"Excuse me, where’s the washroom?" Designing around airport passenger FAQs

February 8, 2016 Derek Chan

By Derek Chan

How the questions airport passengers ask can help shape airport design.

Since spring 2015, I’ve volunteered at Toronto Pearson International Airport, through the Welcome Team program, where I provide wayfinding information for passengers and answer general inquiries. In my time as a volunteer, I’ve helped to enhance the experience of more than 2,000 passengers travelling through the airport. My volunteer experience has also given me valuable insights.

As an architect with a focus on the design and planning of airports, I understand passenger challenges and what it takes to deliver an efficient, successful airport terminal. You must be sensitive to the needs of passengers. Through careful design and planning, we can reduce the number of questions passengers ask at airports and, as a result, make their time at the airport more enjoyable.

Standardized washroom entrances with accent wall finishes and super-graphics to make washrooms visible to passengers from a distance.


Here are the frequently asked questions passengers ask airport staff members on a typical day.

  1. Where is the closest washroom?
    While washrooms are typically distributed across the terminal building, they tend to be difficult to locate as there is not a universal understanding of their locations. Terminals also have a lot of visual distractions, such as check-in and gate counters, hold rooms, restaurants, stores, etc. So locating washrooms without the aid from signage can be a challenge. Passengers always prefer to use the nearest washroom and the one that’s most convenient
  2. Where do I check in and drop off my bags?
    As soon as passengers enter the terminal building, they see endless aisles of check-in counters. It can be challenging to find the right airline counters. Even if passengers locate the right counter, their actual check-in locations may vary depending on where they’re travelling. Typical major Canadian airports include three sectors: domestic, transborder and international. With the popularity of web check-in and self-service kiosks, passengers often expect that they can skip the queues and head to an automatic kiosk or an express bag-drop counter. When passengers are in a rush, it is critical for them to arrive at the correct check-in locations without delay.
  3. Where do I find my gates?
    Passengers are often confused when there is more than one pre-board screening location. Security check-points may not always be visible from the departures concourse. Passengers may also need help locating the correct screening locations because different airlines and flights to different destinations may be accessed from different security check-points. After going through security, the next challenge is to find the correct boarding gates. Passengers expect to be channeled to their aircraft as efficiently as possible.
  4. Are there more restaurants and shops down there?
    Massive airline terminals usually feature long corridors. When passengers are looking for specific amenities, they prefer not to walk down a long pier where they might not find what they need. Most passengers try to stay near their boarding gates to avoid missing their flight, so they prefer not to walk very far – unless they know what to expect ahead of them. For this reason, passengers prefer to see all the way through the building from where they stand to where they need to go to.
  5. How do I exit and where do I pick up my luggage?
    Where do I claim my bags? That’s the first question in an arriving passenger’s mind. This becomes challenging for airports with inbound domestic passengers being mixed with other outbound passengers. Most passengers do not understand that the "exit" signs in the terminal building refer to emergency exits. They may not be aware that they should look for directions to the baggage and arrivals halls – not for ‘exits.’
  6. How do I connect to my next flight?
    Connecting passengers are always eager to reach their next flight on time. They expect to be able to navigate through the terminal easily with intuitive wayfinding and minimal walking. While most passengers prefer to avoid going through security screening before a connecting flight, this depends on their origins and where they are connecting to.
  7. How do I reach the other terminal?
    When an airport has multiple terminal buildings, there are passengers who arrive at the wrong terminal every single day. There are also connecting passengers who need to travel from one terminal to the other. Passengers always want to know which terminal they are located at and how to get to another terminal. While passengers may have the options to move between terminals by foot, by automatic people movers, or by shuttle buses, most feel that inter-terminal transfers are often confusing and time-consuming.
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