Three flows that are critical to airport operation

April 26, 2018 Mehrdad Parsad

Why airport terminal designers need to consider airplanes, bags, and passengers


When looking to improve passenger experience and create seamless passenger travel, airport designers need to keep one phrase in mind. Go with the flows.

To enhance your airport and position it for success, you need to consider three crucial flows: airplane flow, baggage flow, and passenger flow. To help visualize the concept, picture each of these flows – a group of airplanes sitting on an airstrip, a collection of suitcases riding on a conveyer belt, and a surge of passengers on the hunt for the correct gate or a tasty sandwich. These three flows are integrated. They work together. If one of them malfunctions, it immediately impacts the other two. 

Airports should keep passengers relaxed, informed, and comfortable – especially on a day with inclement weather, like this one.

Airlines want to avoid situations where planes linger on tarmacs, since that downtime leads to additional fees that airlines need to pay airports – as well as possible flight delays and frustrated passengers. Similarly, airports want to eliminate baggage bottlenecks and passenger congestion. So, designers need to create systems to identify snags, reduce lulls, and simplify the three flows to make them run as seamlessly as possible, making sure the three flows are aligned for departing passengers, arriving passengers, and transferring passengers. Functional airports lead to happy airlines, satisfied passengers, and more business. Let’s take a look at the three flows in more detail.

The airplane flow is the most important, as far as airport operation goes. That may surprise you but, without the airplane, the quality of the baggage system or the efficiency of the passenger flow don’t matter. Air travel isn’t possible without the aircraft.

It’s in the airport’s best interest for passengers to zoom through the security process, since they’ll be able to spend more money at retail and food outlets when they’re lingering around their gates.

The airplane flow has several steps, including arriving at the airport and taxing to the gate, letting passengers deplane, giving the empty plane a security sweep and a clean, inviting the new passengers on board, taxing on the tarmac, and then taking off for the next flight.

Two of the steps in this process take a long time, and both involve passengers. Arriving passengers often take a while to deplane, as they’re rummaging for their carry-on bags and lining up to leave the aircraft. Then, once the crew performs a security sweep and loads the plane with food, beverages, and other service items, it takes a while for passengers to board, as they’re waiting for their zone to be called and then trying to fit their bags into overhead compartments.

Airports are partly judged by “on-time performance,” which measures how early or late planes are arriving or leaving the gate. Are planes sticking to the published schedule? Airports that function well have a positive on-time performance, as they’re able to easily make up for delayed arrivals in their early departures schedule. Airports that have a negative on-time performance often don’t make up for loss of time for passengers. Reducing downtime positions airports for more business, since airlines will want to land at a functional, profitable airport.


The baggage flow breaks down into three different streams – departures, arrivals, and transfers – and runs parallel to the passenger flow. To optimize the baggage system, airports should sync the baggage and passenger flows. The baggage system needs to keep up with the passenger’s speed, as he or she travels from the bag drop area to the airplane.

The baggage flow process has a few critical steps. Once a passenger checks in and gets their luggage tagged, they leave it at the bag drop. At that point, the luggage begins its own journey, travelling along conveyers, getting sorted into the correct destination area in the bag makeup area, and then getting picked up by baggage handlers and loaded into the airplane.

The airplane flow is the most important. Without the airplane, the quality of the baggage system or the efficiency of the passenger flow doesn’t really matter, since air travel isn’t possible without the aircraft. 

Of course, before the bags can be packed into the airplane, the inbound luggage needs to be taken out. This “luggage exchange” can be time consuming, so airlines should finish this step before passengers board the plane. If the passengers are boarded and the airplane is ready to fly, no one wants to wait for luggage. The intricacies involved in the design of the baggage system to handle departing, arriving, and transferring passengers is another subject altogether.

_q_tweetable:Functional airports lead to happy airlines, satisfied passengers, and more business._q_ 

For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on departure passenger flows, although airports also need to deal with the complexities of arrival and transfer flows.

Once the passenger arrives at the airport and checks their bag, the passenger flow begins. The passenger needs to get through security and reach their gate. It’s in the airport’s best interest for the passenger to zoom through the security process, since the passenger will be able to spend more money at retail and food outlets when they’re lingering around their gate. This is what we refer to as increased dwell time. This translates directly into non-aeronautical revenue for the airport, although not automatically. For it to be successful, the airside zone of the terminal needs to be designed with passenger comfort in mind, ensuring plenty of amenities are available and the choice is there for customers to shop, should they wish. Considering, however, that all passengers are a captive audience once airside, they will shop.

The security screening process typically forms the bottleneck of the entire passenger flow. It can be stressful and laborious, but innovation in this process is continuing to lead to improvements. One example of this is CATSA Plus, which, compared to the original CATSA classic layout, increases passenger throughput – the maximum rate of passengers that can be processed – significantly.

When designing a terminal, passenger flows need a forward momentum. Backtracking can cause issues and should be kept to a minimum. For example, once passengers clear security, they should have line of sight to gates, washrooms, and amenities. If they don’t, passengers often find their gate first. Only then do they feel comfortable enough to explore the amenities, which requires backtracking. 

Digital signage plays a big role in passenger flow. If the passenger knows how long it’s going to take to reach their gate after getting through security, they are more likely to shop and purchase food. They’ll also be in a more relaxed headspace.

Some airports have investigated innovative tech solutions to simplify passenger flow, such as developing an app that lets passengers check in and displays the locations of nearby washrooms, lounges, restaurants, and shops. We need to keep passengers relaxed, informed, and comfortable.

Once the bags are inside the plane, and the plane is fuelled and ready, passengers are called to board by zone. The passengers will inevitably struggle to find overhead space for their carry-on bags – but I’ll explore this interesting topic in another blog.

Understanding these three flows – airplane, baggage, and passenger – is the first step toward optimizing airport terminal design. In future blog posts, I’ll examine solutions that airports should consider when trying to further improve passenger experience.

About the Author

Mehrdad Parsad

As an architect and airport terminal design leader, Mehrdad’s highest priority is to be the main point of contact for our clients. His passion is to help clients—such as the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA)—achieve long-term goals. Specializing in passenger experience and flow, Mehrdad cultivates terminal connectivity by innovating on infrastructure, retail planning, food and beverage offerings, and stakeholder engagement.

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