“The airport departure lounge experience would appear to be the ultimate postmodern experience in which all sense of time and place is suspended.”1

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Tags: airport design, waiting time, 
spatial configuration, consumption,


Design Decisions

Airport terminals are designed to guide passengers through a linear sequence of processing activities on their journey from the airport entrance to the departure gate [2]. Many of these spaces are designed to encourage a particular affective response, particularly the departure lounge.  Departure hall are designed to induce relaxation, and by extension encourage spending in commercial areas [3]. After passing through the compact, low-ceilinged corridors of security and immigration, the open space and high ceilings of a departure lounge indicate to passengers that their air terminal journey is nearly complete. 

The dimensional parameters of departure lounges are defined by the number of passengers anticipated to travel through the terminal.  Detailed rule of thumb standards have been published about their formal parameters [4]. For instance:

“It is recommended that, for each terminal departures lounge, the optimised/maximum dimensions, subject to busy hour rate demand are A = 200 m maximum by B = 150 m maximum. A common mistake made at many older airports is that the departures lounge is too narrow and as a result the retail space is long and narrow with insufficient retail shops to meet passengers' shopping requirements [5]”.

The lounge should provide seating for 70% of passengers, including seating at nearby concession areas, and a view of the airplane [6].  Rowley and Slack’s study of airport departure lounges found a high degree of homogeneity across different airports, such as low-load environments, a consistent diversity of retail outlets, and internationally recognized brands [1].  This homogeneity can contribute to a sense of “placelessness” in the lounge environment [7]. 

Historically, the primary retailers present in the airport departure lounge were those who could offer goods exempt from taxes and duties. However, the past quarter century has seen the rapid proliferation of available goods and services. Retailers have found in waiting air travel passengers a captive, bored and affluent source of revenue [1].  In recent years, the increased importance of commercial revenue for the profitability of airports has expanded the footprint of the departure lounge, and increased the amount of time that passengers are encouraged to linger there.  In some large airports, the retail areas of the departure lounge can account for up to 20% of the total terminal area, though 8-12% is more common [6].  Regarding the design of retail space in departure lounges, Bradley states:

“The departures lounge retail space should ideally be on one level. If the departure lounge is split on multiple levels then there should be no more than two levels and it will be important to use the primary retail space effectively on the main level. Secondary retail space, including food and beverage and toilet facilities, should be located on the upper or mezzanine level within the departures lounge [5].

Some recent designs of retail spaces in the departure lounge reflect the distinctiveness of a particular location, such as recent improvements to Schiphol Lounge 3 by the design firm Studio Tjep [8]. The design has reportedly doubled  passenger spending in Lounge 3.

Effects on Passengers

The departure lounge can also be seen as an area for spectatorship: An abundance of  ‘dwell time’ can lead one to take an increased interest in “walkers and of the dramas occuring nearby” [9].  Passengers will often locate their gate and then return to the departure lounge once they have a clear understanding of the time they have available [6]. 
  1. Rowley, Jennifer, and Frances Slack. 1999. “The Retail Experience in Airport Departure Lounges: Reaching for Timelessness and Placelessness.” International Marketing Review 16 (4/5): 363–376.
  2. Adey, Peter. “Airports, Mobility and the Calculative Architecture of Affective Control.” Geoforum, vol. 39, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 438–51.  
  3. Fewings, Rodney. “Wayfinding and Airport Terminal Design.” The Journal of Navigation, vol. 54, no. 2, May 2001, pp. 177–84. 
  4. Horonjeff, R., F.X. McKelvey, W.J. Sproule and S.B. Young. 2010. Planning and Design of Airports, 5th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Bradley, A. L. W. 22. The Independent Airport Planning Manual. Elsevier Science.
  6. International Air Transport Association, editor. Airport Development Reference Manual. 9. ed., effective Jan. 2004, 2004.
  7. Huang, Wei-Jue, et al. “Airports as Liminal Space.” Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 70, May 2018, pp. 1–13.  
  8. Schiphol Lounge 3 – Studio Tjep”., Accessed 9 June 2020.
  9. Adey, Peter. “‘May I Have Your Attention’: Airport Geographies of Spectatorship, Position, and (Im)Mobility.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 25, no. 3, June 2007, pp. 515–36.