Video: Update on Heathrow Airport's T2

Intuitive design, natural light: what New York’s JFK can learn from Heathrow’s T2.

You’ve got to give Spanish architect Luis Vidal points for standing before an audience of hardened, JFK-weary New York City travel reporters and declaring, “Terminals today are the cathedrals of the twenty-first century.” Vidal designed the newest addition to London’s Heathrow Airport, the $4 billion Terminal 2, opening this month. T2, also called the Queen’s Terminal, is one of those sunlight-bathed, technologically of-the-moment facilities popping up in airports from San Francisco to Mumbai, restoring a degree of pleasure to air travel. But cathedrals? Vidal argues they were once “gathering places and icons” of every city. And that, he reasons, is what airports are today.

Of course, if you’d passed through Heathrow prior to the 2008 opening of the spectacular Terminal 5, you would have said that terminals were more like the bus stations of the 21st century: low-ceilinged, cramped, unpleasant. No more. Since 2003, Heathrow has methodically reinvented itself into an airport (the world’s third busiest) designed for today’s travelers. T2 is debuting a “common check-in” system: passengers on any of the resident airlines (including all of the Star Alliance carriers) can check in at any kiosk or manned desk. And its layout is intended to be so intuitive that it almost eliminates the need for signage. “It’s very natural and free-flowing,” says John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s development director, of T2’s design. You can find everything “just by walking forward.”

The concept is that T2 is a “destination in itself,” a microcosm of London, with similar landmarks such as a branch of the department store John Lewis and a café by celebrated chef Heston Blumenthal. Curiously, the thing Vidal believes will best evoke London is the ethereal northern light pouring through the clerestory windows in the roof vaults. “London has a beautiful sky,” says the architect, who contends the city’s reputation for gloom is exaggerated.

The restructuring of Heathrow clearly puts its New York counterpart to shame. Privately owned, the airport was able to develop an overarching vision and execute it, while the public authority that operates JFK hasn’t floated a grand reorganizing scheme since the 1980’s, when one was conceived and then tossed out. Instead, the New York hub’s barely controlled chaos is perpetuated by the constantly changing needs of the airlines that, for the most part, build, own, and maintain the terminals. Improvements—a branch of Shake Shack! an indoor taxi stand!—tend to be incremental. “Intuitive” design is in short supply and nothing resembles a cathedral. Asked to apply the Heathrow playbook to JFK, Vidal says, “I would tell them they need a long vision and someone to drive it from day one all the way to the end.” And he advocates keeping the real user top of mind. “It’s very important to put passengers first,” he says, “because they’re your customer.”

Appeared as “Smooth Skies Ahead” in T+L Magazine