Using design cues for better passenger flow at airport terminals

The increasing number of passenger movements in global aviation continues to strain many airports’ terminal capacity for processing passenger flows efficiently. Additional self-service capabilities can help. However, unlike programmable machines, passengers are unpredictable. Self-service solutions can only work with the support of environmental cues that help channel passenger interactions.

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Smart terminal design

To design effective environmental cues for airport terminal efficiency, three basic elements should be considered. Each can be utilized to ease, guide, speed up, or even slow passenger flows.


Positioning of physical objects and furnishings within the space is designed to create channels for fast movement, to keep operations orderly, and to provide comfortable areas for waiting.

Cordoning is a simple, flexible way to establish routes, queues, and waiting areas within an empty space, although its overuse may have passengers feeling herded like cattle. Appropriate seating can be conveniently placed to accommodate waiting passengers, especially those unable to stand for extended periods, such as the elderly.

A smart spatial design will also avoid placing elements where they inadvertently frustrate an efficient passenger flow. Chairs and cordons can make it difficult to navigate a space, especially when manoeuvring with luggage, and illogically planned queues only confuse passengers.


An airport terminal that passengers cannot navigate easily only adds pressure on staff as confused passengers seek constant assistance. Passengers become frustrated when directions and instructions are not immediately clear, and risk missing flights searching for help, doing things wrong and turning up in the wrong place.

Proper signage can guide passengers more reliably through the efficient processes. Wayfinding signs and banners should clearly point passengers in the right direction. Dynamic information screens can notify passengers of actions to take, documents needed, last-minute changes, etcetera. Floor markings, although less flexible, also work well for managing passenger flow. The familiar line with the words “please wait” is simple, yet effective for orderly service.


Literal cues are important, but ambient design also affects passenger flow efficiency, primarily passenger speed and cooperation. Materials, colours and lighting all influence behaviour, consciously and subconsciously.

They help invoke the desired mood and influence how quickly or slowly passengers move through an area. Soft lighting, for example, invites passengers to slow down and relax. Harsher fluorescents do the opposite, prompting passengers to be alert and move quickly.

Designing a competitive edge

Effective environmental cues support self-service without making passengers feel ‘herded’ and ‘processed’ by airports for the sake of efficiency.

Competition in global aviation means avoiding passenger dissatisfaction from confusing and impersonal processes is more important than ever. Smart airport terminal design could provide that vital competitive edge.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information, please refer to

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