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Airport terminals through the ages


Airport terminals play an important role in air travel as the connection between the ground and the sky. Over the years, these facilities have evolved to accommodate an ever-growing industry and while some have retained their original façade, inside there’s been a transformation.

The early years: pre-terminal airports

Empty airport terminal lounge with an airplane taking off in the background.
Empty airport terminal lounge with an airplane taking off in the background.

The airfields of early aviation were mostly situated on farms or open fields, where there was enough space and flat ground to land a plane and the property owner could provide pilots with reliable weather information. Some had a small reception for passengers, but usually they offered little more than a place to land and take off.

The very early years of passenger flight were as much about necessity as the desire to innovate. Many European roads and railways were destroyed during World War II, which made post-war international travel easiest by air. European governments began subsidizing airports in Paris, London and Berlin, where large facilities were modeled on grand 19th-century train stations. These early terminals were often single buildings where passengers would walk straight out and onto the airstrip, but over time more complex facilities were needed as the industry grew.

The Jet Age: a new era for airport terminals and airport design

The advent of the Jet Age and other advances in aviation technology saw a dramatic increase in airport traffic. This boom in passenger flight was was largely down to jets making frequent flying more affordable. With airports now filling up with passengers waiting for flights or connections, large terminals were transformed into lifestyle complexes with restaurants and shops to keep customers occupied between flights. Some airports went further, installing indoor gardens, casinos and even golf courses.

Airport terminal designs

Interior view of the Shanghai Pudong airport, with passengers walking during the day.
Interior view of the Shanghai Pudong airport, with passengers walking during the day.

Due to the rise in popularity of passenger flights during the 1930s and ’40s, many airport terminals were built in the popular art-deco style of the time – surviving examples include the 1940-built Houston Municipal Airport. Later terminals built in the 1960s and ’70s are described as having more of a ‘concrete box’ style, which gave way to ‘glass boxes’ designed with the concepts of ‘air’ and ‘light’ in mind during the 1990s and 2000s.

Despite largely differing styles through the ages of airport terminal design, a few layouts have turned out to be enduringly popular:

  • A pier layout features a single, narrow building with ticketing and boarding at one end and aircraft parked on both sides along the terminal. This design allows the airport to hold a large number of aircraft, but can result in lengthy walks from check-in to the boarding gate. Most large international airports feature a pier design and the long distances have been overcome via motorised walkways and other internal transport solutions.
  • The satellite design involves a detached, circular terminal with space for aircraft to park around the entire circumference of the building. A pedestrian tunnel or shuttle connects the main terminal to the satellite terminal. The first airport to use this design was London’s Gatwick Airport in 1935, with the building named ‘The Beehive’ on account of its circular shape.
  • Semicircular terminal layouts are less common than pier or satellite designs. They typically feature a semicircular pier-style terminal building with planes parked on the outer side and cars on the other. This option typically means long walks between connecting flights, but can significantly reduce travel times from check-in to the aircraft.

The future of airport terminal design

Whatever their shape, a technological revolution is gathering speed inside terminals as the race to make airports more efficient gathers pace. Innovations being developed or implemented include the biometric-enabled processing of passengers (where your face essentially becomes your passport); blockchain technology to keep track of everything from luggage to air miles; and artificial intelligence in the form of chatbots and real-time predictive pricing.

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