The Psychology of Airport Design

How airports are designed using traveller behaviour

Tabitha Whiting
Jul 22, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

As a case study in environmental design, airports are fascinated. At the core, their function seems fairly simple: a holding space for travellers who are waiting for a flight. Yet, they’re actually an important retail space for many companies and, although you may not notice it, they’re designed with this firmly in mind.

Airport designers think carefully about the journey that travellers make through an airport, from check in to security to gate. They then look to behavioural psychology, looking at how people move around spaces like airports. Combining these two elements allows airport designers to design a space around the traveller’s path which will entice them with retail and restaurant opportunities.

It’s summer, and many of us will be passing through an airport or two over the coming months. Next time you’re in an airport, you might notice some of these ways that airport design reflects psychology and human behaviour.

The stressful part is out of the way quickly

Airport check in
Airport check in
Photo by Moralis Tsai on Unsplash

Taking a flight can be a stressful experience. When you first get to the airport you’re faced with check in. You’re already worried that you’ll be hit with a mega charge if your bag is over the weight limit. You’re also quizzed with intense questions: did you pack your own bag?

After that, you’re directed through a series of queues to get through security. Even if there’s nothing suspicious whatsoever in your bag or on your person, airport security is enough to get your pulse rating — especially if the beeper goes off and you have to have a hands-on search.

Airport designers are well aware of this stress. And they also know that after that stress comes relaxation, the start of holiday mode. In terms of retail, this is the key time. All of the airport admin is done, and it’s time to grab a glass of pre-holiday prosecco and browse the duty-free shops.

That’s why changes in airports are generally focused on optimising that initial portion of the airport experience: streamlining security checks, or improving at home check in, for instance. Get the stress over and done with quickly, and prolong that period of pre-flight relaxation when passengers are more likely to spend money on retail shops and restaurants.

Pathways are built right through duty free

Duty free shop in an airport.
Duty free shop in an airport.

Duty free shops are a key area of income for airports. Because travellers experience that period of relaxation immediately following security, airport designers will usually have the duty free shop as the first thing that a traveller sees after security. It acts as a ‘re-composure’ space where the traveller can move from stressful process to relaxed retail.

Research has shown that if customers have to physically walk past items which are for sale, they’re 60% more likely to make a purchase. That’s why almost every duty free shop in an airport is configured in such a way that all passengers have to walk through it. It’s usually the gateway between security and the retail space of an airport. By exposing customers to products in this way, they’re able to maximise revenue.

Walkways mirror how we walk

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Most of us are right handed, meaning that we’ll naturally use our right hand to pull our carry-on luggage. To improve our balance, we’ll therefore tend to walk in an anticlockwise direction. That means that when we’re walking through an airport, most of us are looking to the right far more than we’re looking to the left.

Airport designers use this behavioural knowledge to inform how they design routes through an airport. They mimic the way that we walk, designing walkways which curve from right to left. The majority of shops will then be placed on the right hand side, where they are more visible to people who are walking to the left.

Metres become minutes

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Photo by Steven Hille on Unsplash

Airport can be quite big spaces, housing thousands of passengers. It can, therefore, take a while to get to your gate when the flight is ready.

To mitigate the stress of this, airport signs for gates used to give the metres between your current position and the gate. However, in recent years you may have noticed that those metres have become minutes — the time it takes to walk to the gate.

Research found that passengers understood minutes as a marker of distance much more quickly than they could understand the metres. This helps us to feel more at ease during their time in the airport, because we know exactly how much time they need to get to the gate. Therefore, we’re likely to spend longer in that retail and restaurant area of the airport, where we’re helping the airport to generate profit.

Keep it cool and dark

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Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

Recently ‘smart glass’ has begun to be used in airport design. This smart glass can adjust itself based on the amount of sunlight exposure coming through it, preventing too much heat and sun glare entering the airport.

Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport ran a test with the smart glass in October 2018. They found that when the smart glass was installed customers were much more likely to stay longer in the airport’s restaurants, and to buy an extra drink or two. Sales of alcohol increased by a huge 80% during the test period, simply because it was cooler and darker in the restaurant.


Insights for this post were gathered using this report by Intervistas, titled: ‘Maximising Airport Retail Revenue’.

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