Sunday, November 9, 2008

Airport Identity & Branding

In the recent years, the whole air travel experience has become more focused on the time that travelers spend in the airport itself. With all the booming technological advances and features, travelers are looking to the airport as more than a mere transport experience from point A to point B (McKinsey). In China, with the air travel economy on the rise, new and updated airports are used to boost the appeal of cities and destinations so that the traveling experience begins with the journey at the airport.

Hong Kong International Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport both focus on well-representing their growing cities to the world, using phenomenal architectural feats and placing a large emphasis on the entirety of a traveler’s experience. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, on the other hand, strives to show off the Austin vibe with a plethora of condensed local culture infused within. Nowadays, airports are destinations themselves with the live music, shopping, art, and entertainment (Sell). They are shaped and branded to represent the region or country to the best interest. An airport is like a compressed model of the city.

Opened to the public in July of 1998 in Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong International Airport has continuously garnered the title of the world’s best airport—seven times total so far as a matter of fact. Norman Foster, a British architect, was the man behind this construction. Skytrax, a United Kingdom-based consultancy, conducts this annual survey with 190 airports around the globe, touching upon main factors such as shopping, dining, staff courtesy, baggage claims, and security. The airport took six years to finish, and cost US twenty billion dollars to build. The city of Hong Kong has a strong reputation for efficiency, so it is no wonder that its international airport reflects that virtue.

Hong Kong International Airport consists of two terminals, SkyMart and SkyPlaza. SkyMart is currently ranked as the second largest airport passenger terminal building in the world, behind Beijing Capital’s new Terminal Three. SkyMart begins with a massive airy, wave-like ceiling, which was designed to give travelers the feeling of being airborne before even stepping on an airplane (McKinsey). It houses 160 shopping outlets and forty restaurants all spread out over 39,000 m². In addition, it includes facilities such as Internet lounges and a children’s play area. SkyPlaza, opened in summer of 2007, is actually only a check-in and processing facility, with a shopping plaza. It has no gates or arrival facilities. SkyPlaza has a large entertainment and retail plaza that houses over eighty shops selling luxury clothing, beauty items, and Asian arts and crafts. It is almost entirely accessible to all visitors in the airport, not just travelers with a plane ticket. The reason behind this is to generate more revenue from both travelers and locals around the airport area. Airports provide large crowds and long idle times (Yu), and consequently, airports want people to spend additional leisure time inside them. Since security regulations now require travelers to arrive at the airports earlier and earlier, airports are thinking of new ways to get travelers to spend more money at the airport (McKinsey). Travelers have demonstrated a predilection for impulse purchases (Yu). SkyPlaza also has a 4-D cinema, in addition to all the shops and restaurants (McKinsey).

Hong Kong, originally under British rule until July of 1997, is a place where East meets West. Because of the British rule in the recent past, Western culture is deeply ingrained in their society, and it practically coexists with the traditional practices, values, and virtues (China Tour Design). This intercultural twine is heavily reflected in the Hong Kong International Airport. In addition to traditional restaurants, such as Ah Yee Leng Tong dim sum, Ajisen Ramen noodles, Precious Congee and Hui Lau Shan desserts, the airport houses the popular American chains Burger King, Krispy Kreme, Ben & Jerry’s and Popeyes Chicken. Hong Kong International Aiport further fuses the Eastern and Western cultures with the commissioning of British architect Norman Foster to be the head designer.

With cosmopolitan Hong Kong’s extreme materialism and prideful display of wealth, it is only logical that their International Airport sells many of the world’s finest luxury brands. Burberry, Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Coach, Giorgio Armani, Prada, and Tiffany & Co. are just couple of the retailers. This reflects the city’s massive conspicuous consumption of brand names, whether they be fake or real.

Hong Kong is such a tiny city for such an incredibly dense population; however, Hong Kong International Airport is a polar opposite representation of that proportion. The airport is overwhelmingly large, spacious and not claustrophobia-inducing. It seems to be a mini utopia of what the city of Hong Kong sees itself as potentially. Housed within an immense amount of modern space, there exists constant foreign interaction, clean up-to-date facilities, luxurious retail shops, and wide variety of eateries, with top-ranked service and efficiency.

Terminal Three of the Beijing Capital International Airport was officially finished on February 29, 2008. It currently ranks as the largest building in the world. British architect Norman Foster also was the mastermind behind this project (Barboza). It cost $3.8 billion, and only took four years to construct. The accelerated construction of this airport was to accommodate the upcoming Beijing Olympics games beginning on August 8, 2008. Construction workers were hurrying like a raging fire to prepare the site (Associated Press). Mouzhan Majidi, a lead architect on the Chinese airport commissions for Foster & Partners, said the construction “evoked what it might have been like to build the pyramids (Barboza).” Behind all the glamour of the architecture lays poor human rights records, heavy pollution, product safety recalls, and child labor scandals. China is infamously known for sweeping negative issues on the dark side under the rug, and then projecting a positive image to the world. Wu Jiaxiang, a former government researcher, bluntly states that “[China] cares less about human rights than other countries and more about sovereignty (Associated Press).” Some Chinese complain about the sudden emergence of costly architectural projects that are only for show. Professor Yin, president of the urban planning and design institute at Tsinghua University in China stated that, “China, as a developing country, is not supposed to spend so much on these eye-catching projects. It shows in some ways that China lacks confidence.” He believes that China should use its budget on something useful, such as Beijing’s traffic system, to actually improve the quality of the people’s lives (Barboza).

China wants to be seen as a confident, rising power that constructs dazzling monuments exemplifying its rapid progress in the global economy. The Chinese see Beijing as a huge experimental site and modern architecture as the identity of the new China (Barboza). With many cities having their own global icons that are easily recognizable around the globe, Beijing desires to jump on the bandwagon and build its own icons. It wants the world to know that the ancient civilization has started a new chapter, and desires to redefine its image. With British architect Norman Foster as the lead designer of both the Hong Kong and Beijing Capital International Airports, China took a step in integrating and communicating with the outside world (Associated Press).

One of Beijing Capital International Airport’s priorities is to possess a unique appearance that can easily be identified with both Beijing and China as a whole. It desires to make a bold cultural statement and be a symbol of China (Design Build Network). Foster & Partners, the British architectural firm, incorporated Chinese characteristics into the airport. The dominant colors of Terminal Three are gold, red, yellow, and orange to match those of the ancient palaces and the Forbidden City. The giant aerodynamic steel roof of the terminal was designed to mimic the scales of a dragon (Barboza). Its fluid and elongated form simulates the notion of flight. In addition, repeating red columns are found along the edges of the terminal, which evoke traditional Chinese temples (Associated Press).

With the sheer scale of all the new buildings in China, it seems that these series of super structures were intended more for the Guinness Book of World Records, rather than for cityscapes. The transformation and development of China’s booming cities lead to the demolition of old neighborhoods and important historical buildings. All this growth depends largely on coal energy, which produces heavy pollution. Some Chinese are complaining that traditional Chinese elements are being lost with the overaggressive development of the modern monstrosities (Barboza). However, the Chinese government’s priority is to transform China’s identity into a global powerhouse, and their airports are the perfect spaces for the foreigners to interact with and experience.

Contrasting widely from the two discussed Chinese airports, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s objective is to depict a sense of strong community pride and cultural and historical values. Austin is the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world,” in addition to being a very nature-oriented city. Both of these aspects are fused within the airport setting. The goal was to communicate numerous references to the Austin region, including its geography, famous landmarks, history, culture, and spirit. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport spokesman Jim Halbrook believes that the airport has the “best ambience of any airport in North America.” A survey released in March 2007 by Airports Council International trade group shows the airport to be top-ranking in customer service (Stoller). Being a smaller airport, the disadvantages come to be fewer flight options, amenities, and restaurants, shops, and services (Stoller). However, the tradeoff is for better customer service, faster security lines, a greater sense of a local community, and a more compact and distinct identity.

Airport visitors can get an authentic taste of Austin dining from the various sixteen restaurants inside. All of the restaurants were deliberately chosen to best represent the city of Austin, which means there is an absence of national chains and generic fares, such as Starbucks and Burger King which you will find in Hong Kong International Airport. Within Austin-Bergstrom, you can find iconic regional eateries such as Amy’s Ice Cream, Austin Java, The Salt Lick, and Waterloo Ice House. Austin City Council member Daryl Slusher believes that the “absence of chains and presence of local businesses in the airport is one of the great attractions of [the] airport (Clark-Madison).”

The airport went so far to be authentically Austin that even the building materials were local, as well as the craftsmen. Local artists work in conjunction with the airport to display artwork, both inside and outside the airport. There are also history display exhibits in the concourse to educate travelers about the airport’s aviation past. Even such minute details such as local trees grown in Austin are incorporated into glyphs in the baggage claim area. Austin-Bergstrom is considered the airport with the most ambitious music program. Live music is offered free several times a week, all performed by musicians who either live in Austin, or who have an association with Austin. Nancy Coplin, the airport’s music coordinator, books all the live performances into the airport’s four venues, and also is the DJ for the sound system (Baskas).

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is noticeably smaller than Hong Kong International and Beijing Capital International Airport. However, a smaller airport can have a bigger appeal than a grandiose one. The successful branding of Austin-Bergstrom is through the condensed inclusion of all aspects of the city, which gives visitors a closer tie. The visitor will experience nothing but the Austin lifestyle. The substantial artsy and cultural expression with Austin-Bergstrom contributes to a sense of arrival into Austin by communicating numerous references to all aspects of the city (ABIA). Hong Kong International, on the other hand, is infinitely larger; thus it includes many different aspects of both Eastern and Western cultures, which makes its identity more distant to visitors. Their airport is aiming for global appeal and branding of a new rising country, thus it contains a much less condensed cultural identity, and instead places a heavier emphasis on conspicuous global sovereignty.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport aims to express Austin’s rich culture and spirit visually in the space within the airport, while Hong Kong International Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport uses its colossal architectural structures to show their technological advancement on a global scale. An airport aims to present a strong sense of arrival into their region, whether that is achieved through distinct cultural icons or ambitious landmarks. Nowadays, airports are just as important as the destinations themselves, so it is vital to expose a strong identity and branding for the visitors.

Works Cited
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. 1998-2008. November 9, 2008.
Associated Press. “China’s Olympic Ambitions Battered.” USA Today. August 3, 2008. USA Today newspaper, McLean, VA. November 3, 2008.
Barboza, David. “Beijing Air Terminal Goes All Out for the Games.” The New York Times. May 2, 2008. The New York Times newspaper, New York, NY. October 15, 2008.
Baskas, Harriet. “Better Branding Through Music: Original Airport Theme Songs.” USA Today. March 12, 2008. USA Today newspaper: McLean, VA. November 3, 2008.
China Tour Design. “Culture, Religion and Architecture in Hong Kong.” October 15, 2008.
Clark-Madison, Mike. “Shadows Over Bergstrom.” The Austin Chronicle. January 24, 2003. The Austin Chronicle newspaper, Austin, TX. October 13, 2008.
Design Build Network. “Terminal 3 Beijing Capital Airport, Beijing, China.” October 15, 2008.
McKinsey, Kitty. “Hong Kong Airport A Destination In Itself.” The Star. June 12, 2008. The Toronto Star, Toronto, Ontario. October 13, 2008.
Sell, Shawn. “10 Great Places To Hang Out During A Layover.” USA Today. November 11, 2004. USA Today Newspaper, McLean, VA. October 13, 2008.
Stoller, Gary. “Smaller Airports Have Big Appeal.” USA Today. October 9, 2007. USA Today newspaper, McLean, VA. November 3, 2008.
Yu, Roger. “IPod? Vending Machines Diversify.” USA Today. September 4, 2007. USA Today Newspaper, McLean, VA. November 3, 2008.

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