The Object
of Discourse

Airports and design gone bad

Air France A380 parked at the gate at CDG

If you want a measure of how well-designed an airport is, visit a restroom carrying a shoulder bag and a small trolley case. If you’re able to get into one of the stalls without straddling your trolley case or having to jump over it, or brushing the leg of your pants (or, worse, your actual leg) against the rim of the toilet, chances are someone put extra thought into designing this restroom. Extra points if the stall features a door that opens toward the outside, and hangers for your shoulder bag or jacket.

During my last few years of traveling I’ve started seeing a correlation between the traveler-friendliness of airport restrooms and the general usability of the terminals they belong to. My idea is that if enough attention has been put to such a seemingly marginal detail, then it’s almost certain that the more evident features of the terminal won’t have been screwed up.

But no worries, this essay isn’t about restrooms. It’s about airport terminals as products of design, thus as the possible focus of the semiotics of objects.

The design of airport terminals must necessarily take into account the interaction processes involved with the experience of airline passengers as their main subjects. Throughout this essay I might talk about airport design, but by that I will generally refer to the design of terminals, that is of the passenger-facing aspect of airports.

I won’t pretend not to be aware of the huge constraints imposed on airport design. Although some of these constraints are very reasonable, as well as historically motivated—specifically, the security requirements that have become more stringent than ever in the past decade—it seems to me that they often get in the way of good design, to varying degrees of intentionality.

The goal of airport design is (or should be) the creation of a complex semiotic entity that allows passengers to take planes. This entity is a syncretism of objects and texts of various nature, which for this essay’s purposes I’ll consider as a unified object. An airport terminal is part of an even more complex entity, whose existence and function extend to after a plane takes off, and before it lands.

As a semiotic object, an airport terminal does much more than implying the existence of subjects who will use (manipulate, transform) the object itself: as any kind of architectural entity, it implies the physical presence within itself of the manipulating subjects.1

The more complex a text, and the less individual the experience of it, the harder it becomes to analyze it, which is why I’ll just outline the basic focus points an analysis should take into account. The scope of the analysis will be restricted to the affordances an airport offers to the subject-passenger. And since semiotics requires real texts and real objects, I’ll go back to a trip I took in April 2012, and to the two major airports involved in my return flight: New York City’s John F. Kennedy and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle.

The epistemological caveat, here, is the usual when it comes to semiotics, and especially to the analysis of something that’s as ephemeral as human behavior: by giving a description of my object, I’m at once selecting the level of pertinence at which I’m performing the analysis, and also creating a new text: the description itself, which, as accurate as it can be, it’s based on my memory, and is still the only way both I and my readers can access the original object. The analysis must balance the idiosyncratic elements of my memories with a reasonable generalization of the behavior of these airports. That is, I will consider my memories only as accidentally different from the experience another traveler might have in similar conditions.

Here’s a timeline of events at JFK:

  • arrival at check-in area (having checked in on the web, yet without a printed boarding pass)
  • attempt at retrieving my boarding pass using dedicated machines (failed multiple times)
  • standing in line at the baggage-drop counter to get my boarding pass and, presumably, drop off my luggage
  • standing in a different line to actually drop off my luggage at the security scanners
  • standing in line at the security check point
  • opting out of body scanners and getting patted down
  • hanging out at the gate area and eventually boarding the plane (less relevant to my argument).

The next day, at CDG:

  • arrival at satellite S3
  • talking to airline representative about my next flight. Representative saying it would take me about one hour to get to the appropriate terminal
  • standing in line for passport check
  • short train ride to the lobby of terminal 2E
  • exiting the terminal and taking a bus to terminal 2G
  • standing in line at the security check point (necessary because the system forces passengers to exit the terminal building)
  • hanging out in the waiting area and eventually boarding the plane (again, less relevant).

If the narrative nature of the object-airport isn’t immediately recognizable, it should become more so if we consider the intrinsically hostile nature of the environment. Narrativity stems from opposition and difference (and, guess what, meaning does too, if you ask Saussure), which can manifest as a lack of something, or a conflict between different subjects. Airports offer them all, in this sense, as they are not (despite any statement or appearance to the contrary) objects designed with the goal of facilitating the transit of passengers. I’d argue that, at this point, passengers are barely even the intended subjects/receivers of airport design, which is what makes airports such awful (yet fascinating) semiotic beasts.

Airport narrativity is born out of the obstacles cast in the passenger’s way, including a very unbalanced availability of information. The passenger goes through a perfectly well-formed narrative schema, from contract (the purchase of a ticket, which binds all actors involved to certain rules, some actors more than others), to competence (which is never acquired once and for all, since the rules change and—especially when it comes to navigation—they are bound to be different in different airports), to performance (often made of repeat attempts and further acquisitions of competence), to sanction (finally getting on that plane). The narrative program is interspersed with secondary ones, minor performances, and—what is most relevant for my argument—filled with antisubjects and opponents. The very few helpers often come off as hostile, or at least reluctant.

Didn’t I say that an airport is an object that facilitates passenger transit? Maybe not so much.

The necessary constraints posed to air travel haven’t led to a general redesign of the interaction processes within the terminal: instead, they have forced themselves onto these processes, under the pretense of leaving them untouched. I see this as a form of design hijacking, which constantly overrides the definition of what an airport terminal should be by displacing its focus on radically different goals, to the point of turning airports into objects that discourage instead of facilitating passenger transit. (Yet somehow they seem to fail at that too, although that’s a different matter.)

Nonetheless, the implicit goal of airports remains, officially, the same. Granted, passengers are only one of the intended subjects of airports as semiotic objects. Airlines are another. Theoretically, airlines and passengers should be two subjects on different ends of the same transaction. From the perspective of a passenger, an airline should be a helper in the narrative program of flying from here to there. However, partly due to the constraints in airport design, airlines have turned passengers from subjects to objects, not the reason why they do business but the stuff they do business with. Passengers may as well be candy, or cases of zucchini.2

Of course, the average airport user is far from being a model passenger. He may lack competence (be it linguistic, behavioral, or just common sense), and constantly gets in the way of others even when he has no reason to do so (except the illusion of being the only one entitled to be in the airport). Consequently, the object-airport lowers its standards to accommodate (or, rather, deal with) this low-competence subject.

Interaction models inside a terminal are complicated further by the fact that airports sit at the intersection between two conflicting narratives, in the form of two opposite isotopies—that is, different understandings of the goals and the function of commercial flight. These two isotopies should be mutually exclusive (ideally, selecting one as correct should necessarily invalidate the other), yet they are forced to coexist—in fact, one could not be without the other.

The first isotopy sees flying as a euphoric activity, by which passengers enter into a contract with airlines in order to reach their destinations faster, more easily, with a sense of modernity, freedom, and empowerment. The other isotopy, highly dysphoric, sees commercial flight as the potential ruin of all that’s good; passengers as potential messengers of doom, or, at least, the reasons why an airport isn’t functioning properly (if only all those planes didn’t have passengers on, they could be free to take off on time, and there would be no need for security agents to touch anyone inappropriately).

Thing is, airport terminals were designed (and still are, since the newer ones seem to suffer from the same faulty concepts) as if the euphoric isotopy was the only relevant one. It implies that airlines are masters of their own house; in reality they’re just guests in airport terminals, and they have to submit to house rules. The dysphoric isotopy is, in fact, the dominant one, the reason why airlines seem to struggle to reconcile their upbeat narrative with the dismal state of air travel all over the world.

What falls squarely into the euphoric view of air travel is the frequent-flyer reward system, a mechanism airlines put in place to allow passengers not only to increase their competence, but to get incentives for doing so. The more you travel, the more you go through the same airports and the same airlines, the easier it becomes for you to repeat similar tasks.

Frequent-flyer rewards work largely as if airports and airlines were, indeed, passenger-oriented businesses, and give the illusion of there being no isotopic dissonance. The rewards come in the form of an accumulation of competence that can be used toward lower access barriers (using miles to buy tickets), hence making it easier to get into new contracts with airlines and airports, or toward a facilitated experience in the use of airlines and airports—a sort of legalized cheating on performance.

This cheating power is what matters most in terms of airport interaction. But its value is suboptimal because, as I said, airports aren’t passenger-oriented objects, and because of the lack of design standards (hey, I was able to bring up standards even outside a web-related context).

If airports were really passenger-oriented, at JFK I would have been able to pick up my boarding pass and drop off my luggage at the baggage-drop counter. Scanning the luggage would have happened (as it did in the past, and still does in European airports) in the background, without any further action on my part. The isotopy of the airport as the gatekeeper of evil would have been kept muffled by the sounds of a perfectly oiled traveling machine.

What actually happens at JFK is that passengers are required to stand on yet another line and drop off their luggage where the TSA employees will scan it in plain sight, in the middle of the terminal. This, of course, would make practical sense only if a passenger could be there to answer any possible questions about his luggage while it’s being scanned. However, that isn’t what happened to me or anyone else on that day, since the scanning process was so backed up I’m actually surprised my suitcase ever got to destination.

If the scanning happens in the absence of the luggage owners anyway, what sense does it really make to have passengers stand on two separate lines (one where the luggage is tagged by the airline, one where it’s scanned by security)? The answer is right there, in the way the scanning process, formerly kept in the background, has now been moved to center stage, with everything this involves: the size of the machines, the stocking and moving of luggage around the terminal, and the ensuing stasis in the flow of passengers.

The process is made visible for no other reason than visibility itself, despite the obvious obstacles it creates: moving luggage, once done using conveyor belts, now requires driving trolleys in the middle of the terminal, which gets in the way of passengers and takes up space that could be used to better manage check-in and security lines.

The passengers—and, by extension, all potential passengers, even those who are not and will never be flying—become subjects of a different kind of narrative program. The display of the scanning process is part of the mise en scène that takes place in the airport, whose operative subject isn’t the passenger anymore. This mise en scène has a goal that’s completely non-operational, yet increases the operational complexity of the object-airport. It multiplies some of the layers that make up airport functionality (tellingly enough, the ones that involve waiting in line, the most frustrating for the passengers), and it displaces the sites of such functionality so that it interferes directly with the passengers’ operational (and narrative) programs.

This security theater gets also in the way of the frequent-flyer reward mechanisms. In the face of airport security the special status acquired by those who should be more competent (and have been recognized as being such) in the use of the airport gets almost completely nullified. At JFK, the élite line (the line for first- and business-class passengers, as well as élite or higher members of frequent-flyer programs, which the Sky Team alliance would call “Sky Priority,” but is in this case airline-agnostic) is quite shorter than the regular line, but gets jammed by being filtered by the same couple of passport-checking agents, and by the same set of X-ray machines, metal detectors and body scanners.

(This isn’t to say that all élite flyers are necessarily more competent or willing to make use of their competence than other flyers, but it’s more likely, if anything, because they’ve flown more, and more often than the average passenger.)

Here’s where standards come into play—or would, if there were any. One would expect the same line at CDG (a shorter one, due to the time of day and the destination of passengers at terminal 2G) to abide by the same rules. It’s not so, because Air France has two definitions of Sky Priority: one, which it shares with other airlines in the alliance, that includes silver-status members, and which it applies at boarding; and a more restrictive one, which seems to apply only to security lines, and which doesn’t include silver-status members. Two airports, two airlines (Delta and Air France) that have agreed on the the same operational standards (which boils down to a similar way of designing how the airport should work), yet two slightly different semantics, which confuse the passenger and make the reward system less reliable.

Another semantic difference I’ve found, which also reveals a lack of standards, is in the treatment of electronic devices: while in the United States an iPad is allowed to stay in your bag,3 at CDG and other European airports (not all of them) I’m regularly asked to take it out, despite the fact that the security agents can see it so clearly through the X-ray machine that they can actually call it by name. I’ll leave this particular can of worms alone, as it would lead to a whole new argument on security agencies’ understanding of technology. The difference in requirements still stands to show how certain practices—including that of forcing people to take their shoes off—are arbitrary and have no real practical purpose. They do, however, have a central role in the disruption of the flow within the terminal, thus consolidating the dysphoric narrative of airports.

In the ideal airport, security should be a part of the mechanism that allows passengers to use the system more efficiently and, yes, more safely. The dysphoric isotopy should succumb, as a worst-case scenario, to the ideals of the euphoric one. In an airport that’s not passenger-oriented, however, security becomes not only an obstacle to passengers’ transit, but the subject around which the functionality (or dysfunctionality) of the whole airport revolves.

The adoption of design standards engenders isotopic consistency across multiple objects of the same kind. It involves focusing on the primary, most desirable goals of an object (in the case of airports, the efficient transit of passengers) by designing everything else around them (including security). By hijacking these design principles, internal and external consistency is broken. The promotion of secondary goals to center stage prevents predictability and reliability.

The existence of security concerns constitutes the context, the operative conditions of the interactions that take place within the terminals. But it’s as if this context weren’t taken into account until the end of the design process, either for wishful thinking (maybe one day ours will cease to be an orange-alert world), or for active oversight. In either case, I don’t think designers alone are to blame: after all, someone else is always in charge of evaluating and signing off on the work of a designer, and in the case of airports this someone else is still responsible for perpetuating this oversight.

Whether or not it’s voluntary (but particularly if it is), this oversight generates a meaning effect that’s part of one of the strongest, yet at times subtlest isotopic strongholds of the object-airport, that of the extraordinary nature of the current security efforts. Because nothing extraordinary remains so for too long (it tends to become ordinary very quickly), its quality must be constantly displayed and reaffirmed.

The three main ways in which this isotopy manifests, as I’ve discussed, are in the plastic qualities of the object-airport (how the spaces of the terminal are being manipulated to accommodate activities and behaviors that would require spaces of a different kind), the disruption of the narrative process by way of syntactic and semantic incongruences, and the repeated verbalization of the extraordinary nature of things.4 Such verbalization is both explanatory and normative, since it gives a reason for the way certain things work, and, in most cases, becomes that reason.

These considerations on the semantics of airport design have nothing to do with any possible judgment on the opportunity of certain security measures. The functional incongruence and the excess of display maintain the same meaning effect whether the security concerns are founded or not, and draw their performative strength from the narratives on which they’re built.

Design highjacking isn’t just an example of bad design, rather a case of good design gone bad. Considering all the restrictions being applied to the experience of a terminal, one can only wonder why newer terminals are still being designed as if these restrictions didn’t exist. As if there were no need for extra room to keep passengers in line for security. As if the middle of a terminal were the ideal place to put a huge X-ray machine. As if passengers were the only ones on whose shoulders the burden of increased security should always fall.

  1. This consideration will be useful to understand whether objects can be considered texts, and specifically so in a narrative sense. That deserves its own separate essay. (Spoiler: I say they can.) ↩︎

  2. This reminds me very much of television audiences as the stuff that networks sell to advertisers rather than legitimate viewers, receivers of what television producers make. ↩︎

  3. Apparently, so is an eleven-inch MacBook Air↩︎

  4. Examples of this verbalization were the frequent announcements of the orange alert in the United States, at least until the retirement of the color-coded advisory system in 2011. ↩︎

First published in October 2012.

The idea for this essay came while passing through many airports over the past year. I wrote the core of it at Terminal 2G of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle in April 2012. The photo is of the Air France Airbus 380 I had just flown on from New York.

Updated in January 2013 to fix mistakes in the description of CDG.