The Airport Of The Future Is A Self-Contained City. You Might Even Get Married There

Get off a red-eye, pick up your groceries.

At LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, architect Curt Fentress designed a massive digital art installation in front of the gates. The installation, which has 12,000 feet of LED tiles that display swirling graphics, contributed to 33% more retail spending in the surrounding area than was originally projected. The suggestion? Imbuing airports with the sort of vibrant amenities that make cities feel like cities could be good for the bottom lines.


As the number of people flying is projected to reach 7.3 billion by 2034, airports and airlines will need to find ways to expand while competing globally. According to the designers we spoke with, one of the best ways to do that is to turn airports into self-contained cities, complete with the conveniences and cultural offerings you’d expect in a traditional metropolis. You might even spot a wedding chapel or two. With little space for amenities in the sky (unless you’re super-rich) and revenues from parking and baggage fees likely to drop, airlines will need new sources of revenue to fuel growth.

Inside The New Airport

MSP Airport [Photo: courtesy Icrave]
New technology like automation and facial recognition are drastically changing the setup of the airport. For instance, in the future, we may no longer travel with our bags. According to Lionel Ohayon, the CEO and founder of the New York-based design studio Icrave, which has worked on airports in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Austin, your bags may be picked up and travel separately from you to your destination. ID tags tied to your smartphone would ensure that your bags never get lost. With bags out of the way, travelers’ hands would be freed up to use their time at the airport more actively.

Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX [Photo: © Lawrence Anderson]
Ohayon also believes that while security is currently the biggest pain point at the airport, it’ll become more seamless (mostly due to the rise of biometrics and facial recognition tracking). This will have a fundamental impact on what an airport can offer. Without the stress of getting through the security line, security could be shifted further toward the gate, freeing up more space and time for amenities before the travelers-only zone. “What if an airport is actually a place you want to be?” he says. “You have my attention for one to two hours–what do you want to do with that?”


What To Do At The Airport Of The Future

Incheon International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex [Photo: © Fentress Architects]
That would mean that people would pass the time waiting for their flight in a fundamentally different way. That’s already happening, according to Fentress. His firm has been building airport terminals for decades and built the terminal at Incheon, near Seoul, which has become renowned for its wedding chapel, skating rink, and movie theater.

Other airports could follow suit. Imagine visiting a VR arcade before getting on your flight. Or attending a concert or a conference. Or going to an Equinox or a coworking space like WeWork (current options are often near but not inside the airport).

And then there’s the shopping. “Just imagine if an airport were CES all the time,” Ohayon says, referring to the annual Consumer Electronics Show that has a reputation for its outlandish products that offer a glimpse of the future.


That might sound like a nightmare or a dream come true depending on whom you ask. But the larger takeaway is that airports would do a better job capitalizing on the experience of shopping. At a time when everyone shops online, we rarely have the opportunity to experience products in person. And at airports, companies have a captive audience (literally).

So airports could potentially become shopping destinations for robust purchases, like large appliances–think refrigerators or washing machines–cars, or even a home. Ohayon thinks people might actually go out of their way to get to the airport earlier, if they know they can use that time to check off things on their to-do list. That in turn would open up more possibilities for brands to make money.

Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX [Photo: Nick Merrick/© Hedrich Blessing]
With faster, more seamless security and lines moving closer to gates, even people who aren’t traveling themselves would have access to airport amenities–and to travelers as they deplane. “The most obvious thing that’s going to happen is how are we going to create value for people getting off a plane to use this place,” Ohayon says. If your bags are delivered right to your home, then the airport might be the ideal place to pick up groceries before hopping in your self-driving car. “If it’s not a secure zone, just a great venue, the world’s wide open.”


Ultimately, both Fentress and Ohayon envision airports becoming legitimately useful. Ohayon believes that the airports of the future will have dog kennels, so you can just bring your pooch with you on your way to the airport, drop him off, and pick him up on your way home. By offering the same amenities as a city–from movie theaters to grocery stores to gyms to coworking spaces–the airport isn’t just an airport. It’s a social hub.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable