A conversation with Max Hirsh, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on airports and urban infrastructure.
Max Hirsh, the author of the recent book Airport Urbanism, became a global traveler at a very young age. Living in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S., he spent a lot of time with his family figuring out how to move as cheaply as possible between countries and continents. With a curious eye, and lots of layover time on his hands, he noticed that airports were getting bigger, busier, and filled with a wider range of travelers. These observations led to the two main questions that define his work to this day. First, how does the “other half” (or non-elite passengers) fly and how can airports be redesigned for them? Second, with the number of passengers projected to double in the next two decades, how can we coordinate airport expansion plans with the broader development goals of the cities they serve? We spoke with Max about these questions and more as part of our look at the changing nature of air travel.
H1: We’re huge fans of your recent book. For those who aren’t yet familiar, what does “Airport Urbanism” mean?
Max: Airport Urbanism is a people-focused approach to designing airports and developing neighborhoods around major airport hubs. It’s based on ten years of research that I did at more than 50 airports around the world. During that time, I interviewed hundreds of passengers, airport managers, architects, planners, developers, and airline employees.
H1: What are some of the insights that came out of that research?
Max: A big one is that the needs and desires of air passengers are changing fast, but the designs of airports have remained pretty much the same. Over the last decade, travelers have become much more diverse in age, income, cultural background, and trip purpose. And along with that diversity, we’re seeing the emergence of particular passenger types, each of which has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and spending habits. Just to give three examples: middle-class passengers from China, commuting retirees, and business travelers who fly on budget airlines.
Unfortunately, airports aren’t building terminals that address the needs of a rapidly expanding flying public. As a result, I see a lot of missed opportunities to improve the passenger experience and generate revenue by offering a wider variety of goods and services targeting specific passenger types.
Priority seating for monks, the elderly, the handicapped, and mothers at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.
H1: You mentioned you'd met a diversity of travelers over the years. What are some of their unique travel needs?
Max: One of my favorite research techniques is to accompany different types of passengers through the airport. It’s an illuminating experience! I’ve traveled with elderly couples, migrant workers, platinum-level business executives, flight crews, and tourists from emerging economies. You name the group; I’ve spent time with them in airports.
What I’ve found is that each passenger type has particular needs, some of which are intuitive, while others are less obvious. For example, we might think that older travelers prefer to minimize walking. Indeed, navigating an endless terminal pier can be a real pain (literally!) for someone with impaired mobility. But a lot of senior citizens I spoke to mentioned the desire to move around before a long flight—sitting still is tough on the joints. They enjoy strolling through the airport or finding a quiet place to stretch.
Cultural differences also account for unique practices and expectations. Many Chinese passengers travel with their tea and are frustrated when they can’t find any boiling water. Asian tourists assume that airports will offer small, packaged gifts—usually food—that they can purchase at the last minute for their friends and relatives. And travelers from a wide variety of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean are often greeted by very large welcoming parties who gather at the airport ahead of time.
Being aware of these different expectations is crucial for planning a friendly and efficient terminal. These insights are also an excellent way to identify new sources of revenue.
Travelers check in for flights at Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s Low-Cost Carrier Terminal.
H1: Revenue, now the ears perk up. What’s the value of serving the needs of this “invisible majority”?
Max: After my book came out, a lot of airport planners and consultants contacted me to exchange ideas. Often, they told me that they were aware of the need to design for a much wider flying public, but that it was hard to convince their clients—usually airport authorities, cities, and transport ministries.
A lot of that boils down to money. Airports and airlines derive most of their profits from frequent business travelers who go through fast-track security lines and head straight for the lounge. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) There isn’t much of a direct financial incentive to address the needs of other types of travelers. So they don’t.
But there are a few basic flaws with that argument. First off, airports have become one of the very few public spaces in the city where people from all walks of life converge. As such, I think that governments should provide airports with the resources that they need to serve a flying public that’s getting larger and more diverse every year. Moreover, smart cities recognize that airports are their calling card: it’s the very first and last impression that visitors have of your town, and also of your country. How visitors experience the airport has a significant impact on their overall impression of your country, and it’s an important factor in determining whether they want to come back. It’s crucial to ensure that those memorable first and last experiences are positive ones.
H1: So what you’re saying is that airports should target a wider range of travelers?
Max: I spend lots of time talking to frequent flyers. Once they clear security, most of them make a bee-line to the lounge because they know that everything there--food, drink, entertainment--will be free. They’re not spending money in the terminal. Meanwhile, plenty of people who don’t have lounge access would be more than happy to hand over some cash if it makes their airport experience a bit more pleasant. It’s that mass market of travelers that airports need to engage.
H1: What are some examples of cities served by multiple airports? What sorts of unique capacity challenges do they face?
Max: Many of the world’s largest cities have two or more major airports. Paris has four. L.A. has five. London has six. There are also some densely populated urban regions, such as Germany’s Ruhr and Japan’s Kansai, that are served by several airports. Transport planners call these multi-airport systems or multiple-airport regions (MARs).
There are conflicting views about whether it makes sense to concentrate a city’s air traffic at one hub or distribute it to airports located throughout the region. Single-hub advocates argue that it keeps costs down for airlines, increases the number of possible flight connections, and limits aviation’s adverse effects such as noise and air pollution to one location. Supporters of a multi-airport approach contend that it’s a more equitable way to distribute both the positive and negative effects of aerial connectivity throughout the city. It also allows each airport to focus on what it does best. In advanced MARs, airports concentrate on particular passenger types, such as people who are transferring between intercontinental flights, business travelers who value time more than money, and budget tourists who do the opposite. Elsewhere, individual airports serve specific parts of the city or focus on a particular airline alliance like OneWorld and SkyTeam.
Personally, I’m a fan of the multi-airport approach. The main argument against it is that it reduces the number of flight connections, which is a valid point. On the other hand, if it were easy to transfer between airports—say, via a dedicated high-speed ground connection—then that would no longer be an issue. We’re quite a way away from that, but I could see it happening in the next decade or two.
H1: Do you see a day when Hyperloop could connect airports with cities?
Max: For sure. Some European hubs are already connected to each other by high-speed train. For example, when you land at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, information screens display both connecting flights and connecting trains to Amsterdam and Brussels. The general rule of thumb is that high-speed rail becomes competitive with air travel for journeys of four hours or less. High-speed trains are also an excellent way to increase an airport’s catchment area. Take the example of Taipei’s Taoyuan International: since the government built a high-speed rail station near the airport, more than 90% of the island’s population can get to the airport in under an hour.
So there’s potential to integrate Hyperloop with airports. But I also see some barriers. Airports derive a lot of their income from airlines, and airlines see high-speed ground transport as competition. And in many countries, aviation authorities and transport ministries operate as separate fiefdoms, making it difficult to plan integrated air/rail facilities. So you’d need to create governance and profit-sharing incentives for a multi-modal approach to airport design.
H1: Do the airport and city need each other to thrive?
Max: Definitely. Successful airports coordinate their future expansion plans with the broader development goals of the city that they serve. In other words: airports and cities grow best when they grow together.
Cities around the world are building new urban districts around airports, either on the “land-side” of the airport itself or in surrounding communities just beyond the perimeter fence. A lot of these projects are based on an urban planning model called the aerotropolis. The aerotropolis’ basic argument goes something like this: in a globalizing economy, access to air travel is essential for doing business, so land around the airport should be a desirable place to build corporate headquarters, convention centers, and conference facilities. The airport area should also be attractive to logistics firms that handle time-sensitive products like food and flowers.
The concept was very compelling when it was introduced 30 years ago but, unfortunately, it turns out that it’s just not true. Most aerotropolis projects don’t deliver a return on investment. I’ve visited dozens of these failed projects all over the world.
H1: What is it about the aerotropolis ideas that is failing? Are there any success stories?
Max: There are a few examples where the aerotropolis model has been a huge success: places like Schiphol in the Netherlands or Las Colinas, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth airport. But these places do well because the airports that they’re attached to are in the middle of a dense metropolitan region. It’s been difficult to reproduce those conditions elsewhere. That’s because the aerotropolis model is based on a lot of wishful thinking rather than a solid business case. It prescribes what “should” be built around an airport, instead of engaging with the actual needs and demands that already exist.
Recently, I wrote an article called “What’s Wrong with the Aerotropolis Model?” Within days, hundreds of planners, developers, and airport directors got in touch with me to share the many challenges that they encountered at aerotropolis projects. Drawing on these experts’ feedback, I decided to develop an “airport urbanism” approach to planning around the airport.
Whereas the aerotropolis starts with a predetermined set of building types like office parks and logistics hubs, airport urbanism starts with people. And whereas the aerotropolis takes a one-size-fits-all development approach, airport urbanism emphasizes each airport’s unique user profile to generate site-specific development strategies that focus on the needs and desires of passengers, airport employees, and nearby residents. Strengthening the relationship between these actors is a powerful tool for increasing non-aeronautical revenue, improving the passenger experience, and growing the local economy.
H1: That’s an interesting concept. How can you apply it to a particular airport?
Max: Working together with airports, developers, and urban planners, I conduct studies and workshops where we use a three-step research method. First, we identify pre-existing assets “on the ground” such as industries, attractions, and skills that would be valuable for future development projects. Then we ask the people who use the airport on a regular basis—passengers, residents, employees—what they need to figure out how airport-area developments can satisfy those needs. What kinds of services and amenities are currently missing in the airport area, and how could the urban districts be built around the airport address those unmet demands? Finally, we connect these local factors to broader technical, spatial, and demographic changes that are taking place in the aviation industry and at airports around the world. This last piece enables an airport to see how it fits into a larger global picture. This approach produces a site-specific development plan that celebrates each airport’s unique user profile.
One city that I worked in had an amazing music scene. A lot of people flew there to attend concerts and festivals, and some of the towns right next to the airport were home to internationally recognized musicians. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of venues that could host large crowds. So, we proposed to build a concert hall at the airport: and it turns out that airports are a perfect location for doing that. Concerts create a lot of noise—which isn’t a problem at the airport. And operating a big event space requires know-how regarding security screening and crowd management—skills that airport staff already have.
H1: What are other challenges on the horizon for airports?
Max: A big one is parking. Right now, airports derive about a quarter of their total operating revenue from parking fees. But the advent of ride-hailing apps—Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing—poses a big challenge to that model, as fewer and fewer people self-park at the airport. So airports need to start thinking about how to compensate for that drop in income. In the next 5-10 years, that will involve expanding the range of non-aviation services and redeveloping existing parking facilities to accommodate other purposes.
H1: What’s your favorite airport?
Max: I live in Hong Kong, and I’m partial to its airport. It offers a high level of service to passengers, regardless of whether you’re flying first class to New York or on a budget flight to inland China.
Hong Kong’s airport also has excellent ground transport connections. There’s a dedicated high-speed train to the city center and a network of airport buses and ferries. That’s a big plus for someone like me, who flies every other week. I live 20 miles from the airport, and I can leave my apartment an hour before boarding and not have to worry about missing my flight. That’s pretty darn incredible.