From terminal colours to the endless maze of duty free, airports are designed to manipulate us from the check-in desk on

Airports are the liminal non-spaces that exist somewhere in between point A and point B.
Like a limbo made of prefab corridors, the common perception of the airport has changed little since the 2004 Tom Hanks movie The Terminal. The idea of being trapped in such a space for any length of time seems horrific.

But that's exactly what the modern airport is designed to encourage. One study estimated the time spent over a lifetime in departure lounges at 16 days.

Nowadays airports have become mini cities in their own right, with a focus on creating a calming and un-claustrophobic area to wait for flights.


Singapore's recently remodelled Jewel terminal in Changi airport is a space that more closely resembles an ecological rainforest rather than some forgotten part of God's waiting room.

Since the early 2000s there have been a lot of changes to the layout and design of international airports, though not all with passenger wellbeing at their centre.

These spaces are designed to affect our moods – keeping us quiet, moving and constantly shopping.

Here are six ways in which airports are designed to manipulate passengers:


By providing visual cues that funnel passengers in a particular direction, passengers are kept moving and occupied with new stimulus.

The concept of 'wayfinding' is twofold, both keep passengers occupied and help them navigate the mazy airport expanses.

Designers realised that there is nothing more upsetting for passengers than being disoriented with time running down to departure.

It encompasses features a subtle as changing carpet patterns to those as obvious as Doha's giant 23-foot custard-coloured teddy bear – the design of an airport is to keep passengers both interested and oriented.


Security theatre

The September 11th World Trade Centre attacks changed flying in a number of ways.

Security Theatre: TSA agent frisks a passeger passing through LAX. Photo / Getty Images
Security Theatre: TSA agent frisks a passeger passing through LAX. Photo / Getty Images

Surprisingly, the increased number of armed guards and heavy-handed security screenings at airports have not driven passengers away but resulted an a calmer smoother transition through customs.

The concept of 'Security Theatre' was a concept coined by security expert Bruce Schneier.

It roughly equates to passengers' dependence on visual cues to make them feel safe.

Just telling passengers that they are in a safe is no good. They need the ritual of going through the security gate and metal detectors before they can relax.

For all of the extra security, it's as much for your benefit as it is to deter terrorists.

In 2017 the TSA reported a shocking 70% failure rate for US airports detecting replica guns and weapons at checkpoints.

It seems the visual impact of airport security is more important than their effectiveness.

Captive shoppers

It might not be a surprise to find a coffee shop just as you find space to sit down and check the departure boards.

However there are far more calculating ways to inspire impulse purchases than Starbucks setting up in view of sleepy passengers.

Golden hour: Duty free retail designers have worked out when passengers are most susceptible to splashing out. Photo / Getty Images
Golden hour: Duty free retail designers have worked out when passengers are most susceptible to splashing out. Photo / Getty Images

The recent phenomenon of a long aisle of duty free shops leading to departure gates has been designed to maximise a passenger's exposure to shops. In most airports these aisles curve to the right on the supposition that most passengers will be right handed – putting items for sale in easy reach.

Most of us arriving at airports have taken care to arrive in plenty of time, as to not miss our flights.

A 2010 study published that the average traveller spends 16 days of their life in airport duty free.

Duty free sales are well aware of this fact. Schiphol airport advertises that it has some of the longest waiting times for travellers in the world, with transferring passengers spending 188 minutes between flights.

The phenomenon of bored passengers willingness to splash-out on indulgent items has become a recognised phenomenon among airport retail designers.

Due to the mood's duration of roughly an hour, it is known in the airport design business as "the golden hour" - during which a confusing array of designer goods and impulse foods are paraded before passengers.

Some airports such as London's Gatwick delay the gate announcements until 25 minutes before departure just to maximise shopping time.

Calm and peaceful ambiance

The giant glassy structures of modern airports are full of visual cues, however the soundscapes and acoustic design of these spaces are an equally important consideration. The echoing of footsteps in designed to keep The dampening of "unwanted sound" is made to create a relaxed atmosphere.

Changi Jewel: A new Aerotropolis. Photo / Supplied
Changi Jewel: A new Aerotropolis. Photo / Supplied

There's nothing more likely to set passenger's nerves on edge than the sound of frantic rushing or having to shout to make their conversation heard above the general din.

Marshall Day Acoustics was responsible for the design of parts of Wellington and Auckland airports.

It's a difficult consideration to "maintain a relaxed, stress free atmosphere" in a place through which 55,000 thousand passengers are moving along with huge jet-propelled pieces of machinery.

From the preparative International departure lounge, the careful sound excluding Koru lounge and to the dynamic and "stress-free" dynamics of the baggage hall – the sound design is an important consideration to differentiate between spaces and behaviours expected within them.

Space and time

Another reason why flight information is so prominently displayed everywhere is to give travellers an increased awareness of the amount of time they have to kill. It serves both as a calming measure and a nudge towards the duty free shops.

The environment is designed to create a feeling of ease and control, and detract from the fact that – until our gate is called and we reach the embarkation ramp – we are a captive audience.

Cities of the skies

The airport is now part transit hub, part shopping mall. But the trend is towards airports absorbing more and more aspects under their roves.

The concept of the Aerotropolis – an airport functioning as centre for cities, or self-contained cities in their own right – was brought into use by the consultant John D Kasarda.

More than a lofty academic concept, it's been referenced by airport redesigns around the world.

Changi for example, Singapore's showy greenhouse of an airport, has been expanded to include cinemas, gardens and a self-contained transport network.

If anywhere could embrace the concept fully, it would be the compact city-state of Singapore.

Ms Jean Hung , CEO of the airport's recent Jewel Expansion, referenced the concept, say her terminal would be "providing innovative and fresh experiences for Singapore residents and working professionals in its vicinity."

Inviting in the outside world and creating large and adaptable spaces, airport lounges can be quickly turned around to reflect changing passenger behaviours.

Making sure areas for charging devices, or temporary areas for workers looking to set up a laptop – you'll be sure that the allure of duty free shopping will never be far from sight.