The Aerotropolis: Imagining Sky Cities of the Future

After the golden age of airplanes in the 1950s, are we entering the golden age of airports?

The airport is a mandatory part of the travel journey, which we rush through as fast as possible. What if it became a destination of its own? The concept isn’t new or fictional. Major airports around the world have adopted development plans to boost their offering, from entertainment and business services within their premises to ambitious projects in surrounding areas. The end result? The Aerotropolis.

The Taoyuan Aerotropolis Plan

A sky-savvy equivalent of the metropolis, the aerotropolis is a metropolitan sub region where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered around an airport. In short, an “airport city” or “sky city”. Airports are to the 21st century what highways were in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th century, and ports in the 18th century. “City activities gravitate around the airport, people live within the aerotropolis and economy grows with the airport. With the airport being at the center, its own development and success is paramount”, explains Frank Lin, General Manager at WSP in Taiwan. “The Taiwan government has initiated the Taoyuan Aerotropolis plan, in which our work on Terminal 3 is embedded. It will probably take a decade to achieve the vision.” Once completed, the project will cover 68 km2 and is expected to create 300,000 jobs and increase GDP by 10%.

As we travel by air more and more, the surrounding infrastructure must be able to accommodate that growth. Successful examples of aerotropolises include Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Heathrow in London, UK and Changi in Singapore. Beyond a superior airport experience, these destinations have been carefully thought out and planned to offer efficient transit options and everything that locals and visitors would need within a small perimeter.  

The Jewel at Changi Airport brings the outdoors indoors, featuring Singapore’s largest indoor garden, topped by a light and sound show and a towering rain vortex. Combining international flagship stores and local labels, the shopping experience also focuses on multi-dimensional and immersive concepts. Realized in partnership with CapitaLand Mall, the largest shopping mall developers in Asia, the Jewel will cover 35,000 m2, with 90,000 m2 of retail, 21,700 m2 of indoor gardens and attractions, a hotel and 2,500-car parking. WSP is MEP consultant engineer and responsible for civil and structural engineering peer review for the project.

The Smart Airport

The airport itself has an important role to play to become an enjoyable destination. Enter the smart airport. “The smart airport offers a good experience to guests, from arrival to departure. Tech giants promote the smart airport as solution-driven but it should start from operational needs and how the airport defines its services, which can then become their vision for a smart airport. As consultants, we depict the strategic development roadmap and help the client achieve their vision of the smart airport. And that’s what we are doing for Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport”, says Frank Lin.

Technology comes in next. “We use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to deliver the environment information to the passenger and eliminate uncertainty, which is a stressor. For example, we can proactively provide information related to travel, ground transportation, weather, government regulation for travellers, etc. directly to passenger smartphones. An app easily provides that data. That’s an example of what we are doing in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport T3 project.” Baggage handling, people mover systems, arrival and departure planning – all are logistics elements that must be seamless for an enjoyable user experience. London Heathrow and Schiphol in Amsterdam offer self-service biometric passport gates using facial recognition technology, for example.

There is no doubt that airports and their surroundings will keep developing. It’s also expected that people will spend more time at the airport. The question is how we’ll ensure that the time spent at the airport becomes more fun.