Long queues, crowded departure lounges, tight security – airports aren’t always the most welcoming of places.

But with an abundance of shops, restaurants and even cinemas, they boast exactly the kind of attractions people flock to in their leisure time. So now some airports are opening their doors for people to come in and just... hang out.

Six airports in the US have already either opened up to “terminal tourists” or are planning to. And Singapore’s Changi Airport has even built a dedicated visitor attraction - the Jewel, which is open to anyone.

The 10-storey complex features a giant waterfall, an indoor forest, and 280 shops and food outlets. Designed to be a destination in its own right, visitors can also enjoy a cinema, supermarket and hotel.

Linking three terminals, the Jewel is outside the airport’s security zone and the authorities expect up to 50 million people to pass through each year, two-thirds of them Singapore residents.

Attractions at Singapore Changi Airport include a bridge that passes through a huge indoor forest.
Image: Jewel Changi Airport

Day-tripping

In the US, Pittsburgh and Tampa airports already welcome day visitors. Numbers are limited and people need to apply in advance for security clearance. But once inside, they are free to wander anywhere, from the departure gates to rooftop viewing galleries.

The concept was inspired by a decision in 2008 from the US Transportation Security Administration to allow guests at airport-connected hotels unrestricted access to restaurants and shops in terminals at Pittsburgh, Detroit and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Earlier this year,Seattle-Tacoma airport ran a pilot scheme to allow visitors earlier this year and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport – the busiest in the US – is contemplating a similar move. Managers at Detroit and Austin airports are also evaluating the idea.

Image: Statista

New heights

Checking in for a flight can be a lengthy process, and as people spend more time at airports operators are keen to make the experience more enjoyable for passengers. Many now provide attractions like art exhibitions, spas, playgrounds and gourmet dining.

Amsterdam Schiphol includes an outpost of the city’s world-famous Rijksmuseum gallery, and Vancouver International has its own aquarium, home to thousands of marine plants and animals. Hong Kong International, meanwhile, has two shopping malls, with more than 350 shops and restaurants.

And those who just like to watch planes take off are getting a warm welcome too, with Zurich, Brussels and Dusseldorf among European airports that have recently improved facilities for planespotters.

Even without the addition of visitors, the world’s airports are set to become even more busy than they are today. The number of international air arrivals is predicted to rise 50% over the next decade.

Innovations to make moving around terminals easier could ease the pressure. The World Economic Forum’s Known Traveller Digital Identity initiative proposes paperless journeys in which travellers are identified quickly using technology like mobile phones and biometric data.

Trials of the programme will run throughout 2019, with the first digitally documented end-to-end journey expected to take place in 2020.