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Are US terminals measuring up internationally?

Today, there is increased US political pressure for American aviation facilities to measure up to the standards that European, Middle Eastern and Asian facilities have set. Dissatisfaction with American airline infrastructure has been documented in newspapers, online articles and a multitude of diverse publications. Most famously, vice president Joe Biden’s comparison of New York’s LaGuardia Airport to a third-world airport has struck home with the public, politicians and airport operators alike.

For all of these reasons, the true distinction between international and domestic terminals in the USA is becoming solely one of functionality, not of experience or expression. The functional distinctions are relatively overt and include processing components such as federal inspection services (FIS), customs, bag recheck, the time required for processing and dwell time as well as discrete physical elements such as additional circulation, hold room size and the concessions mix.

What’s right? What’s wrong?
However, an aspect that US domestic and international terminals have in common are the success elements for a positive passenger experience, including the desire for meaningful regional expression. To create a generally positive experience, the core design components of a successful terminal are relatively similar:

• Volume – to accommodate the large plan footprint of terminal spaces, an appropriate proportional relationship between plan dimension and volume is a necessity in order to create an aesthetically pleasing space.

• Spatial clarity – large spaces require adequate volume for clear sight lines and to support intuitive/directional wayfinding.

• Transparency – both internally and externally for orientation to gates and metaphorical connection to the sky and the destination.

• Lightness/brightness – to support the natural human desire to connect to the exterior from a stressful, internalized experience.

• Wayfinding cues – inherently built into the architecture for a macro-level of orientation.

• An uplifting experience – to provide a sense of connectivity to something greater than the physical reality; something that is referential, interpretative and supported by programs such as integrated art or regional expression.


Left: Terminal D at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport



Best in show
Finished in 2005, Dallas/Fort Worth’s (DFW) Terminal D was built as the airport’s primary international terminal and features 28 swing gates. However, the terminal was built with flexibility in mind. Though it contains the airport’s only fully functional FIS international arrivals processing facility, the amount of international traffic does not warrant dedicating the entire terminal for that use.

As a major hub for American Airlines, today 65% of the traffic through Terminal D is domestic yet the terminal continues to function with a high level of passenger service and an elevated passenger experience.

This success has been recognized by Forbes Traveler, which recently named DFW as one of the world’s best airports for a layover, the only airport in the Americas to receive this distinguished designation. The Forbes article notes that travelers prefer terminals with varied shopping, integrated hotels, and leisure amenities such as art exhibits, all of which can be found in Terminal D, which it termed “state of the art.”

In addition, Terminal D has won numerous awards from Airport Revenue News for Best Overall Concession Program in 2013 and Best Customer Service in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

In either its international incarnation, or in its current, dominantly domestic use, the core design attributes of the terminal contribute equally to its success, including intuitive directional wayfinding, a dynamic concessions program, a view to the gates, a visual connection to the airfield, and lightness, brightness and appropriate volumes. Success for both uses based on these factors comes from an inherent confluence of expectations between US passengers and those in the rest of the world.

Correspondingly, it is really only pragmatics that will distinguish a modern US domestic terminal from a modern US international terminal. Everything else shares common ground in the subjective, the expression, the details and the positive impact they have on the traveler, domestic or international.

May 13, 2015



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