The airport of the future will be beautiful, easy to use, a destination in itself. In New York and Hong Kong, the airport of the future has arrived


As Alexander Pope once said, the best way to be pleasantly surprised is to expect the absolute worst. So I had one thing going for me as I prepared to travel to Hong Kong's colossal new airport. My mission was to investigate what the future of airports would hold—to find out how new ideas and technologies would help make air travel easier, nicer, more efficient. But as I was packing my bags, I realized I might be heading for something quite different from the future.

To judge from newspaper and TV accounts, Hong Kong had made a big leap backward—about 500 years backward, to be precise, to a medieval torture chamber of lost luggage and overflowing bathrooms. Passengers had been trapped on runways for hours; innumerable flights had been delayed or canceled; tons of misplaced cargo had been left to rot. The verdict was unanimous: the Hong Kong airport was an unmitigated disaster.

My ticket was nonrefundable. I took a deep breath, hailed a cab, and made my way to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

Not, you might say, the best possible start. In the late fifties JFK—then called Idlewild—was at the forefront of airport technology, a glistening beacon to the future of air travel graced by such marvelous signature buildings as Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal. But that was a different era, when flight was young and so were the flight attendants. Time has not been kind to New York's airports, or to any of the country's older facilities. In the 40 years since the dawn of regular commercial air travel, flying has gone from futuristic luxury to mundane necessity. Huge crowds tramp through aging, obsolescent structures. And all the malaises so firmly associated with the modern airport—the low ceilings, the lack of seats, the exorbitantly expensive, inedible food, the gnawing dread that you will never escape—are handsomely represented in the Big Apple.

But JFK is not hell anymore. At least, part of it isn't.

My trip was to begin at JFK's new Terminal One, which had just opened as the first phase of a massive $4.4 billion airport-wide redevelopment that will extend into the next decade. From the looks of Terminal One, the project is off to a good start. As you swing into JFK through an overpass, the building presents a great wall of tinted glass that becomes, once you enter, an airy white space; the sweeping curved girders that support the ceiling subtly evoke the geometry of aircraft design. Clouds drift past the enormous windows; polygons of yellow sunlight lie across the smooth expanse of terrazzo floor. You almost have the sense of already being in flight. Past the four check-in islands, which stand like tents beneath the high canopy of the roof, passengers can ride escalators up to an open mezzanine level, sit in a café, and watch the planes take off and land. In architect William Boudova's design, even the most sacred of airline boundaries seems negotiable: a wide opening in the center of the mezzanine, covered by a concave mesh dome, lets sunlight down into the post-security departure areas.

The most novel aspect of the terminal, though, isn't its architecture, but the consortium that built it—a partnership of Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Traditionally, U.S. airports have been run by municipal governments as civic endeavors, endemically short on cash flow and even shorter on pizzazz. Terminal One, on the other hand, is to be run as a private, profit-making venture. While such arrangements are increasingly common abroad, they have so far caught on only at a handful of domestic airports.

"It's not just about getting passengers into seats anymore," says David Sigman, the development coordinator for nearby Terminal Four, a privately run facility whose completion in 2001 will mark the end of major expansion. "Terminal operation is our business."

Weaned from the undiscriminating largesse of the public purse, privatized airports have to attract customers.They have to be welcoming and efficient. Passengers must not only want to come, but also to linger, and spend money in the process. The Department of Motor Vehicles look is out; the shopping mall look is in. At Terminal One, this means grand and spacious architecture that brings Washington's National Air & Space Museum to mind, as well as an arcade that includes a sporting-goods shop and a Calvin Klein lingerie boutique. Instead of fast-food stands with leathery $5 hot dogs, Terminal One's cafés sell light, wholesome food amid surroundings decorated playfully to evoke holiday travel.

Refreshing as they are, Terminal One's efforts are baby steps compared to some airports' aggressive retailing. BAA, an airport management company that now runs eight facilities here and in the U.K., generates most of its revenues from shops and restaurants. Its secret is no secret at all, except to most airport managers: offer a large selection of quality goods at competitive prices. The company's 48-store plaza in Heathrow's Terminal Four includes outposts of Harrods, Aquascutum, and Thomas Pink.

Moving merchandise may be just the tip of the revenue iceberg. Amsterdam's Schiphol has a casino; Singapore's Changi, a karaoke lounge and swimming pool. You can enjoy a manicure and facial at Vancouver International Airport's hair salon, get a massage at Seattle-Tacoma, even play 18 holes of golf on the grounds of Salt Lake City's airport.

"The entertainment world is almost our model for where airports are going," says Steve Reiss, chairman of architecture at HNTB Aviation, a consulting company that has had its hand in Boston, Salt Lake City, and Orlando airports. "I've even heard plans for movie theaters and bowling alleys."

JFK hasn't reached that stage yet, but it's oddly cheering nonetheless. I felt as though, instead of drilling a cavity, my dentist had given me a lollipop.

THIRTEEN HOURS LATER—OR MAYBE IT WAS 14, OR 12, OR 30; it's hard to tell in the hallucinatory state induced by jet lag and coach seating—I found myself in Seoul's Kimpo Airport, running to catch my connection. Cramped, dingy, and a textbook example of what happens when an airport outlives its era, Kimpo is the sixth circle of travel hell. The seventh I found by mistake, when curiosity led me to a cubicle made of what looked like smoked glass. But it wasn't the glass that was smoked, it was the air. Amid an acrid cloud so thick you could set an ashtray on it, nicotine addicts puffed furiously and dejectedly, clearly wondering why they had taken up the habit in the first place. I did an about-face and hurried off to my plane, this time unreservedly happy to be on my way.

JARRED FROM A HEAVY SLEEP BY THE SOUND OF WIND RUSHING OVER LANDING GEAR, I barely had time to say a prayer for my luggage before Hong Kong's new airport appeared below. What had been a huge pancake of dirt in the ocean three years ago was now a sprawling mini-city.

Chek Lap Kok—as the airport is informally known, after the islet that was leveled to provide its landfill—was an enormous gamble. Costing some $20 billion, the project included the construction of a massive suspension bridge, an undersea tunnel, a rail line, and 20 miles of connecting highway. The tab came to more than $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city. But not just money was at stake; the sheer chutzpah of the plan represented a bold statement of confidence in a city that was passing from the benign neglect of British colonial rule to the uncharted waters of mainland Chinese politics.

And what a statement. The whole complex seemed to go on forever; and then the enormous terminal itself appeared, a half-mile long, glowing in the darkness like a Klingon warship. We glided to a stop, then streamed out on a long passageway that opened up into a cathedral-like space with a huge, curving ceiling, multiple levels crisscrossing high above.

Stunned by the monumentality, I scarcely noticed when my bag slid down onto the carousel 20 minutes after our wheels had hit the tarmac. Something, apparently, was working after all.

THE NEXT DAY I OPENED THE PAPER TO SEE THAT THE PRESS was still having a field day with the airport's problems. Three separate government commissions had been appointed to figure out whose heads should roll. Buried in the stories, however, were reports that the baggage is now being delivered in as little as 12 minutes.

So what was it—disaster or miracle?To hear the position of the airport's beleaguered proponents, I made an appointment at Foster & Partners, the architects behind the terminal.

Winston Shu, the gregarious architect who had overseen the implementation of Sir Norman Foster's design, ushered me into the company's downtown office and whisked me through a whirlwind presentation of models and schematics. He showed off the computer systems used to piece the vast project together.

Though their pervasiveness goes unnoticed by passengers, computers are having an immense influence on the design of next-generation airports. In a process called flow modeling, electronic dots representing passengers zip through a simulated environment just as real people would, letting architects optimize the amount of space allocated for check-in, shops, departure lounges, and so forth. Computers now also handle almost every phase of airport operation, from aircraft flow to the display of arrival and departure information and the setting of the air-conditioning. At Chek Lap Kok, they even control the futuristic light-rail system that runs between downtown Hong Kong and the terminal at speeds of up to 100 mph.

Rail links are another cutting-edge feature of modern airports. Around the world, 130 airports have train service or are planning to add it. Amsterdam's Schiphol, long a trendsetter, has its own station. Heathrow opened the first segment of its fast rail link to London in June. Even with Americans, long dismissive of train travel, the idea has started to click: after decades of wrangling, JFK is finally slated to get its own automated rail link in 2002.

But for gee-whiz styling it's hard to beat Hong Kong's, which looks like a bullet train on the outside and a Star Wars set inside. And it's fast. Shu and I hardly had time to scan through the news snippets and airport maps that scrolled down the monitor in front of us before the train eased into Chek Lap Kok, 23 minutes after departing from downtown. We strolled out under the glass-roofed entranceway, where free baggage carts were liberally sprinkled about—a small but telling touch.

"You never have to change levels, from the time you get off the train until you board your aircraft," Shu pointed out. "That's important if you've got a trolley piled high with luggage."

We had entered the main terminal, with its great scalloped aluminum roof soaring 80 feet above. So much light flooded in from the huge glass front wall that we might as well have been outdoors. Waves of cool air flowed down from invisible air-conditioning ducts, and the vast interior seemed to swallow extraneous sound. Everything was suffused with a sense of impenetrable calm.

The lateral line of the roof swells overhead as subtly as the taper in a classical Greek column. "It's shaped like the back of a whale," said Shu. "The highest point is directly over the check-in counters. You've got so many people congregating here that it would feel oppressive if the ceiling were lower. Airiness is so important—especially if you're going to be stuck in a tube for the next twelve hours."

We walked to the edge of the mezzanine overlooking the departure concourses. Daylight streamed in from skylights; all around we could see the mountains, the ocean, and, directly in front of us, the long stretch of the main concourse, with planes parked at each gate. Below us, arriving passengers filed toward immigration and customs. "Sir Norman's philosophy of design is clarity," said Shu. "You can see exactly where you need to go, all the way to the airplane itself. You almost don't require signage."

ERGONOMIC DESIGN IS WONDERFUL, OF COURSE, but it's all overshadowed by one menacing problem: baggage. I had been so swept up by Shu's enthusiasm, I nearly forgot that the airport was still struggling to recover from the chaos of its first week, when passengers had to wait up to five hours for their luggage.

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.

10 Things We Like Most at Airports Around the World

  • ART Who says airports can't transport the mind, too?San Francisco International (650/652-2772) leads the way in exhibitions, with up to 14 shows at a time. Up now: Art Deco cocktail shakers, the history of platform shoes, and African barbershop signs.
  • FOOD The lunch counters at Caviar House (44-181/745-8785), with locations in all four Heathrow terminals, serve up seven types of caviar, as well as oysters, lobster, and Bollinger champagne.
  • RESTAURANT Designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, Los Angeles International's $3.5 million Encounter Restaurant (310/215-5151) draws hipsters to its retro-futuristic glow-in-the-dark dining room (it's in that Jetsons-style building in the middle of the airport).
  • EXERCISE For $8, passengers can work out at the Miami International Airport Hotel (800/327-1276 or 305/871-4100)-- there's a swimming pool, stationary bikes, Nautilus equipment, a Jacuzzi, locker rooms, showers, and, for $8 more per hour, racquetball courts.
  • KIDS A 2,205-square-foot learning and play space developed by the Chicago Children's Museum, O'Hare's Kids on the Fly (Terminal 2; 312/527-1000) is more fun than running up and down airplane aisles. It has a mock cargo plane to climb in, a build-your-own-Chicago Lego area, and a "fantasy helicopter."
  • BUSINESS The business center at Amsterdam's Schiphol (31-20/653-2480; $20 per hour) supplies a fix for productivity junkies: private offices come with a computer with Internet access and E-mail (for an extra fee), a phone, a fax-- even a skylight and mini-bar.
  • DESIGN A new wing has been added to Terminal 2 at Paris's Charles de Gaulle, and its glass-walled Jetways and tubular concourses have the thrillingly bizarre feel of some enfant terrible's design-school thesis-- and it actually works.
  • SHOPPING With 60,000 secondhand books and 5,000 magazines spread out over some 3,200 square feet, the Renaissance Book Shop (800/672-6657 or 414/747-4526), on the upper shopping level at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, redefines "airplane book." It's the perfect pre-connection distraction.
  • RECREATION Hiking trails in the jungle adjacent to Kuala Lumpur's new international airport at Sepang give passengers a chance to stretch their legs and get some air.
  • HEALTH Have your teeth cleaned or see a sports-medicine specialist at the Melbourne Airport Medical/Dental Centre (61-3/9335-2848). The center offers standard consultations for $18 and can provide emergency and referral services around the clock.