By Sophie Dickinson
Whether you tend to spend a leisurely three hours browsing, or dash through with minutes to spare, it’s unlikely you think much about the departure lounge part of your holiday. It’s a liminal space, after all – just a conduit to the main reason for your travel. And yet, every sign, every walkway, has been carefully calibrated – to move you through security, to encourage you to splurge in duty free and, finally, to get you to your plane on time. These 11 little-known secrets might just change the way you see the departure lounge forever.
You’re not supposed to read the signs
Airport signage is distinctive: in the vast majority of airports, it’s black and yellow (particularly in departure areas), with little in the way of accoutrements. That’s all intentional, and even the chosen fonts have a crucial part to play.
There are two major ones used in airports: Frutiger, designed for Charles De Gaulle Airport in 1968, and plain old Helvetica, the font that launched a thousand holidays.
Of course, the fonts need to be very easily decipherable, first and foremost. But they also need to feel trustworthy – and Helvetica is, apparently, the most trustworthy font of the bunch. It is, after all, hard to imagine Comic Sans getting the same reception.
“One of the really important things are open letter shapes,” says graphic designer Sarah Hyndman. “‘C’ shapes, if they are really closed, could be mistaken for an ‘o’ at a distance. You need to be able to tell the difference at just a glance.”
But, overall, the idea is that you should barely notice the words at all. You receive information as you need it via the signage, and then never think about it again – allowing you to be unconsciously guided from place to place via a holistic system known as “wayfinding”, intended to keep things moving, stop you missing your flight, and allow the average traveller brain to focus on more important things. Like spending their money…
Everything is geared towards emptying your wallet
If airport bosses had their way, you would leave the departure lounge wrestling with a giant Toblerone, a litre of whisky, a new handbag and enough perfume to knock out half your aisle-mates.
It’s for this reason that some airports keep the gate number under wraps until the very last minute – usually announcing it less than half an hour before the plane departs. It’s all to do with the idea of the “golden hour”: the period of time where you have sufficiently recovered from the stress of check in and security, but are still feeling remnants of that vigilance, meaning you’re open to roaming about rather than sitting down, and susceptible to advertising. In short, the ideal conditions in which to flog tiny soaps and designer bags.
And if you do feel like sitting down? Without a gate to head to, your only option is to settle in one of the seating areas in the lounge itself – which, you’ll notice, usually face the shops. It’s called “revenue seating” for a reason.
There are intentionally fewer seats than passengers
Talking of seating – there’s nothing worse than dashing through security and finding every bench crammed with passengers. Or, perhaps more eerily, getting to the gate and noticing you are the only person there, with hundreds of seats to pick from.
All this is, of course, engineered. Some airports shunt passengers towards the shops by having slightly fewer seats than are needed at peak times, meaning people decide to browse rather than standing around by the gate.
And while the standard rows of seating might seem rather unforgiving, there’s a reason for the layout. At Heathrow Terminal 3, a trial found that “hub” seating, arranged around tables, meant that people simply avoided each other – preferring to stand rather than share an area. And what does standing lead to? You’ve got it: shopping.
Even the sounds are carefully curated
If Brian Eno had his way, we would all be listening to ambient sounds while we wait in departures. As it is, the sort of music played in airports has changed significantly since his seminal album, the plainly named Music for Airports, was released in the late ’70s, but he was right to highlight how strange, sonically, the departure lounge can be.
After a trial in 2019, Indian airports began playing a combination of sitar music and “radio bulletins” about the local area in their departure lounges. It calms passengers, of course, but is also, essentially, a branding exercise, advertising a destination over the airwaves.
Some airports are moving in the opposite direction. At San Francisco International Airport, there has been a concerted push to reduce noise pollution. About 90 minutes of “unnecessary noise” has been removed since the Quiet Airport scheme was introduced in 2019 – that includes fewer public announcements, and quieter ones when they are necessary. Even walkways and escalators have been muffled.
The intention is to make our time in the airport as frictionless as possible. Of course, it does mean getting up to look at departure boards more often, but perhaps that is a price worth paying for quieter waits for the red-eye.
Airports are designed to calm nervous flyers
As many as 37 per cent of Australians are nervous flyers, and keeping passengers as calm as possible pre-flight is of great benefit to both airports and airlines – whether because they’re more likely to shop or eat, or because they’re less likely to drink too much.
Kansas City International Airport has taken a particularly extreme approach to combatting pre-flight nerves, allowing frightened passengers to make use of a flight simulator, housed inside a decommissioned Airbus a321 cabin. The life-like process guides guests through a fake “check in” to a pretend take-off and landing, before they partake in the real thing.
But plenty of airports apply less radical calming techniques. Architect Henrik Rothe cites development at Stansted in the 1990s, which was built with the intention of allowing passengers to feel connected with the outdoors (whether it achieves that now is another question), saying that “transparent facades help you to feel more comfortable and give you a sense of control over your paths. It calms you down that you can see to the end of the tunnel, for example, and that’s something the best airports use a lot”.
Departure lounges could soon be straight out of a sci-fi movie
We have been able to check-in via apps and websites for years, but in some airports, passengers can print labels and drop bags by using a screen similar to the automated supermarket check out.
Very soon, even the signage will be digitised, thinks Sarah Hyndman. “I would imagine that not far away is a future that sees you walk into the airport, be picked up by facial recognition technology, and then shown the information you need. Maybe it even highlights the signs you need to follow to get to your gate.”
There are plenty of freebies, if you know where to look
An attraction to duty free does not, always, mean spending an extortionate amount – if you do your research. In fact, there are a multitude of complimentary products and services available if you know where to look.
At Heathrow, for example, there is a multitude of free options to pick from. Elizabeth Arden, Jo Malone and Molton Brown give passengers hand massages, while Benefit, Givenchy, Dior, MAC and more offer make-up tutorials (which often include a full makeover), and Clarins, Clinique, La Prairie, Lancome and L’Occitane all have skincare treatments, or facials, available for waiting customers. You don’t need to book, and each service usually lasts between two and 10 minutes (search for “Heathrow beauty services” for a full list).
And if you’d rather not spend your money at the bar, World of Whiskies offers tastings, too.
You’ve probably never been anywhere safer
While design is crucial to the departure lounge, so is safety. Everything from the most basic door handle to the most luxurious lounge seat has to follow a rigorous set of guidelines to prevent fires, and good luck trying to buy anything sharp in any of the shops.
In fact, the kitchens of departure lounge restaurants and food outlets are particularly neutered: rather than open flames, many cook on induction hobs to reduce risk.
And you’re almost always being watched, too – those wide, open spaces might make us shop, and feel comfortable, but they also mean there’s nowhere to scurry away to. CCTV is capturing it all, down to that thousandth scrabble through your hand luggage for your passport.
The lighting tells you what to do
Much like every other element of airport design, lighting is the result of careful planning. At many airports, light levels are even adjusted to mimic (or interrupt) our Circadian rhythm – waking us up in the morning, and getting us ready to sleep before our night flights.
There can be benefits for the airports themselves, too. At Dallas Fort Worth in the US, “smart glass” has been installed around the departure lounge, with the intention of increasing passenger comfort and reducing the airport’s carbon footprint.
The self-tinting windows reduce the heat on seats and bodies by between 10 and 15 degrees – a real relief from the Texan sun. It clearly worked: passengers went on to spend considerably more money at the bar as a result.
It’s all about keeping things moving
Even the most subtle elements of design often have a purpose – usually to keep you moving you through the lounge.
Corridors twist at an angle in a way that makes wheeling a suitcase down them easier (for right-handed people, at least); the carpets – many of which have something of a cult following – are meant to feel homely, and therefore calming; and the walkways are usually covered in concrete or tile, often in a dynamic pattern, also intended to keep you in forward motion.
The future looks quirky
But the age of the identikit departure lounge could soon be at an end, with various airports around the world opting for more experimental design, often one which prioritises giving passengers a “special” experience over getting their money.
In Helsinki, for example, part of the airport is carved out for Aukio, a curved LED screen that plays video of ice melting into gentle brooks, birds flying over autumn landscapes, and flowers slowly blossoming. A similar, if more analogue, ceiling-based installation at Portland airport allows passengers to relax under an approximation of the northern lights. And in Tallinn, the lounge is designed to look like a living room, with a library where you can sit in between the books.
“Most airports point to beautiful glass facades, and say ‘we are a fantastic airport’,” says Henrik Rothe. “But maybe you don’t need that. Maybe, instead, it should be about creating a special experience for the passengers who arrive there.”
The Telegraph, London
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