Why is it such a long walk to your gate in most big airports? It’s all about business

Jul 1, 2024 | 0 comments

By Gary Leff 

Larry Summers, former Clinton Treasury Secretary, Obama chief economic advisor, and Harvard President, observed last year that “the newer the [airport] terminal, the less convenient it is to use” thanks to all of the long walks and wondered why that’s the case.

The new Central Terminal in New York’s LaGuardia airport.

The reason is actually simple economics, but to see that you have to be aware of the details of how terminals are financed, and how airport revenue agreements work.

When an airport authority brings in private companies to finance construction of a new terminal, there’s rarely much discussion of how those companies will make their money. One of the primary ways is from concessions. They’re going to rent out space in the terminal to retail shops.

  • The more revenue those shops makes, the more they can charge in rent
  • And deals are generally structured so that the terminal owner takes a percentage of revenue as well
  • Where there’s a dominant airline especially, the airline will often share in concessions revenue as well.

Passengers are not an airport’s customer, they’re the product an airport (and airline) sells to merchants who rent space inside the terminal.

Long walks frequently designed to accommodate more shopping, with more retail space in the terminal. And airports don’t want passengers skipping the shops!

This seems obvious if you’re familiar with airports, but a lot of very smart people aren’t aware of it, so it also seemed worth explaining.

This principle isn’t limited to large new construction terminals, either. Both Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare removed moving walkways that used to assist passengers in their journey and speed up travel in the terminal (which reduced the risk of passengers missing flights!). Dallas spent one million dollars to remove theirs. The reason is that passengers on a moving walkway skip all of the shops along the way!

You’ll frequently see international airports that route you through duty free on the way to your gate, forcing you to take a circuitous route. Sydney’s airport is famous for this, and so is London Heathrow. In fact, British Airways reportedly pays Heathrow £1 million per year to have a door immediately past security on the right that allows first class passengers direct access into the Concorde Room lounge rather than having to be routed the long way through the shops.

Now retail isn’t the only reason that terminals are often larger. They may need to accommodate more planes, and larger planes, that the ones an earlier facility was built for. You may need a midfield concourse to accomplish that, given what other structures are already in place. But the thing that’s common across airports is that incentives are aligned to push travelers to do more walking past shops because that’s a tremendous source of revenue.

Ultimately though the purpose of an airport is to get somewhere quickly. You want an airport that you can get to quickly, get through security quickly, and get to your gate quickly. New larger terminals may be more beautiful, and more revenue-generating, but that doesn’t make them “better.”
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Credit: View From the Wing

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