On The Radar: What Does the Future Hold for Airport Design?

Airports have experienced unprecedented challenges in recent times, with the impact of major changes like Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic on top of the growing demand for international travel. With no sign of slowing down, it is important to consider how the design of airports can be futureproofed for growth, success and sustainability.


Chris White

has been with CPMG Architects for the past 18 years and became an Owner and Board Director in 2016. As the lead for CPMG’s London studio, he is delivering the strategic vision for growth in that market, with a key focus on residential, commercial and aviation projects.

CPMG Architects’ award-winning experience in the transport sector includes designing and completing eight air traffic control towers – more than any other architectural practice in the UK – along with baggage handling facilities, major terminals, departure lounges, multi-modal interchanges and jet hangars. Director, Chris White, discusses the unique set of factors involved with building back the airport industry and securing its future.

Airports were hit hard during the pandemic, and it is safe to assume many capital expenditure projects have had to take a back seat. As a result, more refurbishment and upgrade projects are likely to take place. The current phase is now all about rebooting the industry, with a specific focus on improving how airports can promote sustainability. Other key focuses that have transcended the pandemic include improving passenger experiences, enhancing security – without detriment to that experience – and ensuring that travel by flight remains competitive, affordable and enjoyable.

By adopting informed, problem-solving solutions and recognising that cost-effective design is essential to promote development and improvements, this forms a starting point and framework for the aviation industry getting back on its feet.

The challenges

The current economic situation is also having a detrimental effect on the airport industry. The energy crisis has caused fuel prices to soar, with increasing taxation often passed onto passengers – both of which have a direct impact on how airlines and airports operate and, therefore, the experience they can offer. In addition, the pressure to meet net-zero targets has been heightened, coupled with environmental campaigners’ activity. This is a major concern for the reputation of each airport and the wider industry.

And not forgetting the overall challenges of successfully expanding airport capacity. Although the current narrative is around the pressure on airlines to fulfil the flights planned, at some point, the question around UK capacity will follow – such as the creation of extra runways. A further challenge is ensuring the relationship between airports and airlines remains positive, along with the Levelling Up agenda that will also apply to, what has often been seen as, a disparity between regional airports and international airports.

The challenges are not insurmountable ones, but acknowledging these challenges is important to inform design decisions that can ultimately help in providing long-term solutions.

The critical question is how the aviation industry can truly reconcile net-zero carbon when it is responsible for such high carbon emissions – and it’s one that does not have an easy answer. From an architectural perspective, we can inform sustainable design solutions both as part of a wider site strategy or individual buildings, both in new build and refurbishment. As for the wider industry, it needs to look at innovative ways of addressing the environmental agenda; offsetting, research and investment in environmentally-friendly fuel solutions, the operation of the plane movement when taxiing and generally just joined-up industry behaviours.

Design opportunities

Airports are effectively small cities. In the book Aerotropolis by Dr. Kasada, he promotes the idea that airports are central to commercial and economic growth due to their critical mass of people and their ability to connect countries. China has adapted this approach in its airport design, and there are many other examples, but when you think about it, an airport touches on so many sectors; retail, hospitality (hotels), masterplanning, industrial, blue light services and the commercial sectors; so, a fair bit to consider and probably why airports have so many design opportunities.

It is also worth remembering that many airports have ageing buildings, therefore, reappropriating building stock and refurbishment is arguably as important as the design of shiny new terminals. For architects, the ability to get under the skin of existing buildings is an important design skill to have in your arsenal.

From my personal perspective, I find the air traffic control tower design to be iconic. If that sounds too self-indulgent, at the very least, they can be seen as a landmark. As the most vertical element of any airport, they represent a key aspect of its identity and are a strong symbol for the aviation industry. CPMG was fortunate to work on the air traffic control tower (ATCT) for Birmingham Airport, which has transpired to be a firm favourite within my experience with a truly collaborative effort from all involved.

Designing facilities, such as ATCTs, to enhance the professional experience is also deeply rewarding. The air traffic controller is a well-trained and very focused individual, so the buildings we design must ensure that they have the environment within which to do the job to the best of their ability. This includes considerations such as good viewing angles, clear visibility, ergonomically-driven furniture, hardware solutions and optimum environmental conditions.

In practice

It is important that new design projects offer a comprehensive understanding of the technical and compliance requirements – something CPMG has become accustomed to working on across multiple projects. Delivery constraints in a 24/7 facility mean architectural input beyond the design stage is critical. Delivery is even more complicated working, as well as the safety and security associated with potential airside working.

On a positive note, there is an opportunity for real innovation and the chance for exciting architectural influence that will shape a new era for the airport industry.

In addition, communication and lobbying across the various bodies representing the industry are important. The Airport Operators Association (AOA) and the British Aviation Group (BAG) are examples of leading industry groups that need to continue dialogue with the Government to put in place objectives that align with both the economic growth and environmental agenda of the country. The industry needs to be agile but focused on what our infrastructure platform looks like over the next 10, 20 or 30 years and be clear on that industry-wide vision.

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