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“A body [is] held between the nether space of depart and arrive, a time which exists as countdown: nine hours, five minutes until arrival, eight hours, twenty-five minutes until arrival.”1 

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Tags: experience, directionality,
psychology, waiting time


“A body [is] held between the nether space of depart and arrive, a time which exists as countdown: nine hours, five minutes until arrival, eight hours, twenty-five minutes until arrival” [1].

In comparison to other modes of transportation, commercial air travel subjects passengers to a unique mode of bodily and mental disorientation. While this disorientation includes a spatial component (in the sense that passengers physically inhabit the liminal spaces of the terminal and aircraft), certain temporal elements may more strongly influence passenger perception. Time is measured differently during air travel. It is often a subjective, event-based metric, expressed as a T-minus countdown to an upcoming milestone, rather than an objective reference to the time of day in a specific place. Dodge and Kitchin [2] further argued that air travel, combined with modern communication technologies, transforms existing space-time relations. In this unique configuration, time and space become fluid, creating simultaneous presence and timelessness.

While the general aesthetic of airport terminals and aircraft “works to inculcate a sense of smoothness and transparency in movement” this aesthetic is often in contrast to the series of queues and extended periods of waiting experienced by passengers as they move through the terminal [3]. In air terminals, anxiety associated with the feeling of running out of time is a crucial variable that determines the degree of passenger engagement in the terminal. This time-based urgency exists alongside extended periods of waiting, queueing and boredom. In flight, the lack of a proprioceptive awareness of physical distance traveled means that “...spatial distance [is] temporalized. In concrete terms, for the jet traveler, the spatial relationship between New York and Los Angeles is not 4500 km but a safety announcement, two movies, snack service and a promotional travelogue” [4].

From the perspective of the passenger, optimum timing of events makes for a lower stress, smoother travel experience. Etymologically, travel is linked to “travail”, meaning a painful or laborious effort [5]. The philosopher Bruno Latour writes about the relationship between transformation and transport, proposing that the passenger experience of travel depends on the quantity and amplitude of interventions by others. He writes, “[t]he speed of the [airplane] and the uneventful trip of the passenger are entirely dependent on the complete obedience of the places that are traversed and also, of course, on the smooth functioning of the [airline’s] organization, running, as the saying goes, like clockwork” [6]. The focus of the airline industry is to minimize the disruption of such unplanned events, - missed flights, weather delays, extra security screenings - reframing the journey over vast distances as a smooth, easy passage.

Golden Hour

Passengers are likely to feel anxious  in an airport for several reasons, such as time pressure, security checks, the often long distances between passport control and the gates, and the generally non-familiar environment, which can be very disorienting. This travel related anxiety has been shown to increase constantly from the time they leave home until they pass through security. Once through security, stress decreases to near-baseline levels until the boarding process [29]. This intermediate phase of travel - where passengers are held in a confined area, but with relatively low levels of stress represents the time when they are most likely to participate in impulse purchasing opportunities - due to its common duration of roughly 60 minutes this period of time is referred to as the “golden hour” in airport retail circles [20].

Airports have sought to capitalize on the golden hour as much as possible, as the revenue generated during this timeframe represents a significant percentage of global airport revenue. In fiscal year 2017, non-aeronautical revenue accounted for 39.9% of global airport revenue, with retail concessions specifically accounting for 30.2% of total airport revenue [30]. In some cases non-aviation revenues account for over half of total airport revenues [15]. In fact, passenger retail revenue is essential to the financial stability of airports. In 2017 the total cost per passenger for airports was $13.69, while the aeronautical revenue generated per passenger was only $9.95.

Figure 1. Passenger’s travel related anxiety
through time. Highlighted region represents the time when they are most likely to participate in impulse buying2.


Design Decisions

Passengers must satisfy a series of legal and regulatory requirements at the airport before they are allowed to board an aircraft. These activities, collectively referred to as processing activities, include checking in, filling out any required departure paperwork, and negotiating security and customs checkpoints. Though processing activities are an essential part of air travel, research shows that passengers are only engaged in them during a small portion of their time at the airport. One study found that the average passenger spends only 4% of her time in the airport actively participating in processing activities, while time spent waiting to be processed accounts for another 25% [9]. Others have drawn similar conclusions, such as a recent study by the Queensland University of Technology that reports passengers spend on average just one-third of their overall airport dwell time undertaking or waiting to complete processing activities [10].

The majority of passenger time at the airport is thus devoted to other, non-essential activity. This class of activity is commonly referred to as discretionary, and includes eating, shopping, sitting, etc. [11]. Other studies have characterized this class of activities as “enforced leisure” time [7].

“It was appropriate, perhaps, and not paradoxical, that terror should also sharply promote its most obvious opposite. Boredom” [8].

The duration of passenger dwell time at the airport can also be influenced by factors outside of the terminal building, such as reducing variability of travel times to the airport terminal. Odoni and de Neufville cite an example of a departing traveler who incorporates a 30 minute cushion in her travel plans to accommodate for any delays in travel to the terminal. “She pays a penalty of 30 minutes on the average, as a ‘hedge’ against the variability of ground access time. This same penalty is also paid by the airport in having to accommodate an additional 30 ‘person-minutes’. Her airport dwell time-and the ’loading’ she imposes on the terminal's facilities, mostly in the form of additional Passenger terminal design ‘slack’ time-could be reduced, up to a point, in direct proportion to any reductions in the standard deviation of ground access time” [7].

Effects on Passengers

A passengers experience of the airport is significantly influenced by the amenities provided and general physical characteristics of areas designed for discretionary activities. Well-considered amenities can reduce perceived waiting time for passengers and result in an overall positive view of “enforced leisure” [12]. A taxonomy of discretionary activities developed recently by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology divided this diverse mix of activities into several categories - preparatory, consumptive, social, entertainment, passive, queuing, and moving [12]. The study noted that most existing research has focused on passenger experience during processing and consumptive activities, though evidence suggests that improvements in other types of discretionary activity (such as preparatory activities, during which passengers are preparing to partake in an upcoming processing activity) can have a significant improvement on passenger perception of processing activities.

“Travellers are forcibly waiting. In particular, travelers in transit between two stages of a journey may be waiting between one and three hours, or even longer, and are looking for something to do to fill their time. They are experiencing enforced leisure in an environment in which they may have little to do” 7.

What if?

The airport could suggest the optimal time to engage in each processing activity? Recent work by Rossi, et al. developed an experimental model to make activity suggestions to airport passengers in order to reduce the amount of time that a given passenger spends in processing/queuing activities, thus increasing the amount of time they have available to participate in discretionary activities such as shopping or eating - simultaneously increasing passenger satisfaction and airport revenue [13]. The simulation relied on historical mobile phone trace data to predict passenger behavior.

Dwell Time

Design Decisions

Dwell time refers to the total amount of time that a passenger spends in the airport prior to boarding her flight. For a variety of reasons, particularly the increased security following the 9/11 attacks, there has been a significant increase in average passenger dwell time[15]. Today passengers arrive very early for their flights. As recently as the late 1990’s, average passenger dwell time was about 50 minutes [16]. More recent figures report the average dwell time as substantially higher. A recent report on passenger behavior in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport reported an average dwell time of 146 minutes per passenger - an increase of nearly 200% [17].

Even before the 9/11 attacks, airports ‘“tended to encourage longer dwell times through the provision of extensive shopping areas, restaurants, etc. within airport terminals. This has been particularly true of international terminals, where many Airport Authorities have reaped rich financial rewards from such ancillary facilities located in duty-free areas” [18]. This trend has been amplified by the increasing importance of non-aeronautical revenue in the profitability of airports. Now, instead of experiencing waiting as wasted time, passengers are encouraged to engage in shopping, dining, and other forms of retail spending. Within the near-constant motion of air travel, dwell time is a brief period of immobility which airport stakeholders consider an ideal time to entice passengers to engage in commercial activity [19]. 

Beyond its economic implications, the metric of dwell time is used for the planning and sizing of airport facilities. Dwell time is “central to determining the number of simultaneous occupants. For instance, if the flow of passengers through a lobby is relatively uniform over time at a rate of 900 per hour, and if dwell time is 20 minutes or 1/3 of an hour, then the number of people in the lobby at any time is 900 x 1/3 = 300. Thus, space needs to be provided for 300 people, not 900” [18]. Additionally, “[s]horter dwell times are, in fact, the principal reason why the part of airport terminals allocated to arriving passengers requires considerably less space than that for departing passengers” [18]. While increased dwell time has positive implications for revenue generation, it requires an equivalent shift in scale of terminal architecture along with an increase in operating costs [18].

Effects on Passengers

Dwell time can be controlled and manipulated in a variety of ways. Design elements such as information screens and comfortable seating can slow down passenger flow and increase dwell time in specific areas, while limiting information about gate assignments can ‘force’ passengers to congregate in central, retail-heavy areas of a terminal [20]. In many cases, simple amenities such as seating with cup holders or electrical charging capability can influence a passengers desire to remain in a certain space [21].

Within the near-constant motion of air travel, dwell time is a brief period of immobility which airport stakeholders consider an ideal time to entice passengers to engage in commercial activity19.

This relationship between time sensitivity and degree of passenger engagement has been used to create passenger profiles, such as “airport enthusiast” (engaged and non-time sensitive), “time filler” (non-engaged and non-time sensitive), “efficiency lover” (non-engaged and time sensitive), and “efficient enthusiast” (engaged and time sensitive) for purposes of researching passenger experience [22]. Insights from such studies can inform and optimize the allocation of space for future airport terminal planning and design.

The length of passenger dwell time in departure lounges has economic implications as well. Studies have found that the amount of passenger dwell time strongly correlated with their likelihood of purchasing goods as well as the total amount of expenditure [23, 24]. One analysis of travelers in Spain’s Asturias Airport found that “The purpose of the trip influences expenditure in the commercial area with vacationers spending more than business travellers. A clear relationship also exists between consumption in the commercial area of the airport and the length of stay prior to boarding. The level of consumption, however, is independent of the waiting time. If the boarding time is less than 45 min, business travellers tend to consume more than do vacation travellers” [24].

What if?

Around the end of the last century, airports were often criticized as sterile, placeless, utilitarian spaces - the quintessential “non-place” [25]. Recent designs have sought to reconceive the airport as a destination in its own right, a place to enjoy spending time (and by extension, money) [26]. In 2017, Pittsburgh International Airport became the first domestic airport to open to non-travelers [27]. This TSA-controlled policy has since expanded to other airports, including Tampa, Seattle-Tacoma, Detroit, New Orleans [28].
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