Slowly, airports reconfigure for 21st century security

Allison Arieff explains why today's airports are so incompatible with the latest security measures, and points to San Francisco as leading the way into the future. But is it really a solution?

Here's a sobering thought: nearly all the airports in the United States were designed and built before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- an era when passengers were asked to arrive just 30 minutes before their scheduled departure time.

In fact, only three terminals -- the JetBlue Terminal at New York's JFK International Airport, the North Terminal at Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport and another in Indianapolis -- have been built since the attacks, which set in motion a series of security measures that have effectively doubled the amount of time a passenger spends in the airport before departure.

(Just two design firms, Gensler Architects and HOK, respectively, were responsible for those new terminals.)

I learned all this reading Allison Arieff's latest Opinionator piece in the New York Times, which uses San Francisco International Airport's new "T2" international terminal as the basis to ask, simply: can airports be fun (again)?

The problem, Arieff writes, is that the airline industry has changed without its terminals changing with it. (A classic infrastructure problem, I should add.)

As previously mentioned, post-9/11 security measures have added to the amount of time you spend in an airport. The withdrawal of food service on most domestic flights means you have to spend even more time in the airport -- this time, just to eat.

Arieff quotes Gensler aviation practice leader Bill Hooper:

The things that travelers need in terminals today just weren’t considerations when most terminals were originally designed, so the needs just aren’t being met.

In her piece, Arieff outlines all the things that makes San Francisco's new terminal worthwhile: LEED Gold certification, "hydration stations" (which sound suspiciously like "water fountains"), lots of natural -- not fluorescent -- light, and locally-minded vendors, rather than the umpteenth Cinnabon or Sbarro.

Not to mention a layout that accommodates for the airline industry's latest requirements, such as a "recomposure zone," that oh-so-necessary spot after security where you can, well, recompose yourself.

All of these things are wonderful, but reading this made me wonder: sure, we can design a better (read: more appropriate) airport terminal. But the problem was never poor design -- it was rapidly-changing priorities, too fast for a typical infrastructure refresh cycle.

So I ask: can we design a more flexible airport?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com