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We regret to inform you that good airport design has been delayed

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Escalators to nowhere, garish retail and poor signage: how airport architecture makes travel painful

The millions returning home after their holidays abroad will have experienced the best and worst of architecture on their travels, not least at the airport.

Despite being the most modern of building types their failures suggest that, far from learning from the past, airport owners and their no doubt frustrated designers end up repeating all the mistakes one associates with other building types. I have several pet hates at airports and survive the generally ghastly experience of getting on a plane by ticking off just how many of them occur in one place at one time.

The biggest nuisance is the constant changes of level experienced at all but a handful of airports. The brilliance of the Foster design at Stansted, where the section works beautifully and is about as simple as it gets, does not appear to have been repeated. Dubai airport is a good example of this up-and-down syndrome, where no sooner have you ascended by escalator then you are going down again. Why? The Gulf is not exactly topographically challenging, and you begin to wonder whether the whole experience has been designed to give locals an idea of what Switzerland is like, hence the icy air-conditioning.

But at least the doors and entrances are clearly marked and the routes simple. By contrast, Gatwick is a nightmare of inadequate signage, minuscule door openings between garish retail fascias, and routes to gates that are a disgrace. Of course, they always tell you improvements are on the way, but those improvements are generally little more than the provision of even more shopping and massively overpriced cafes and restaurants, assured of captive audiences encouraged to arrive earlier and earlier.

BAA has been cashing in on the fact that the only place in Britain where you can build a serious out-of-town shopping centre is at an airport for years. Do you think they would have built Terminal 5 if the planning inspector had said yes to the terminal, but no to the shopping?

So the general attitude towards passengers (sorry, customers) is to treat them royally when they are potential retail purchasers, and treat them like flotsam and jetsam when they are actually undertaking the business of travel itself. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along jobsworths who operate the security systems are a case in point, with their peremptory instructions and madcap stop-and-search regimes, which appear to be designed primarily to keep them in employment. One day they want belts, the next not. Another, it is shoes and watches.

I wonder if BAA and other airport operators are aware of the concept of full service design, which looks at the entire range of the customers’ experience during their time at the airport. Admittedly there are split responsibilities with the airlines themselves, but the answer appears to be a resounding ‘no’. Whether it is giving WH Smith a monopoly of book sales, or ensuring that is impossible to get a simple British breakfast item.

And it is all so wildly expensive. Even in the gruesome British boozers given third-rate design treatments where each element, from flooring to furniture to lighting, makes everything just that little bit worse. The alternative, say Gordon Ramsay’s immaculate operation at Terminal 5, is fabulous, but has prices reminding you that quite soon you will be experiencing a real stratosphere.

So my tip for peaceful travel is to make your own sandwiches in advance, take a bottle of water with you, find as peaceful a seat as you can manage, and occupy yourself with Sudoku until your flight is called. If we all did that then Heathrow would go bust. But then perhaps we could build a proper airport in the Thames Estuary… with retail put in its proper place, and the passengers put first.

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