The airport ecosystem: A systemic design challenge

Now more than ever, a holistic, systematic design approach is needed to solve the evolving challenges facing the aviation industry. And while airlines have their fair share of interconnectivity, airports are in a league of their own in terms of complexity at scale.

Niklas Mortensen

Airports are places we often see as transactional, but in reality, they are teeming microcosms of intricate collaborations and interactions. Every terminal and runway tells a tale of thousands of employees, each serving distinct yet interconnected roles, employed by a myriad of organisations. From airlines to retail outlets and security agencies to maintenance crews, these entities are unique cogs in a complex machine, collectively orchestrating the airport's pulsating life.

The systemic design challenge is magnified considering not just the organisational, architectural, and operational aspects, but also the intricate interconnectivity of diverse stakeholders and employees. Each individual’s experience, from the baggage handler to the air traffic controller, contributes to the broader mission of passenger experience and operational efficiency. This complex interplay requires a design perspective that is as multifaceted and inclusive as the stakeholders it seeks to serve.

Three challenges facing airports today


An airport is a dynamic entity that buzzes with life and energy. This vibrancy, however, comes with its fair share of environmental impacts. Emissions, noise pollution, waste management, and energy consumption are all focal issues.

Airports are taking strides in integrating green technologies (including enhancing energy efficiency, biophilic designs, and electric ground handling equipment, to mention a few) but the biggest challenge by far is the access – or lack thereof – to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Right now, airlines and airports only have access to 0.1% of the SAF needed. Facing stark regulations and possible fines, the industry is resorting to transporting SAF across the world in unsustainable ways to avoid sanctions. An enormous push is needed to increase the production of SAF for airports and airlines to be able to deliver on their 2050 ambitions.

There are high expectations for the aviation industry to deliver on its sustainability goals, and while the methods can be debated, the message is clear: Aviation needs to up its game fast and with clear and resounding intention. In addition to the industry itself leaning in, there needs to be a consolidated and coordinated effort from governments across the world to not only regulate, but also facilitate, the transition.

Employee experience

The unsung heroes of the airport ecosystem are its employees. Security personnel, ground staff, maintenance crews, restaurant employees, and many others must work in unison to orchestrate complex logistics. One of the biggest challenges an airport faces in coordinating staff is that most of the people working at the airport are not actually employed by the airport – often they work for one of many governmental or commercial agencies.

Especially during irregular operation events (IROP), a lack of coordination, information, and transparency creates a glaring hole in the customer experience. This in turn puts stress on staff throughout the entire airport ecosystem. A lack of coordination and transparent communication between all the different actors that passengers interact with directly or indirectly is a glaring theme.

Many organisations now understand the need to provide a great employee experience in order to provide a great customer experience. This makes running an airport with thousands of non-employees a complex challenge, but not an impossible one. Working with a large international airport over the last year, we have started to untangle this challenge at Designit by connecting and enabling tens of thousands of employees across the airport ecosystem to one holistic platform. This is only the beginning, and we are excited to continue to develop this further in the years to come.

To run a successful airport in 2023, solutions that foster employee well-being and productivity are essential. This does not mean one should apply AI and technology to everything – it means taking a good hard look at people, processes and technology using a human-centric approach to ensure every piece of the puzzle is optimised to deliver the best possible outcome.

Passenger experience

Customer experience has been on the aviation industry's mind for decades, but as with the employee experience, the intricacies of airport operations make it difficult to deliver a holistic and consistent experience across the board. Add to that the transitory place an airport has in the passenger journey, and it becomes even more complicated. The passenger journey is an intricate cascade of interactions and experiences that begin well before arrival at the airport and extend long after departure.

To take the passenger experience from good to great, it is essential to orchestrate the customer experience from end to end. This involves extending partnerships beyond the airport's immediate realm, supporting the multi-modal nature of modern travel, streamlining feedback mechanisms and digital platforms, and ensuring passengers are well-informed and prepared. In the case of irregular operations (IROP), it is crucial to collect insights that will refine and enhance the passenger experience.

The systemic design challenge lies in balancing environmental, employee, and passenger dimensions to create a sustainable, efficient, and seamless experience. As airports evolve in the face of emerging technologies and changing needs, an integrated approach to design, rooted in collaboration, innovation, and human-centric principles, holds the key to the airports of tomorrow.

Looking ahead

To deliver on the trifecta of sustainability, employee experience, and customer experience, we need forward-thinking and action-focused leaders with the ability to think strategically and holistically across all touchpoints and interactions. We need more leaders like Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport, who recently shared at the World Aviation Festival, "I didn't come to run Pittsburgh Airport, I came to change the industry". From hiring an in-house service design team to investing in an on-premises SAF production plant, Christina and her team in Pittsburgh are blazing the trail in an industry ripe for change.

We at Designit are excited to continue the journey with our clients and partners in the aviation industry and work towards a future where airports are not just transitory spaces, but destinations of exemplary experience and sustainability.

Do you want to learn more about our work with the aviation industry? Are you looking for ways to reimagine your employee and customer experience? Let's connect!