As massive new airports open across Asia and the Middle East, U.S. airports are enhancing security checkpoints with technological gadgets to screen passengers and luggage more quickly. These projects are often touted as “airports of the future,” in which air travel will be faster, more efficient and more enjoyable than ever before.

However, Janet Bednarek, professor of history and author of Airports, Cities and the Jet Age, notes these improvements still struggle to solve the problems that have vexed airport managers and passengers since at least the late 1950s. 

“Even at the dawn of the jet age, airlines had trouble moving people and bags through airports — and they still do,” Bednarek said. “It’s unclear that bigger airports serving ever more passengers will have an easier time than their smaller, less crowded predecessors.”

When commercial jet airliners came to the U.S. in the late 1950s, they were larger and faster than previous planes, needing longer runways and more space to park and maneuver on the tarmac. They carried more passengers, which meant boarding gates had to be bigger. This led to the now-familiar design called “pier-finger terminals,” with a main terminal screening passengers and collecting checked luggage, beyond which lay long stretches of boarding gates, spaced far enough apart for planes to fit side by side.

While necessary for logistical reasons, this approach required passengers to walk long distances to their gates — sometimes nearly half a mile. To solve this issue, airports implemented various solutions, including underground trains, moving sidewalks and mobile lounges.

“Those approaches did reduce the number of steps passengers had to take. But as terminals grew in size and airline routes became more complex, passengers had to change planes more often. That has required trains or trams to help people travel longer distances within terminals, or even to other concourses,” explained Bednarek.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, new security screenings created long lines and increased the amount of time people spent at the airport before flights. The need for additional security and waiting space challenged designs that had seemed forward-thinking even in the late 1990s.

“As more people fly more often, the pace of growth and unexpected events have often overwhelmed the best-intended designs and plans,” said Bednarek. “After more than 60 years of trying, it’s an open question whether the ultimate airport of the future — one where passengers and their bags move quickly through a space that’s enjoyable to be in — could ever exist at all.”


This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in The Conversation.