The airport of the future cares about more than just air travelers

Looking out into the future.
Looking out into the future.
Image: CC/Antti Yrjönen
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Airports must keep themselves aloft. Unlike railways, schools, or other public facilities, most receive little or no government support. At the end of the day, it’s the passengers who wind up footing the bill—even if they aren’t aware of it. Some of that comes via airlines, who pay fees to use an airport. But for decades, rent from retailers, duty-free sales, and parking have helped make up the shortfall.

But these once watertight revenue streams are no longer quite so secure. Online shopping has eroded duty-free shopping, while ride-hailing apps have reduced the need to leave a car by the terminal. Airports are left grasping for alternatives.

At the same time, changing passenger demographics and heightened awareness around the environmental responsibilities (and impacts) of the sector are leaving airport bosses rethinking the best way to run their terminals.

One of the most forward-looking among them is Helsinki airport, located about 12 miles (20 km) outside of Finland’s capital. For passengers just passing through, it seems unremarkable enough—sleek and modern, certainly, but nothing to write home about. When you’re in the terminal, the airport’s most visible changes are the ones that cater to the next generation of world travelers, many of whom will originate from Asia. Most signs are in Chinese as well as English and Finnish; homesick Asian passengers unsure about the national specialities of reindeer burgers or salmon soup can nosh at a noodle bar instead.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see an airport embracing many other elements of a new business model in a changing industry.

Airports that want to succeed nowadays must look beyond their immediate passengers for revenue, explains Max Hirsh, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Airport Urbanism. Helsinki airport’s offers travelers a smörgåsbord (or, in Finnish, a “Swedish standing table”) of cultural activities within spitting distance of the terminal: people on layovers of five hours or more might visit a chocolate factory or Finnish nature center, bliss out at an all-day sauna and spa, or set their children loose at the Finnish Science Center, among other potential destinations or pastimes.

In Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport combines its flight operations with a regional train station and pre-security shopping ranging from flowers to electronics. For passengers, it’s an extra perk; for the tens of thousands of airport employees and people living in nearby communities, it’s a vital resource; for the airport, it’s a lucrative business. Smart airports are “essentially becoming real estate developers,” Hirsh says, “building things like shopping centers, or office buildings, or tourist destinations, in some cases, at the airport itself.”

These activities serve more than just the tourists. They are also a draw to local residents considering a move to Helsinki’s airport neighborhood, called Aviapolis. Building neighborhoods around airports has historically proven challenging: people don’t like the idea of living beneath the shadows of jumbo jets or being woken in the night by the boom of a departing red-eye. Aviapolis takes that into account, with residential areas falling outside of the airport’s so-called “noise envelope.” This allows them to build “pretty much up to the perimeter fence,” says Hirsh. Amenities such as a jumbo shopping center or the chocolate factory, meanwhile, provide jobs, things to do, and a reason to stay.

The airport is also beginning to follow the example of airports such as Schiphol by introducing “a multimodal Travel Centre,” linking flights to high-speed rail, buses, and other overground transport. Many forward-thinking airports are prioritizing long-haul air routes for their limited number of flights and embracing other forms of travel for shorter journeys, Hirsh explains. A good example is the Dutch airline KLM, which sees rail not as competition, but as a way to maximize its total number of destinations, he says. “They’re looking at how to integrate basically single ticketing, so that you can buy a high-speed rail ticket and an air ticket-combined.” Hong Kong airport does something similar with combined, single transaction air-and-ferry services to the Chinese mainland.

Finland, which stretches far into the frozen north, has been slow to develop high-speed rail. New efforts by the country’s transportation ministry, however, are being welcomed with open arms by the country’s airports as an opportunity to grow. These “travel chains,” should allow passengers to “easily combine different modes of transport, such as planes, trains, buses and cars, into one smooth travel experience, writes Jani Jolkkonen, head of Finavia, the country’s airport network, on the airport website. The focus should be on short travel times, pleasant passenger experience and minimizing emissions.” Other Finavia airport bosses have encouraged rail operators to run trains through the airport, to encourage international travelers to choose overground transport instead of flying to visit its further regions. 

The focus on minimizing emissions, at least, is not new.  Since at least the 1990s, airports have been under pressure to be more environmentally conscious, says Sonja Dümpelmann, author of Airport Landscape: Urban Ecologies in the Aerial Age. “They’re aware of the impact that they’re having,” she said. “Whether you want to call it greenwashing or not, they have highly developed schemes and projects that deal with air pollution, water pollution, also wildlife management and the planting of the airport.” Many of the architects involved in planning airports have considered the environmental implications of the site from the outset, she says.

Helsinki Airport, for its part, has been carbon-neutral since 2017. It uses 100% renewable energy, has placed a cap on its emissions, and is helping to support the development and testing of the first electric aircraft in Finland. Airport buses run on renewable diesel, made from waste products, while solar panels on the roof help power the airport. It might be easy to dismiss as little more than good PR, but on-the-ground steps such as these may prove critical in helping to shift one of the world’s most emission-heavy industries toward a greener path.

Although Finland may blaze a trail for other world airports in many respects, its choice of duty-free offerings probably won’t take off overseas. Travelers weary of cigarette cartons and Jack Daniels face an array of Finnish specialities: expect highly divisive black salted licorice, a selection of boutique local liquors, and in the most unusual of last minute gifts, entire reindeer pelts.