A new perspective on an 85-year-old airport
How do you redesign an airport first opened in 1948 to delight passengers more than 80 years later without expanding the site or even owning the terminals? That was the difficult question faced by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK) through a lease agreement with the City of New York that extends to 2060. When the Port Authority engaged us as master planning and programme planning lead on an expansive transformation project at JFK, we suggested that the answer lay not in thinking about the airport but thinking about the passenger.
Some 60M passengers travel through JFK each year, over half of whom are international travellers. “This is welcome to America, but the experience could be so much better,” says Chris Chalk, our global aviation sector lead.
The customer experience across its six terminals has not kept pace with global standards. Industry consulting firm Skytrax ranked the airport number 59 in its 2016 listing of the world’s top 100 airports. More worryingly, JFK was already nearing capacity in 2016, with passenger numbers forecast to rise to 75M by 2030 and 100M by 2050.
JFK is sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and south Queens, making it impossible to simply build again. The Port Authority needed another way to meet future demand and achieve its goal of seeing JFK make it into Skytrax’s top 10, something no other US airport has achieved.
Early on we worked with the Port Authority to redefine world class from the bottom up, drawn from our team’s global experience. From doing the little things extremely well to identifying the best measures of performance, we focused on six main themes (see diagram), and these set the tone for changes across the board.
Through our masterplan, we have reframed the challenge. While we have considered discrete buildings, roads and runways, we have thrown the spotlight on one overarching objective: helping all users move more confidently and quickly through every stage of their journey. Focusing on making JFK the conduit for great customer experience will also result in a more efficient and adaptable airport.
Our role has grown considerably from our original master planning appointment. We now touch virtually every aspect of the project:
Preparing the overall National Environmental Policy Act compliance assessment and designing associated climate resilience strategies
Carrying out commercial and technical advisory support for procurement, leases and governance (including for the giant new terminal 1 or T1)
Managing design for the approach roads and terminal frontage areas, a new ground transportation centre and a new consolidated support facility for cargo operations
Futureproofing terminal access
The first stage of a user journey is accessing terminals from the service roads. A fundamental rethink was needed to improve customer experience and airport efficiency.
The current design, common to airports across the US, causes traffic congestion. Added to inadequate drop-off parking, the design prompts the occupants of vehicles to disembark in live traffic lanes, then compete with other vehicles to reach the kerb. As Chris puts it: “The existing road layout preconditioned people to having a bad experience before they had even entered the terminal.”
Our solution is to ensure that everyone gets access to a kerb and to split each approach road into two parallel tracks when it reaches a terminal. Each track offers space on both sides for drivers to pull in – a drop-off lane or angled parking bays, depending on the location – and kerbs on both sides. This more than doubles the available kerb space, ensuring passengers don’t unload bags in live traffic lanes.
“Rethinking the service roads in this way has also meant that we can move the kerbs further from the terminal building,” says Chris. “This makes the whole area feel light and airy, which is better for user experience, but has the added benefit of meeting updated TSA security requirements of a 30m offset common to international standards.”
We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure these areas don’t feel like car parks, adding plenty of trees, installing attractive benches and planters, and designing weather-protection canopies and wind barriers that maximise natural light.
Simplifying approach routes
The six terminals at JFK are arranged in an oval. They are numbered one to eight in anticlockwise fashion, starting with T1 at the eight o’clock position and running through to T8 at the 10 o’clock position – although T3 was demolished in 2011, T6 in 2013 and T2 will be demolished to make way for the south side terminal development portion of the programme. Most of the terminals are already on their second or third iteration for their lease areas.
Three-quarters of JFK users travel by motor vehicle and are fed directly into the centre of the complex, where terminal development had led to a tangled thicket of approach roads that causes congestion and confuses drivers.
To enable users to reach their destination more quickly and directly, we reconfigured the entire network of roads. “We moved the decision point away from the central terminal area, out to the main highways,” explains Richard Easteal, our principal project manager and lead on landside transportation for the master planning.
We borrowed lessons from our work at London Heathrow Airport to plan direct routes to specific terminals beginning at the highway itself, while enabling drivers to navigate to different points once inside the terminal complex.
“Simpler routes prevent overloading drivers with information, so they can get it right first time,” says Richard. “That’s 75% fewer decision points, and less than half the number of junctions in the central terminal area while increasing capacity by 50%.” Fewer drivers will be lost or baffled, while traffic circulation and efficiency will improve throughout the site. Reprofiling the road network is ongoing, although most of this work will be completed in 2026, along with the new T1 and T6.
By simplifying the approach roads, we were able to reclaim 12ha of land in the centre of the site. Here, we’ve planned a ground transportation centre – a multipurpose, multistorey structure that will house car parking and vehicle waiting areas, facilitate pedestrian routes between terminals, and connect to the airport’s rail link, AirTrain.
Working with our architectural partner Grimshaw, we have set aside the top level to feature recreational areas such as a park, while the exterior walls feature green facades facing the terminals and engineering timber cladding facing the highway approaches. A design-build contractor will be appointed in 2023, with the facility due to open in 2027.
At this stage of the journey, a user has now arrived at their JFK terminal more smoothly and calmly than ever before. But what about finding the correct terminal entrance, the right check-in kiosk, and beyond? “Delivering great service doesn’t mean just doing it in one area,” notes Kristallia Tiligadis, principal in aviation governance and customer experience at Mott MacDonald. “You have to look at the end-to-end customer journey and understand and address the needs of all user types.”
To understand exactly what a user experiences, we partnered with Dr Megan Ryerson, associate dean for research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, to conduct pioneering research. Dr Ryerson had developed a method that employs eye-tracking technology to evaluate cognitive workload for cyclists and pedestrians and how they process information.
The device looks like a pair of spectacles, featuring forward-facing cameras and cameras pointing at the user’s eyes. Participants in our study wore the apparatus and then travelled to, around and through the airport to simulate real-world journeys. By tracking and measuring the wearer’s pupils, then cross-referencing that with what the user was looking at, we could determine how much stress they were under and the cause. Timing how long the wearer looked at specific areas of signage also helped us to understand where information could be better positioned to improve recognition and reduce anxiety.
We also worked with Dr. Ryerson to shadow journeys for users with visual and mobility impairments, non-native English speakers, elderly travellers, infrequent flyers, and other user groups. “For the first time, this has given us scientific, evidence-based insight into what a user sees and feels on their journey to and through the airport,” says Chris.
Our research shaped the comprehensive new wayfinding and branding manual with our specialist consultant Mijksenaar, in collaboration with the Port Authority customer experience team. The manual is being rolled out across all five of the Port Authority’s airports, and all leaseholders must comply with it.
John F Kennedy International Airport Transformation
New York, USA
Master planning, forecasting, facilities planning, design, programme management, procurement services, transaction advisor, digital transformation, accessibility, customer experience, governance, benchmarking, environmental assessment, sustainability, GIS and asset services
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Simpler routes prevent overloading drivers with information, so they can get it right first time. That’s 75% fewer decision points, and less than half the number of junctions in the central terminal area while increasing capacity by 50%.”
Richard Easteal, principal project manager, Mott MacDonald
Creating a world-class airport for the future (Credit: Grimshaw)