Why this road warrior designs airports with the traveler in mind

January 1, 2013

Experiencing the trials and tribulations of travel makes for better airport design solutions. How one designer's harrowing business trip influenced him to focus on traveler-friendly design options.

By Stanis Smith



Every six months, leaders of the largest architectural and engineering firms in North America meet for a two-day session in which we share ideas (however economical with the truth they may be!). The organization, called the LFRT or Large Firm Round Table, tends to pick exotic locales for their meetings, and this year they chose a hotel on an island named Kiawah, near Charleston, South Carolina, which is a lush part of the country, complete with moss hanging off trees, palms, etc. The resort is very proud of its "Gary Player-designed golf course." I'm not a golfer, but as an ex-South African I took a certain amount of vicarious pride in this boast (although somewhat diminished by my recollections of him endorsing everything from tissues to wine).



Anyway, the hotel is a lavish affair. Walking through the ornate front doors onto the pre-worn wood flooring, you would be forgiven for thinking that you have landed in the set of "Gone with the Wind," complete with grandiose lobby, monumental curved staircases, roaring fireplaces, and faux-turn-of-the-century decor. My room included a four-poster bed and generous helpings of marble. None of the architecture and interior design is my cup of tea, but it is probably a dream come true for those who like that kind of thing.

What caught my attention was that the island has a number of cycle paths, and the concierge advertised bicycles for rent. So on the second day of the session, I set my alarm clock in order to get a cycle in before breakfast and the start of the meeting. But when I woke up at 6 am, it was pitch dark and was obviously going to stay that way for a while. I dragged myself into the gym to use the stationary bicycle, which, no matter how many simulated digital landscapes I tried, wasn't the wind-through-the-hair, cycling-on-the-beach experience I had hoped for. Afterwards, I went for breakfast, attended the meeting, and then left for the airport. I arrived to discover that my flight was delayed by a couple of hours, which was really irritating, because had I known, I could have strolled along the beach for a few minutes, never mind the fact that, having flown all the way to Charleston, I didn't get to see the town at all.

Eventually the plane showed up and I boarded. As it took off I reached into my top pocket to discover my passport was missing. I sat there panicking, with beads of perspiration forming, wondering how on earth I was going to get home without it, remembering—without much enthusiasm—the cells that I've designed in airports for the friendly Customs and Immigration folks to use for people like me who try to get into the country without passports. The seat-belt sign was on, so I couldn't get up and rummage through my bag. Minutes turned into years as I sat wondering where I had left it. After an eternity, a flight attendant's voice came through the speakers saying "Is Stanis Smith on board?" I had dropped it in the aisle and someone had picked it up and given it to her. Lucky break #1.

Lucky break #2 came in the form of technology. With my flight out of Charleston leaving so late, I figured that — at best — I would have 10 minutes to make my connection in Chicago. So I emailed my assistant from the plane, asking her to search the Internet for the gate number of my connecting flight. Yes, I know that one isn't supposed to do that kind of thing, but desperate times call for desperate measures. She emailed back that I would be coming in at pier F, connecting to a flight at pier C, which is about as far away from each other as it is possible for two planes to be in the Chicago airport. When we landed, I grabbed my bag and ran, and as I hurled around the corner into the view of my gate, I heard the agent say: "That's the last one." I ran down the jetway and they closed the aircraft door behind me.

There's nothing quite as welcoming as walking down an aircraft aisle, breathless and sweaty, facing rows of surly passengers glaring at you, making no effort to hide their irritation that they have been sitting on a plane waiting for some jerk to show up. There was a bit of comic opera as I tried to stuff my roll-aboard into the overhead bin, which was full. After several unsuccessful tries, I finally jammed the lid closed, and spontaneous applause erupted from several passengers who obviously had nothing better to do than watch my epic struggle with glee. I bowed gracefully and told them that I had no encore planned.

Again, sitting on the flight gave me some time to recollect on what just happened and how it all plays into the travel experience. For frequent travelers especially, this type of madness is frequent, making it all the more imperative for designers like us to do whatever we can to provide even the smallest conveniences. Good design can't prevent people from losing their passports, but at least it may help them feel a little less bad about their travel experience when those mishaps occur.

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