Features

The Destination Airport — and Airport Hotel — Is No Joke

These airports and airport hotels are transforming themselves into places where people actually want to spend time.

“Depersonalized wasteland.” “Logistical nightmare.” “Hell on earth.” If this were a game of “Jeopardy!,” the correct question would be: “How do people describe airports?”

And airport hotels are almost as universally loathed. “Like a hospital or retirement home, [an airport hotel] is a place almost nobody stays by choice,” according to business journalist Bruce Schoenfeld. He wrote that a few years ago, but when I recently inquired, via Twitter, if his opinion had changed about airport hotels, his reply was direct: “No, I feel exactly the same way.”

But there increasingly are exceptions — in both categories, airports and airport hotels — that could change the minds of even the most embittered, emotionally scarred road warriors. What stands out about the best of these facilities is that they take both the physical and psychological needs of travelers into account, streamlining and rethinking the way people move through the space, and creating points of connection that authentically reflect the cities in which they’re found.

The following examples — in San Francisco, Singapore, and New York City — are airport spaces where people actually enjoy spending time. A bonus: Each is connected by public transportation to a pretty nice destination in its own right.

SFO/Terminal 2

What’s now San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was built in a cow pasture 13 miles south of San Francisco in 1927. Ninety years later, SFO is the seventh-busiest airport in the United States. Its setting is hardly rural — the Bay Area is one of the most densely populated places in the country. But it isn’t strictly urban either: The airport is perched on the rim of San Francisco Bay, the largest wetland on the Pacific Coast.

That sense of space extends to SFO’s Terminal 2 (T2), where an award-winning renovation that debuted in 2011 is holding up admirably. T2 was designed by the global architecture and consulting firm Gensler, which took pains to incorporate the local aesthetic and culture into its plans. In a nod to San Francisco’s diverse and patchy weather patterns, the spaces are conceived as “microclimates,” and filled with work by local artists and commissions based on Bay Area themes. Likewise, the airport’s restaurant options include a range of locally sourced, organic food and wine — the Bay Area was a pioneer in the farm-to-table-movement.

The project was the first major renovation of any U.S. airport to take place after 9/11. In its design, Gensler addressed the stress that security checkpoints add to traveling. Among its innovations was a “Recomposure” zone, a 6,000-square-foot area just beyond security that is filled with plants, curved benches, and ceiling-hung sculptures reminiscent of loopy bright clouds. There is a “meeters and greeters” lounge for arriving passengers, and seating options for departing passengers that range from long, communal tables to private desk- like spaces. The designers, according to Gensler’s Jeff Henry, wanted “to make every passenger who passes through to feel they were incredibly cared for as they moved through this public space.”

Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport

Organic may not be the first word that one associates with a 798-room hotel with a 10-story atrium, but it’s an accurate way to describe a recent top-to- bottom renovation of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, 10 minutes from SFO by shuttle. It’s most obvious in the hotel’s interior, which took its cues from the surrounding salt marshes and bay, layering blue- and gray-toned walls and floor coverings with stone, metal, and wood. The renovation removed several trees from the atrium, which opened it up to a flood of natural light. Artwork subtly references local geography and history, including a large-scale wave-like sculpture over the registration desk and a piece that incorporates a silvery recycled airplane propeller.

The Hyatt Regency’s renovation closed a sports bar and unveiled a new food-and-beverage concept, 3 Sixty, that combines a bar, lounge, restaurant, and market. Menus that change with the seasons are designed to support local farmers and food purveyors, according to General Manager Irby Morvant, and feature organic produce, free-range poultry, seafood, and other locally grown and produced items, including beer, wine, cheese, and oysters. “This hotel truly reinvented every touch point,” Morvant said, “from the experience of arriving, to the guest rooms, to the meetings and events space, the social space, and dining.” Morvant hosted Convene on a site visit soon after the renovation was complete.

The renovation added 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms, bringing the total event footprint to 69,000 square feet. But the expansion wasn’t intended to just add numbers. Rather, the redesign considered how people connect and how they interact. “We have stadium seating outside our ballroom — it’s all powered up, with cushions, and ready to go,” Morvant said. The atrium now offers seven “cabana” spaces, “so that people can create those organic meetings when they happen.” The cabanas are AV-equipped, “so you could have 35 people upstairs in one space having a meeting on two video screens. Or it could be a table of three people just sitting down for a great meeting. It really offers great flexibility.”

It also offers a sense of serenity that’s designed to be more than skin deep. That meant equipping guest rooms with new beds, floor-to-ceiling blackout shades, and double-pane windows that cut decibel levels in half.

“We want guests,” Morvant said, “to have the experience of tranquility.”

SIN/Singapore Changi Airport

This may be all you need to know about how Singapore Changi Airport compares with the average airport: The founder of travel and food blog The Hungry Geek wrote earlier this year that as a high-school student living in Singapore, he often went to Changi to find a quiet place to study.

The airport’s carpeted floors and no-announcements policy cut down on noise, and there are plentiful places to sit down and relax — just a few of the reasons Changi has been named the world’s best airport for the fifth consecutive year by Skytrax World Airports Awards. Its innovative features read like a list of Best Airport Ideas Ever, including a theater screening free movies; a swimming pool open to travelers; a rooftop cactus garden, water-lily garden, and butterfly garden; a 24-hour medical clinic; sleeping lounges; baggage storage; and business centers.

Convene Contributing Editor David McMillin traveled through the airport when he attended the 2017 Singapore MICE Forum at the end of July, and upon his return, “when people have asked me about the most memorable pieces of my trip to Singapore, one of my responses has been the airport,” he said. “The entire experience was a lesson in master infrastructure planning. My customs process took a total of about 90 seconds when I arrived, and my wait time prior to returning home was relaxing. The food options were great. And it was insanely clean.” While most people can’t wait to get out of the airport, McMillin said, “Changi feels like a place you would want to hang out with your friends.”

And the world’s best airport is about to get even better, when Terminal 4 officially opens later this year. Terminal 4 has been highly anticipated by locals — 200,000 tickets to attend an open house were quickly snapped up. Among the new facility’s features are an exterior “greenwall” with 16,000 plants, a massive kinetic sculpture incorporating music and light, a “Heritage Façade,” where retail outlets have been built to resemble historic shops in Singapore, and a six-minute theatrical production based on Singapore’s culture presented on a digital theater screen. The terminal will also introduce automated operations intended to decrease wait times, with passenger check-in, bag-drop, customs, and boarding all configured to be self-service and use facial-recognition technology.

In 2019, a multiple-use complex called the Jewel is scheduled to open as an attraction for local residents as well as travelers. It will feature a suspended canopy bridge, gardens and mazes, bounceable “sky nets,” the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, slides, and additional water features.

Crowne Plaza Changi Airport

It’s nice to know that the world’s best airport hotel is just a walkway away from the world’s best airport. Since 2012, Skytrax has named the 563-room Crowne Plaza Changi Airport as the top airport hotel in the world — a designation the property also received in 2016 from Condé Nast Traveler.

Lush and plentiful gardens are another thing that the airport and hotel share. Vogue has described the Crowne Plaza as “more Zen tropical resort than airport hotel.” Many rooms overlook a landscaped courtyard or terraces, while others are perfect for watching planes take o and land — but not hearing them, because rooms are soundproofed against runway noise. The attention to experience extends to the hotel’s event space, which spans 8,000 square feet and features six meeting rooms, including one with sparkling LED lights embedded in the ceiling to resemble sunlight filtering through a canopy of trees and tree-trunk-like walls.

The Crowne Plaza also has a few special services designed to take the stress out of international travel. Hotel representatives will meet registered guests upon their arrival at the airport, and each room is equipped with a smartphone, which guests can use to make complimentary local and international calls.

JFK/John F. Kennedy International Airport

It’s going out on a limb to mention John F. Kennedy International Airport when talking about exceptional travel experiences. JFK comes in fifth on Bloomberg’s Airport Frustration Index, which ranks 36 U.S. and Canadian airports based on factors such as time spent at the terminal, on-time departures, terminal layouts, and restaurants and shopping. (New York’s LaGuardia Airport is in first place.)

But pay attention to JFK over the coming years. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $10-billion plan to upgrade the airport earlier this year, and there have been a flurry of signals that new ways of thinking are taking root there. One innovation is JetBlue’s 24,000-square-foot farm planted outside Terminal 5, where the airline grows herbs and vegetables, including its No. 1 crop: blue potatoes for use in the blue potato chips it serves on flights.

Another surprise, also in Terminal 5, is a 4,000-square-foot rooftop lounge, which offers seating (on the grass, benches, and chairs), a children’s play area, and a dog park, dubbed the Woof-top Lounge.

TWA Hotel 

When the Trans World Flight Center, which served as the terminal for TWA airlines, opened at JFK in the early 1960s at JFK, it had a distinctly futuristic appeal. But when the terminal reopens in 18 months as the TWA Hotel, visitors will feel as “if they are stepping back in time to 1962,” said Tyler Morse, founder and CEO of MCR Development in New York City.

Designed by Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA terminal was considered to be the embodiment of the jet age. “It was one of the most iconic buildings in America,” Morse said. “It was a sight to behold.” Closed in 2001, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Restoring the terminal and adding hotel rooms, meeting space, and dining and entertainment was “an extraordinarily audacious” idea, Morse said. “We dealt with 22 different government agencies and had 30 meetings with preservation groups.” The restoration of the terminal will preserve furnishings designed by midcentury modernists such as Warren Platner and Charles Eames, and a green-marble fountain by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Developers also will rebuild the original flap board that announced flight departures.

The finished hotel will have 505 guest rooms — in towers flanking the original terminal — and 50,000 square feet of event space, including 42 meeting rooms and two ballrooms. “It will be a world-class hotel, with all the amenities,” Morse said. The property will offer eight restaurants and six bars, and resurrect three of the terminal’s lounges: the Paris Café, the Lisbon Lounge, and the Constellation Club.

“It’s going to be a terrific destination,” Morse said. “It’s going to be the destination between Europe and America for global business meetings. It’s a whole other world than when JFK was conceived.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.