An airport functions as a national frontier… in the middle of a country.1 

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Tags: boundaries, security,
directionality, social contract


Design Decisions

International airports function in a similar way to physical boundaries between nations.  They are “border zones to the vertical vectors of mobility that cross national and state boundaries… regulating the movement of people that enter and leave” [2]. These boundaries can take many forms, as expressed in the following excerpt from Victor Márquez’s book Landside/Airside: Why Airports Are the Way They Are:

“Landside-airside boundaries are socio-technical objects that are often materialized physically as a line or a fence, or as an artifact such as a net, chain, or queue divider; they sometimes appear as a wall, as signage, or as a glass panel. They also shape as scanners, or ID documents, or metal detectors.

These boundaries may also take non-material shapes such as routines, procedures, jurisdictional limits, the containment or “segregation” of passengers, or control demarcations of higher entities such as agencies, customs, or an assortment of police divisions.

Boundaries may even be embodied in the psychological emotions such as the public perception of fear, scrutiny, or the invasion of privacy. But they are all socio-technical objects that have as their ultimate purpose the enforcement of the separation of entities, mainly between the realm of aircraft and the realm of persons” [3].

Effects on Passengers

In the context of airports, borders are designed specifically to construct and channel the passenger experience. Most airports carefully direct passengers through a fixed, linear sequence of spaces from their arrival at the airport until they reach their departure gate.  “Thus, passengers follow the usual procedures of checking-in, going through security control, waiting in departure lounge, going to gate, waiting in gate, boarding plane. Between these processing sites, corridors and walls are constructed to limit possibilities” [2]. Once passengers pass security and immigration, they enter the state of liminality, being legally outside the country while still physically in the airport. 

Various strategies have been deployed to control the physical manifestations of borders at the airport. Borders have the capacity to be at once strongly defined, but also mutable and ephemeral. One of the most common features identified in the literature are moveable partition systems, allowing for the creation and definition of spaces to serve specific needs. For example, a recently completed expansion of Ottawa Airport includes a system of partitions that facilitate adjustment of the number of domestic and international gates simply by moving the separation of the two types of traffic [4].

  1. Pascoe, David. Airspaces. Reaktion, 2001.
  2. Adey, Peter. “Secured and Sorted Mobilities: Examples from the Airport.” Surveillance & Society, vol. 1, no. 4, 2003. 
  3. Márquez, Victor. Landside/Airside: Why Airports Are the Way They Are. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
  4. Shuchi, Sarah, et al. “Flexible Airport Terminal Design: Towards a Framework.” Proceedings of the IIE Asian Conference, 2012, pp. 348–56.