Branding is something McDowell is intimately familiar with. Thirty-five well-known retail outlets are featured in The Terminal, including Swatch (which built a fully outfitted watch boutique in their headquarters in Switzerland and shipped it to the set), Verizon Wireless, Hugo Boss, Brookstone, Borders books, La Perla, and Godiva. In the food court, there are outposts of Burger King, Panda Express, Auntie Anne's pretzels, Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme. McDowell defends the use of such name brands as necessary to making Navorski's experience as real as possible. "It's not just product placement. For a lot of people, airports are defined by the logos on the shops. If you lose that, the audience is not going to recognize the environment."
But these days, well-planned terminals are more than just a collection of shops. Now that many post-9/11 security upgrades are in place, "airports have to humanize what essentially has been a people-moving machine," says Steinert. Some of the most common improvements, he notes, are larger waiting areas with clustered seating instead of rows, and architectural designs that reduce stress. At John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, "there are only eight signs in the entire airport. From the main entrance you can see every place you have to go."
To counteract what architect Rem Koolhaas has called "junkspace," or areas with uncomfortable and disorienting clutter, the design of new airports tends to be unmistakably directional, with flooring and lighting that create strong horizontal lines. In Terminal 5 of LAX, for instance, a "street" lined with awning-clad stores and potted palms leads directly to the gates. Other terminals are designed to symbolize a sense of place. In Palm Springs, structures resembling desert tents connect open-air walkways, while architectural elements in Guam's international airport mimic native outrigger canoes. For a new terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, to be unveiled in 2007, Gensler opened up a vista onto the city's skyline that can be viewed from the immigration hall. Adapting its design for the Times Square Toys "R" Us store to Atlanta, the firm is also installing an eye-catching 340-foot-long scrim that can flash hundreds of regional images.
Such attention to design is good news to Jochen Eisenbrand, curator of "Airworld," an exhibition running through January 9, 2005, at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. "Airlines were one of the first businesses to have all-encompassing corporate designs, color schemes, and uniforms created by fashion designers. Air travel has become mass transportation, but very few airports are able to enhance the flight experience, to give the idea that it is still something special."
Increasingly, airports are expressions of civic pride, both cultural and commercial. In Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, there is a museum filled with Dutch masters. Vancouver's airport has a display of native Inuit art, while San Francisco International offers an aviation museum and library with interiors based on the airport's 1930's passenger waiting room.
This trend certainly did not go unnoticed by McDowell and Spielberg. Anyone who has passed through JFK will surely recognize the signs for Dean & DeLuca, Hudson News, and Nathan's Famous hot dogs. These New York-area businesses offer Navorski insight into the character of the city that lies beyond the airport doors, a character that gives Spielberg's terminal a personality as distinctive as a New York accent.
DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.