Airport designers explain why terminal seats don’t allow travelers to

Storms, heat and a busy holiday weekend all combined into a worst-case scenario for many air travelers to the United States earlier this month. People traveling for the July 4 holiday faced thousands of flight delays and cancellations, and many ended up spending much of their long weekend inside terminal walls. of airport.

What they probably weren’t doing was sleeping. Despite delays that often lengthen hours and cancellations that keep travelers waiting all night for their next flight, airports are actively designed so that people can’t sleep there. Rows of chairs fill their entry lounges, but almost all of them have fixed armrests that prevent a body from getting horizontal. Most of them even lack a reclining aspect to allow a person to lie down. This defensive architecture, such as buildings or public seats with features that prevent homeless people from sleeping, makes an unpleasant day of delayed travel even worse.

Travelers rest on the ground while waiting for their flight at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in 2022. [Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images]

According to the airport designers we spoke with for this story, there’s a banal logic behind this seemingly inhumane design choice – it’s a simple matter of real estate.


“The fundamental reason why you can’t sleep in airport departure lounges, or it’s difficult, is that they try to fit as many people into that room as comfortably as possible without increasing the airline-paid rental space,” says Matt Needham, director of aviation and transportation at global architecture firm HOK. “It’s profitability.”

Passengers wait to board a Southwest flight to Washington DC Reagan Airport at 11:30 p.m. on December 25, 2022 at Dallas Love Field in Dallas, TX. The flight was canceled while missing a flight attendant after being delayed for more than six hours. Many flights have been cancelled. [Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images]

While it may look like the common ground of an airport complex, the gate area is actually real estate leased by airlines for every plane that lands and takes off. Many factors determine how much airlines pay for these leases, including distance from safety, proximity to bathrooms, and accessibility to airline clubs, but the primary determinant of cost is square footage. . Airlines choose the square footage they will need for the size of the plane landing at the gate and fill the space with not too many but not too few chairs. “There’s always a financial reason these boarding lounges are sized the way they are,” Needham says.

The Workaholic

Although “gate lounge” is the preferred industry term for waiting areas outside the gates of airport terminals, the name is somewhat of a misnomer. “You think soft jazz and maybe having a cocktail or something. That’s not the function of these rooms,” says Needham. “You move hundreds of people, more than one flight per hour.”

[Photo: ©Michael Robinson/courtesy Fentress Architects]

This is why seating in entry lounges tends to be more utilitarian than lounge type. Needham evokes the typical seats found in airports around the world: a banquette of 5 to 10 seats, all positioned on an underlying beam, with armrests in between, and often back to back with another row of the same chairs. Other types of seating are also used, but Needham says this beam-based design is the workhorse of the doorway lounge.

However, they don’t have to be bad places to sleep. Curtis Fentress, founder of Fentress Architects, has been designing airports for 40 years, and he says many seats designed for airports often have options for reclining elements or adjustable armrests to allow for easier sleeping. Compared to conventional seating, adoption of these augmented designs is minimal, in part because furniture purchases tend to be part of a separate contract from the airport design. “If you put a recliner on it, it takes up more square footage for a row of chairs like that, or any other configuration,” says Fentress. “It’s not so much the cost of the chair as the extra square footage of the buildings that is needed.”

The formula

“There’s always this analogy with the church,” says Fentress.

The analogy of the church concerns the capacity of the living room of the door. And while airport authorities know there will be bad days when delays and cancellations will fill lounges with people and floor space becomes sleeping space, departure lounges are designed for those days that go off without a hitch. “They say, ‘We’re not building the building for Easter Sunday when everyone’s going to church,'” Fentress said.

However, not everyone has a seat. Needham says airlines tend to plan the square footage and seating requirements of their departure lounges using a formula, based primarily on how many seats on planes each gate will handle. For a typical US domestic flight, that’s about 180 people. Airlines assume flights will be around 85% full on average, and they also assume that some of those passengers will be doing other things at the airport besides waiting at their gates. “They’re having a drink at the bar, shopping, buying a magazine or at an airline club,” says Needham. The formula provides enough seats to accommodate 75% of the 85% of passengers that an aircraft can carry.

The formula translates into typical boarding lounges of around 114 seats. Cramming in all those seats – which aren’t technically enough even for a less than full flight – means there’s no extra space for a reclining back or a wide armrest. And in the unfortunate event that a flight is canceled and people end up sleeping in the terminal, the gate lounge can only offer insufficient seating with no ability to recline and little space for anything else.

Travelers wait to board a plane at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida on April 22, 2022. [Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images]


The problem may get worse. Extreme weather conditions have led to a steady increase in the number of canceled flights over the past two decades, and the past few years have been particularly bad. Fentress says the airport industry is unlikely to let a tough summer or even a few tough years change the way it plans gate lounge spaces at massive, multi-billion dollar airports. “If you hit five straight years where it was every year, it would start to affect how people feel about it and how they appropriate the money,” he says.

Meanwhile, climate change isn’t solely responsible for cramped entry lounges. At many older airports, terminal design decisions made long ago are being upended by the evolution of aircraft. Over the past few decades, aircraft fuselages have grown longer while maintaining the same wingspan, which has historically been used to set the terms of boarding lounge leases, according to Needham. “You put more people in the same approximate size of boarding lounge that was maybe built 40 years ago,” he says.

[Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto Photography/courtesy HOK]

New airport designs attempt to address all of these issues. HOK designed the recent renovation of Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in New York, and Needham says special attention was paid to the layout of the departure lounges to address some of the issues of overcrowding and travel constraints. space of the past.

[Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto Photography/courtesy HOK]

The project carved out more space for boarding lounges without significantly increasing the size of the terminal by shifting the location of the building’s massive support columns. Bringing them closer to the perimeter of the terminal has freed up space on the edge of the gate lounge and its blurred boundary with the circulation space between the gates, leaving more room for a wider variety of seating types. This will come in handy when flights are over 85% full and for times when cancellations leave travelers looking for a place to try and sleep. “Modern airport design really tries to allow for that flexibility and provide additional space,” says Needham.

The seats

New seats are gradually making their way into terminals around the world, giving travelers more ways to pass the minutes or hours of waiting to board a flight. Needham says major airports and major hubs are investing in a wider range of seating styles, including group seating, amorphously shaped seating, seating areas where travelers can use laptops and even chairs with integrated technology that travelers can use to order food. for delivery to the airport.

Most changes, to the extent that they occur, are more subtle. Needham says he’s seen a trend for airports to replace conventional beam seat lines with newer versions that create a bit more space for the people using them. A larger buffer between the seats does not allow people to lie down or recline, but it does make sitting between people more comfortable. “What [airports] realize that if they actually provide a bit more space, like a small area between each seat, you’re more likely to sit next to a stranger than if you’re right next to them sharing an armrest,” Needham says. .

[Image: Arconas]

One of these designs was developed by the company Fentress. The Place chair system looks like a typical row of doorway lounge seats, but between each seat is a six-inch-wide flat surface where users can rest an arm, laptop or drink. An optional 20-inch-wide table can also be added in rows. It may not recline, but its design allows for more comfortable seating for people in tight spaces with less wasted seating than seen in typical lounge chairs.

[Image: Arconas]

More comfortable seating options at airports are emerging, albeit slowly. Even Fentress sometimes wishes airports were designed to allow for more comfortable sleep. He’s a seasoned flyer with more than 5 million miles flown on United Airlines alone, so he’s had his share of delays. Before the canceled July 4 holiday this year, he had three flight delays that added up to 15 hours of time to kill at US airports. A place to relax for a while, he admits, would have been nice.

But Fentress also views these incidents as outliers, Easter Sunday conditions around which airports are unlikely to be designed. “Since I’ve been in the airport design business, I’ve thought about it on a large scale and how it affects me personally,” he says. “I just sucked it. It’s a bad week. It’s not the end of the Earth.

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