The Federal Government has announced it will dedicate $293.6 million towards aviation security in the 2018-19 budget, in an effort to safeguard Australia against evolving threats in the civil aviation, air cargo and international mail sectors. 

This includes:

  • $50.1 million to enhance security arrangements at 64 regional airports with new and upgraded screening technologies and associated infrastructure
  • $121.6 million to enhance screening capability for inbound air cargo and international mail with new and upgraded equipment and advanced technology
  • $121.9 million to increase the presence and specialist capabilities of the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force at nine major domestic and international airports.

Architecture & Design spoke to Architectus principal Karl Traeger about the evolution of airport design in the face of new security threats, what we’re doing in Australia and how this compares with airports around the world. The leader of Architectus’ aviation projects, Traeger has significant experience with airport design both locally and internationally.

A&D: What are some of the threats we’re now seeing in aviation and how is this being addressed through airport design and technology? Would you say there are any major events that have caused designers to start thinking differently about airport design?

KT: Aside from catastrophic events, one of the biggest changes to the aviation industry has been the rise of low-cost carriers and the massive increase in the population taking to the skies. When Sydney Airport opened their new international terminal in the 1970s, they served 300,000 - 400,000 passengers in that first year, but in 2018 that figure is expected to exceed 25 million. The sheer number of humans passing through airport terminals has made our ability to maintain the facilities one of the biggest threats to airports around the world.

With the number of passengers expected to double worldwide in the next five years to over 7.8 billion, the task of keeping up with the need for facilities and screening technologies sometimes seems almost impossible. Security was one of the biggest concerns to be addressed in the Federal Budget. Passenger, staff and goods screening checkpoints are to be upgraded across all the major Australian airports to include the latest in body screening technology. While sophisticated screening technologies will be implemented in a number of areas, it’s always essential to keep human contact at the forefront.

For example, Israel is in a high conflict region where the airport is on alert at all times, but they don’t rely heavily on technology for their security screening process. Highly trained security officers ask very pointed questions and have been trained to detect lies and warning signs in the responses, which has been a very effective strategy.

Particularly with the rise of AI and automated systems, there is a threat in our ability to become too dependent on technology and lose sight of the benefits of human interactions.

In recent tests in the US, high percentages of the undercover test passengers carrying prohibited items, including a variety of weapons, made it through security.  So why don’t we see more incidences of attacks at airports given they are such a high-profile target?  This is where I think the ‘theatre of security design’ plays a key role as a deterrent.  The spaces we design, from the lighting to the high-tech looking screening equipment, all adds to the perception that there is no way to get through with a concealed prohibited item. The space says in every way, ‘You are definitely going to get caught!’

The decentralisation of travel operations is developing as a key strategy to make airports less of a target because the facilities are spread out around the city. Hong Kong is a good example, having introduced external check-in and bag drop some time ago. Having passengers and visitors already screened prior to even setting foot in the airport may be some way off but this has great potential to help improve the passenger journey, allowing the experience to be human service focused.

With your knowledge of airports in Australia and around the world, how would you characterise their differences?

The identity of the airports in other countries tends to be more distinct than in Australia. It generally appears as though there is a better balance in the money allocated for passenger experience and operations. 

For example, all of Norway’s airports are controlled by one authority which helps their designs to be more consistent. Oslo Airport just finished its new renovation and expansion last year, with exquisitely crafted spaces fitted out with timber and natural light, integrating the surrounding environment of the location in a very literal way. The spaces communicate a high level of sophistication and operational efficiency, adding to the ‘theatre of security design’ and sense of safety.

Germany on the other hand, appears to be focused on the communication of efficient transport infrastructure at the forefront. While Munich’s airport has plazas that are very much designed as a civic space, surrounded by infrastructure, it has one of the best plazas around with programmed entertainment activities like ice skating or a wave pool.

The government-owned airports in Asia, whether in Singapore, Hong Kong or Jakarta, benefit in spend on passenger experience beyond anything we see in Australia.  These airports are seen as vehicles to showcase their country’s cultural identity and technological aspirations.

Is there anything you think Australian airports should adopt from airports around the world?

Australia’s privatised model doesn’t allow for much cohesion, and we struggle to find ways to design beautiful structures because of the need to focus on cost efficiencies. The arrival experience in each Australian airport is very different – we could benefit from a federal approach to design to make the experience more clearly culturally consistent, overlaid with regional variation.

Security screening spaces at Australian airports need to take a holistic approach to a balance between the ‘theatre of security design’, implementation of the latest screening technology and high quality training for security personnel. This training should go beyond operations, and enable them to get the most out of the spaces we design and deliver. This means not only effective security but personable and thoughtful interactions with passengers, adding to a positive passenger journey experience.

Designs that assist in creating better security staff cohesion and communications will help to make the overall experience for passengers better, not to mention more effective and efficient. In our experience, carefully considered overlay and coordination of lighting and finishes, more associated with hospitality projects, delivers spaces staff enjoy working in.

How can the design of airports help to “humanise” the new security measures?

In terms of security, we’re considering design less in terms of threats and more in terms of the solutions the result can offer. We’re conscious of designing spaces so that they’re genuinely intuitive for passenger wayfinding, so the first time you visit an airport you’ll instinctively know where you should be going. A passenger that is relaxed, knows where they are going and what the screening process is asking of them makes the process faster and more efficient.

We collaborate closely with security stakeholders in the design process so that we’re addressing key concerns, such as ensuring the sightlines for exits are unobstructed and the flow of people through the screening space avoids aggregation points, where large groups of people could potentially gather together. This is always a big concern for airport security.

In our latest design for the entry to the security screening hall at Melbourne Airport’s International Terminal, there’s a space with a Melbourne themed wall for passengers to say their goodbyes and take photos in front of.  This is clearly designed to signal to farewellers to stand clear of the entry proper. There will also be automated boarding pass readers to further reinforce the threshold.

Technology such as the boarding pass readers, designed to be integrated with biometrics into the future, is positioned where it can have the biggest benefit in freeing up staff for more meaningful human interactions.

Finally, how did you get involved in airport design?

I find airport design to be the most challenging of the sectors I have worked in. The intensity of competition and collaboration between the complex web of stakeholders I think is unparalleled.  Airports also bring together a lot of other sectors I have had experience in, including master planning and urban design, retail, hospitality, commercial and other transport projects. Most airport projects are a balance between these competing needs and I really enjoy the challenge in delivering cohesive, functional and innovative design work in the airport environment.

I think there’s also a nostalgic element to airport design for me as well. I won a national student competition when I was at university for the design of an airport in Canberra, so it brings me back to what got me excited about architecture in the first place.