. You can buy everything from Chinese moon cakes to beluga caviar, from Cartier watches to Disney toys.

"The era is over when airports were expected to pay for themselves with passenger taxes, gate charges, and landing fees," says Dick Haury of URS Greiner, which developed the master plan for Chek Lap Kok. "Passengers, if given the opportunity to shop, can generate the money that's needed."

Airlines have their own reasons for loving leisure-friendly airports. The more attractive its main hub, the easier it will be for an airline to lure travelers to its routes—especially lucrative business- and first-class passengers. As inducement for these prime customers, the airlines dangle ever-more-lavish VIP lounges. At Kuala Lumpur, for instance, Malaysia Airlines has created the world's largest airport lounge, a 40,000-square-foot behemoth featuring a small gym, sleeping rooms, showers, and a sauna. A few years ago such a complex might have been considered extreme, but as the race to excess accelerates, once-extravagant amenities now seem workaday. It's no longer enough to be just luxurious; airlines have to be creative. The pole position at the moment seems to be held by Virgin Atlantic, whose business-class lounge at Heathrow offers free massages, facials, manicures, and use of a whirlpool. Cathay Pacific's new Hong Kong lounge—designed by ultra-minimalist John Pawson and featuring bathtubs as well as showers—promises to pose a challenge.

Being an economy-class drone myself, I was delighted to learn that Chek Lap Kok has a lounge open to the public. For $32, customers can use the Plaza Business Centre's showers, laptops, and laser-disc movie room. There's also a nice view from the balcony, where you can sit in massage chairs and look at Lantau Island. Within 30 seconds of setting my chair to "knead," I was out cold.

IF AIRPORTS CAN BECOME THIS ENJOYABLE, WHO WOULD EVER WANT TO LEAVE?At a few of the world's more advanced airports, you won't have to. At Chek Lap Kok, skyscrapers are still going up on the huge parcel of land that will someday be an urban center in its own right, as the air hub becomes integrated with a hotel, convention center, residential district, and a whole swath of commercial real estate. "Once you have the facilities," says Shu, "people will build alongside them."

Unfortunately for the United States, few domestic planners have seen so far ahead. Except for Denver, no major U.S. airport has space to expand in a big way. Rather than renovate cramped JFK, it would be better to start from scratch somewhere else. But there is no somewhere else. "New York has no such sites," says Gerald Fitzgerald, president of PB Aviation, a consulting firm. "What you're going to see is improvements in existing infrastructure to try to handle increased traffic. But no matter what you do, on Friday afternoon you're still going to have thousands and thousands of people all trying to get to the same bagel."

Once, Hong Kong had the same problem. Its Kai Tak Airport was constricted by some of the densest urban districts in the world; expansion was impossible. But with a $20 billion investment, the city cut the Gordian knot. Though plagued by technical mishaps and slumping passenger loads in the short term, Chek Lap Kok has been built with enough space, and vision, to serve a generation of travelers.

AS I GOT READY TO LEAVE HONG KONG, THE NEWSPAPERS were still screaming for blood, but apart from its air-cargo operation, the airport seemed to be settling into an approximation of normality. And I felt that I had a clearer picture of what airports of the future will be like. In short, they will minimize stress, erase worry, and smooth everything over in a gloss of high efficiency. They will be places, in other words, where you'll actually want to be.

A word of advice, though: You probably won't want to be traveling through one on its first day of operation.

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