The Terminal Bench

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Mags L Halliday – author of the Doctor Who novel History 101 – let me know about an ‘interesting’ design tactic being used at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. From the Guardian, by Julia Finch:

Flying from the new Heathrow Terminal 5 and facing a lengthy delay? No worries. Take a seat and enjoy the spectacular views through the glass walls: Windsor castle in one direction; the Wembley Arch, the London Eye and the Gherkin visible on the horizon in the other.

But you had better be quick, because the vast Richard Rogers-designed terminal, due to open at 4am on March 27 next year, has only 700 seats. That’s much less than two jumbo loads, in an airport designed to handle up to 30 million passengers a year.

There will be more chairs available but they will be inside cafes, bars and restaurants. Taking the weight off your feet will cost at least a cup of coffee.

I suppose we should have expected this. If they weren’t actually going to remove the seats, they’d have used uncomfortable benches instead. In itself, it’s maybe not quite as manipulative as the café deliberately creating worry to get customers to vacate their seats that we looked at a few days ago, but as Frankie Roberto commented, “airports seem to be a fairly unique environment, and one that must be full of architectures of control.”

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Nevertheless, aside from the more obvious control elements of airport architecture – from baggage trolley width restrictors to the blind enforcement of arbitrary regulations, the retailers themselves are keen to make the most of this unique environment and the combination of excitement, stress, tiredness, and above all, confinement, which the passengers are undergoing:

The new terminal may have been heralded as a “cathedral to flight”, but with 23,225 sq metres (250,000 sq ft) of retail space, the equivalent of six typical Asda stores, it is actually going to be a temple to retail. Heathrow may be packed with shops, but when the £4.2bn Terminal 5 opens the airport’s total shopping space will increase by 50% overnight.

After security, two banks of double escalators will transport potential shoppers into a 2,787 sq metre (30,000 sq foot) World Duty Free store… Mark Riches, managing director of WDF, believes his new superstore has the best possible site to part passengers from their cash: “About 70% of passengers will come down those escalators”, he said, “and we will be ready”.

He recognises he has a captive audience: “If we can’t sell to people who can’t leave the building, then there’s something wrong with us”.

Mr Riches, a former Marks & Spencer executive, is planning “to put the glamour back into airport retailing” with plans for gleaming cosmetics counters and a central area reserved for beauty services such as manicures.

“We are moving away from just selling stuff to providing services. This should be real theatre,” he said.

He is also planning what he calls “contentainment” – the music will change according to where you are in the shop and a 14-metre-long “crystal curtain” “bigger than a double decker bus and thinner than a calculator” will show videos, advertising and sports events.

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Everything about this story – from the location itself out on the bleak badlands between the M25 and A30, to the way the customers are coerced, channelled, mass-entertained and exploited, to the odd hyperbolic glee of Mr Riches’ visions for his mini-empire – seems to scream J G Ballard. If Kingdom Come hadn’t riffed off the Bentall Centre, it could surely have been about a Terminal 5.

Back to the practical aspects: the deliberate removal of public seating to force passengers to patronise restaurants and cafés is in no way isolated to Heathrow. In a coming post – also suggested by Mags – we’ll look at First Great Western’s policy of doing this in some of its railway stations, with none of the glitz of Terminal 5 but all of the cold-eyed distaste for the customer.

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Images from a leaflet published by the British Airports Authority, 1970.


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  2. Will luggage shops be permitted to diversify and sell cheap folding chairs for £2.90? Only 5p less than the price of a cappuccino?

    Anyway, you kids have it easy.

    In my day, after you checked in you were shuffled off out of sight of posh folk into a cold and draughty hangar. The only seating was your own suitcase (which you had to take to the plane’s hold yourself).

    If you were lucky, after 5 hours when the hangar was full, a small serving hatch would open to serve cups of weak tea or Camp coffee – and only then as compensation to those who’d been waiting since the previous day.

    You really looked forward to your armchair on the plane… …and dreaded the landing, with ages queuing in customs whilst everyone’s luggage was unpacked and searched.

    Nowadays, the plane is passé. The cognoscenti save time by travelling when they’re asleep – on luxury sleeper trains ( ).

  3. While I thoroughly enjoy your writing (and agree with you), I am particularly fascinated by the brochure, Dan. There’s something about modernist design particularly as it was interpreted in the 1970s. On one hand you have the cleanliness that modernism espouses in terms of the use of the grid and clean typefaces such as Helvetica (which looks Letraset-set in the brochure), but on the other there is the garishness that 1970s’ trends bring–the moustache of the male passenger in the illustration(!) and the style of the cover photography.

  4. Dan

    Oh of course, Jack, I love the brochure too – I thought it was much more interesting than using modern photos of Heathrow to illustrate the post! (Somewhere I have an amazing 1950s brochure about Heathrow with lots of adverts from the airlines themselves, and some beautiful design and typography, but I couldn’t find it unfortunately).

    A couple more scans from the 1970 brochure:

    Note the detail in the illustration of the family with their large saloon (what is it? Looks a bit too much like a Volga, but I assume it was meant to be a large Humber, Ford or Vauxhall – doesn’t look like anything from BLMC) – the little kid in his blazer with some kind of teddy bear, the polo-necked Dad and sun-glassed Mum. They were the jet-set.

    BAA’s logo of the time is perhaps rather bland, but it looks like so many nationalised British logos of the 1960s-80s era, especially those of railway operations (sort of similar to Network South East, for example). The signage/branding of the airports was in a similar style to most NHS hospitals’ – e.g. this montage:

    From How to Design Trademarks and Logos, John Murphy & Michael Rowe, Phaidon, 1988

    This reminds me of something which I think has only been tangentially explored/catalogued – the ‘nationalised British’ design style, including everything from logos and signage to vehicle styling, public sector architecture and so on, and how it evolved from the early post-war period (when most civil service and public sector organisations merely used the Crown or a variation as a ‘logo’) to the era of privatisation en masse in the 1980s, when a lot of rebranding and carving-up occurred. Some aspects have been catalogued, certainly, but it would be very interesting to see if trends emerge in other areas.

    Back to BAA – prior to flotation in 1987, they replaced the Helvetica typography with a new style, with an odd, rather heavy serifed style:

    First image from How to Design Trademarks and Logos, second from Brands of the World.

    Initially the new style had little triangles (stylised planes/Concorde?) in between the B A A letters, but these have since been dropped.

    The serifed text is used on most of the signage within the airports, and I would have to say that it’s not the most attractive or easy to read, especially since the yellow-and-black colours have been retained:

    From UK Student Life.

    (This is actually mentioned in this ‘BAA Design Audit’ presentation from a course at Brunel.)

    Anyway, that was an interesting digression!

  5. Dan

    @Crosbie: The folding chair idea is very interesting indeed. I wonder if BAA would actively prevent this happening.

    I know someone who’s done quite a bit of experimenting with cardboard furniture, pushed out Airfix-style from a flat sheet and assembled in seconds. If this were sold cheaply in an airport shop like you say, and easy to dispose of, in the airport, once you no longer needed it (e.g. once your flight is called) – even if ‘disposing’ of it means just leaving it for the next person… well, it would be a fascinating phenomenon.

    Thanks for the reminiscences, too!

    Incidentally, Tim Bray and his commenters have a lot more criticism of various aspects of and strategy at Heathrow, and via a comment by Nik Clayton, there are links to articles by Jonathan Glancey and Terence Conran, including this:

    The new Terminal 5 building at Heathrow is a disgrace. I remember Richard Rogers telling me when he’d just received the brief from BAA, “They don’t want any seating for the public.” He realised that if there was only seating in cafes and bars, then in effect people were being obliged to pay to sit down. Whereas if you provide proper seating, then people won’t shop as much. But BAA decided that this was exactly what they wanted – and that they could get away with it.

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  7. wuss

    I lived a similar experience today when trying to park my car in a busy parking in bangkok: the parking was full, except for the spaces belonging to the car wash company operating in the parking.

    If you don’t want to wait in your car until someone frees a space, you have no choice but to leave your car at the car wash. It costs you about as much as 12 hours of parking, and doesn’t even include the parking fee.

    It’s a common trend in parkings in Bangkok, I don’t know if it happens also in Europe.

  8. @ crosbie – the chap and I are sleeper train travellers, due in part to my childhood spent on BR staff tickets. Rome, from Staffordshire? A couple of days. We went to Barcelona by sleeper and the ticket includes travel, en-suite accommodation and two meals (inc wine with dinner).

    It will be interesting to see if the airports/airlines suddenly improve the way they treat travellers once all the high speed rail links across Europe open. The Paris-Frankfurt route time has just been cut by a third, and once the network is running, Barcelona becomes 9 hours from London instead of the current 15. Once you factor in the time wasting waits to get through security (which Eurostar has, but much more smoothly than the airports), and that a new ticketing system for Western Europe which will make it cheaper and easier to arrange a journey, then soon the train will rival the no-frills flights. I suspect not being treated like a cash cow will become a factor in travel plans.

  9. Mags, absolutely. Flights are so bad these days I managed to persuade some friends to let me drive them from UK to the French alps – doorstep-to-doorstep.

    I’m also going to give the Ashford-Paris-Barcelona trainhotel route a go this summer.

    The trouble is corporations are inescapably short-term thinkers – related to the average staff-promotion time. If you can think of a wheeze that greatly increases revenue/profits in a specific cost centre within a couple of years, then you’re ‘out of there’ and it’ll take another bright spark at least two years to demonstrate how customers have been haemorrhaged at incredible loss (and they’ll get sacked for bearing bad news).

    Oh, and Dan, those ‘reminiscences’ were just a Monty Python overture.

  10. @crosbie – We used the trenhotel in the spring: here’s my thoughts.

    The next big trip will be a hybrid – out by train, back by plane. It’s a three or four day trip by rail/ferry so we’ll have to compromise on the return.

  11. The old real estate maxim, location location location, put airports high on every developer’s list of plums before BAA was privatized in the 1980s. Few airport management authorities in the world, actually, do as good a job as BAA at maximizing the real estate opportunities and therefore profits. By the nature of their national security issues status, airports are unique in their particular combination of public and commercial space. In addition, no other location comes close to containing such a huge captive audience with nothing to do but wait. We’ve long believed an airport terminal to be a public transit area, when it is (where managed by a profit motivated entity such as BAA) actually more akin to a huge urban shopping mall. That realization shows the continued reduction of free comfortable seating to be inevitable.


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  18. Jean-M

    I have eschewed air travel for a few year since the ‘new restrictions’ regime post liquid explosive terror plot. However just this last month a client insisted on a meeting requiring travel through heathrow 5, domestic from scotland. The new ‘facilities’ are of undoubted control intent though the ease of transiting it has obviously been thought out fairly well- excepting with care and attention to ensure that all are funnelled regardless of intended destination via retail facilities. The placement of signage and clarity of signage is to my eye obviously intended to subtly enforce loiter time in or immediately adjacent to retail whilst the methodology of dripfeeding flight and gate information would appear to be intended to reinforce a sense of urgency (subtle pressurisation).
    That said there is one other notable change since the last time I flew is that the experince is not dissimilar to the process one is put through on arrest. For comparison, mandatory mug shot, removal of all personal items – belt, shoes, watch (too much metal) and subsequently a manual search of the body anyway. The demeanor of staff, ‘friendly’ until a deviation from the anticipated form of compliance encountered. One other thing – the tone of the signage on entering the security zone (or mandatory ritual humiliation zone perhaps) which laid out how if you didn’t like it they would involve the full force of the police to make sure you complied which might as well have read ‘do as your told or we might mistake you for a brazilian electrician’
    — a bit grim for my taste and I used to regulary put up with difficult security travelling to the middle east through the 80’s and 90’s. There is within the air travel system in britain at least – can’t comment for overseas at the moment- a curiously aggresive edge to authority that H5 seems to have incorporated into its fabric and functioning at design – promising clean and easy transit but delivering it by means of perpetually harassing, slightly disinforming and occasionally bullying. It is a potentially pleasant space to transit in many ways but subverted to to the venal.

  19. Spent some time in Heathrow T3 recently and they have some (but not many) lounge style seats that I first saw at Dubai airport a coiuple of years ago. Perfect for a quick nap on a long layover. You need to find them though, and there only seemed to be around 20.

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