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Expert Insight

Airport design and commercial success: Simon Scott, Leslie Jones

The International Air Transport Association recently reported that global air passenger traffic grew by 6.5% in 2015 – the fastest rate of growth since 2010. While this is cause for celebration within the aviation industry, air passengers also now have a greater choice than ever before when choosing which airports to fly from, fly to and use for transit. Drawing from my experience with working with Dubai Airports, after Leslie Jones Architecture was commissioned to support the commercial design strategy for the future Al Maktoum International Airport, I think the commercial design needs to prioritise passenger experience more than anything else.

Simon Scott talks about airport designThe UAE is already home to some major global, market-leading aviation hubs and this number is set to grow as the region capitalises on its location between continents. Dubai International, in particular, has achieved phenomenal success and overtook London Heathrow in 2014 as the world’s busiest airport.

The region benefits from a strategic position where West meets East, making it a practical connection point for long-haul flight transfers. It is, however, coming up against increasing competition as countries across Asia are now investing in the infrastructure that will allow them to compete for significant market share. In January 2016, China was making headlines as it announced an investment value of around $12bn in civil aviation infrastructure to spend during this year alone.

Safeguarding potential

Despite increasing competition, the scale of aviation infrastructure development in the Middle East and its scope for further commercial success remains huge. To safeguard the region’s market position, and ensure it stands out against its competitors, commercial spaces in airports need to be expertly designed and executed to enhance retailer-consumer engagement, encourage dwell time and increase passenger spend in a terminals’ stores.

This is more challenging in an airport environment compared to, for example, a shopping centre, given that the nature of airports means people are restricted by the amount of time they can spend in a particular area. The team at Leslie Jones applies its knowledge of consumer and retailer needs alongside the unique requirements of transport hubs to produce successful commercial strategies within these unique environments. Airports such as Dubai are able to boast a higher volume of air passengers going through transit for longer periods of time and this drives a need for us to create more innovative design solutions that will capture the audience’s imagination, while supporting the occupier requirements.

Typically for Dubai, only around 30% of passengers flying to the airport have Dubai as their destination. Passengers often tend to spend a few hours at the airport waiting for their connecting flight. It means Dubai’s existing and new airports can capitalise on increased consumer free time. To do this, an airport needs to meet sophisticated consumer requirements and provide a passenger experience where shopping and leisure are truly integrated.

Airport experience as virtual reality

The concept of retail and leisure as one experience is not alien to Dubai. In fact, the city is a very typical example of where the two are expertly combined to reflect the climate and consumer lifestyle.

People in Dubai go to a shopping centre for a leisure experience and social interaction as much as the shopping trip. The two are equal motivations and so shopping centres in the emirate cater for both, which in turn provides tenants with a longer customer dwell time in the vicinity.

For an airport commercial design solution, it is about capturing what Dubai has already achieved and adapting it for the airport environment. As a result we combine local customs, worldwide trends, and the internal commercial space in the airport. Thus, the design approach for airports reflects what is happening in the surrounding city combined with best practice across the globe.

Design for lifestyle and demographic

A higher quality of integrated retail and leisure is witnessed across the UAE, yet it remains an emerging concept in countries like the UK where shopping centres are reserved for those who mainly come to shop but socialise elsewhere.

Leslie Jones is working with landlords and developers to shift this perception by extending leisure use across the country’s shopping centres and high streets to combat the rise of e-commerce. This provides us with the experience to deliver aspirational, integrated designs internationally, while remaining sensitive to a project’s unique environment and local context. The range of activities you can do outside in the open air is limited in the UAE, mostly owing to its hot climate, and this results in a higher expectation from consumers looking for a more diverse range of options from commercial spaces.

Airports in the UAE are also host to a much wider demographic of passengers, given its aforementioned geographical location between continents. This means the design solution for the terminals must meet the requirements of a more diverse range of people. From people flying with low cost airlines to the most luxurious carriers the world has seen, the commercial development we put in place must work harder to reflect this diversity. Our approach includes creating a range of store sizes and designs to provide the right tenant mix. From high end to high street, the two must come together alongside the right balance of food and beverage.

The flow of people is also unique in an aviation context, where everyone enters the main terminal commercial space from the same points through security, and so our designs must allow passengers to easily navigate the range of different retail and leisure on offer.

Gates to the countries

Airports are gates to our countries and an airport’s ability to represent its home nation is extremely important. The UAE continues to grow and plan for the future and has become a considerably more open market for air passengers over the past decade. As the region becomes more popular as both a tourist destination and quick stopover location on long-haul flights, developers need to capitalise on airports’ potential to represent the region’s prosperity and identity. Consequently, they are geared to invest in ensuring airports are indeed host to the latest innovation in airport design to ensure passengers leave these airports truly impressed.

A huge amount of potential in the UAE’s aviation sector is undoubtedly ready to be exploited, yet the ability to ensure the design is delivered as strategically as possible should not be overlooked. Making design solutions stack against potential revenue growth, and simultaneously having the confidence to substantially invest now for the longer term, will be key for future airports in the region looking to succeed in achieving world-class status.


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