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With people living longer than ever before, catering to an aging population is now an essential part of the airport design process, writes Corgan’s Jonathan Massey.

As airport terminals move beyond being buildings that are simply a necessary part of the mode of transportation to an accommodating and thoughtful experience, we must look closely at the needs of the diverse populations using these facilities.

A significant and growing segment of the population that needs carefully considered solutions are the elderly and those with limited mobility. As airports concentrate their focus on the passenger experience, key aspects of this demographic’s journey have moved to the foreground of terminal design and planning.

These include targeted wayfinding improvements, fatigue and anxiety mitigation, innovative technologies to assist their movement through the facilities, and amenities that cater to the needs of this larger spectrum of the population.

While following local laws and regulations are a prerequisite, airport owners, operators and designers should continually strive to reduce stress and anxiety by crafting spaces that enhance the travel experience for all passengers including those of advanced age and mobility-limited users.

Corgan, an international architecture firm specialising in terminal design and planning, is one such entity working to improve the passenger experience for this growing population by applying evidence gained through recent research.

Two tools that Corgan’s aviation designers and planners are employing are the Age Simulation Suit and Eye-tracking Glasses.

The Age Simulation Suit

The Age Simulation Suit, also known as a GERT Suit, provides evidence based design data that helps designers understand the needs of the aging passenger by simulating the physical characteristics of an aged individual, actually putting designers in the shoes of an older person so they can experience the sensation of limited mobility, unsteady gait, degraded vision, reduced ability to perceive sound at various wavelengths and even simulated tremors in the hands.

This experience is possible through the suit’s components that include special gloves designed to mimic hand tremors, goggles that blur vision or stimulate common eye diseases, knee and elbow braces that restrict movement and create joint stiffness, and a series of weighted attachments that simulate decreased muscle mass common in aged individuals.

In recent experiments conducted as training opportunities with Corgan staff, participants were asked to make their way through a typical pathway at an airport while wearing the suit. The results were documented with an eye toward potential improvements and insights for future terminal design strategies.

One important lesson from the simulations was an appreciation for the anxiety these limitations created. Many participants commented on the difficulty and resulting stress they experienced.

Landon Moore, an architect with Corgan’s aviation studio who assisted in developing the Age Suit programme, stated: “As I walked through the terminal, I couldn’t believe how anxious I felt because I could not get to where I wanted to go quickly.”

It can be easily understood then that with the numbers of travelling aging passengers increasing each year, airports need to find ways to improve the level of passenger experience for this group.

“The suit really made me think twice about how I design for the aging population on a daily basis,” says Moore.

Ultimately, the goal of the Age Simulation experiments conducted by Corgan is to not only allow designers, in particular younger designers, the opportunity to experience the limitations first-hand, but to explore innovative solutions that could help mitigate those limitations.

“Having equally spaced rest areas along the passenger’s path would have really helped me out and been beneficial,” he notes.

A terminal accommodation that Corgan is including in design discussions with airport stakeholders includes a series of ‘rest stations’ at key decision points along a passenger’s path where they can take a moment to regroup and confirm they are moving in the correct direction.

In addition, implementing terminal programes with minimal or no changes in the level along primary pathways and incorporating easily accessible elevator and escalator cores are immediately beneficial to all passengers.


Eye-tracking Wayfinding Analysis

Another research programme underway at Corgan takes a detailed look at what passengers actually experience visually as they pass through a terminal environment.

Designers are prone to believe they intuitively understand how the public will react in the spaces they create, but terminal interiors can be complex environments with multiple sources of visual stimuli competing for the passenger’s attention.

Many times, components such as advertising, wayfinding signage, concessions, artwork, terminal lighting, and dynamic displays are not presented in a co-ordinated fashion.

The eye-tracking wayfinding research uses wearable technology to gather real-time data on the passenger’s visual focus continuously along their entire journey through the terminal.

Wearable eye-tracking devices are a powerful new technology that can benefit the passenger population as a whole. These devices have an embedded camera and tracking sensors that define and record the visual field of the wearer and any elements of fixation including duration of gaze. The output of the experience can then be analysed by designers.

By having participants wear this technology, designers can better understand how passengers experience the terminal environment.

This is beneficial to design teams because it validates predictions of passenger behaviour, such as passenger flow, buying behaviour and amenity utilisation.

These glasses can also be a post-occupancy diagnostic tool to determine which signage, concessions, and advertising programs are working and which are not.

Recent experiments at one of the top ten airports in the world have yielded fascinating results, especially when the data was aggregated by passenger type, including a demographic group of aging travellers.

After analysing the aging population group’s findings in this particular experiment, it was determined the participants tended to look down and fixate on patterning in the floor more than any other group. This held true even in high volume spaces.

In one of the study scenarios, the space had terrazzo flooring with decorative metal inserts at regular intervals throughout the concourse. The fixation points for many of the aging population group jumped from metal insert to metal insert as they navigated the space.

Many times, key signage points, concession opportunities and important architectural wayfinding cues were missed because they were focused on the detailing in the floor pattern.

These results highlight the importance of design decisions as they relate to the spatial quality of a terminal and its material finish-out. For example, if a large portion of passengers are not looking up, then signage opportunities at eye-level or above are not effective.

The perception of passengers and their experiences in an airport is as diverse as the passenger population itself. For an airport to be successful, it must be aware of the trends of the passenger population it serves and adjust to address their needs.

With the travelling public maturing, airports need to evolve to meet this growing demographic. Retrofits to ramping systems and adequately sized and placed accessible toilet facilities are a start, but for an airport to truly be successful, it must be innovative in its approach to defining its interior environment.

This starts with developing new ideas through experiential and qualitative research. Ultimately, the result is a seamless airport experience for everyone, unencumbered by obstacles and without excess stress and anxiety. 

About the author

Jonathan Massey is a principal in the aviation practice at Corgan.

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